David Carbone

Mike Lawson • Features • October 21, 2006

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A successful high school Marching Band program can outstrip the traditional scope of most other “academic programs.” Particularly in smaller or rural areas, a good Marching Band can galvanize the community and strengthen a town’s sense of identity and pride.

The music educators and student performers of Bellbrook High School’s Marching Band are no strangers to this phenomenon, as the Marching Eagles have helped put Bellbrook, Ohio on the national radar. Winners of six BOA Grand Nationals Class A championships, last year the Marching Eagles were named the 2004 BOA Grand National Class AA champion, the first national championship since the program moved up a class in 2002.

David Carbone, director of bands and music at Bellbrook since 2001, recently spoke with SBO about maintaining and strengthening a winning Marching Band tradition.

SBO: Let’s begin by talking about how you first got started as a music educator.

David Carbone: It’s interesting, because I originally didn’t go to college for Music Education. I was going to get a degree in Music Engineering from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

I was very good in school and had a legitimate interest in music and technology, but it was going to take me a little bit longer to get my degree than I was willing to wait. I was a young kid and I had aspirations and wanted to get out and start making money and being involved in music. At that point I decided to pursue my Music Education degree, because I had previously taught some local percussion sections and seemed to have some success doing that and I enjoyed it.

SBO: Where was your first position?

DC: I was actually hired into my first job before I even graduated. In November of 1992 I was hired at Plantation High School in Plantation, Florida and I was the director of bands there for six years. In that instance it was a very large high school with a very small band program – sort of the antithesis of the situation now at Bellbrook High. After those six years I went and got my Masters degree in windband conducting at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

While I was there, I also conducted the athletic bands. At the time, USF had just started a football team and I was there for the inaugural pep band before they fielded their first Marching Band, so that was kind of a neat time to be there.

SBO: Did you go to Bellbrook after you got your Masters?

DC: Not immediately. From there I taught for two years at Eastlake High School in Tarpon Springs, Florida. I came to Bellbrook in the summer of 2001. I was contacted from an outside party who knew I was interested in possibly looking for another job. I went online, checked out the band’s Web site and inquired about the job.

At the same time, my current assistant, Barbara Siler, was trying to pursue people for the position. She had come across my name prior to my calling about the job, which was a weird twist of fate. Barbara is such a big part of the Marching Eagles’ success. She’s been teaching music in this district for 17 years and has been through the thick and thin of it all.

Anyway, I came up and interviewed for the job. The first interview was with a panel of teachers, band students, and band parents. I knew I was getting into something different here, because I had never been on an interview where the students were actively involved in that sort of decision-making.

SBO: Barbara has been such an integral part of the band’s success for so long – why didn’t she apply for the position herself?

DC: I’ve asked her that. She just enjoys being an assistant director, I guess. We have been “team-teaching” the Bellbrook High School and the Jr. High for four years. Next year she’s actually going to have the title of director of bands at the Jr. High. She’ll focus on that program and then come in the afternoons and assist me at the high school. I assist her with the top ensembles first thing in the morning, so that works really well.

It’s great to have that contact with the Jr. High kids because basically it’s one Jr. High school feeding the high school and the same teachers involved from one program to the next. It’s nice for the students to have some continuity as they matriculate and enter high school.

SBO: What’s the size of the Marching Band?

DC: We have about 160 kids. That number doesn’t necessarily seem all that large in comparison to other bands – there are Marching Bands out there with three or four students in band – but we’re a relatively small school district. We have 913 students, total, in the high school and that means that we have close to 20 percent of the student body involved in band.

SBO: How do you go about choosing the field show theme each year?

DC: Usually we first decide what music we want to play. We’ll try and get an idea, stylistically, which we want to approach for the upcoming year. I and my assistant director and other staff members listen to a plethora of different music styles and we get together in December or January and just shoot ideas off of one another and come out of those meetings with a viable musical direction.

SBO: And from there?

DC: After that we usually have another meeting in April that coincides with WGI, because WGI comes to Dayton almost every year. Sometimes in April we’ll get together with the Color Guard staff and try to figure out what we want to do, visually. Is there a visual theme that will be independent of the music, or does the music sort of dictate what the visual will be?

SBO: I’m always struck by how much of a coordinated effort this sort of undertaking requires – lots of synergy.

DC: Exactly. There’s a lot of synergy between the directors and the staff. We all bring a lot of ideas to the table and, I’ll tell you, we don’t always walk out of the meetings with our ideas and decisions set in stone. We just had a meeting this past weekend, for example, and we had two different concepts which we thought we were going to use and then, coming out of the meeting, we now have a whole entirely new concept that we all like better. The most important thing is the level of communication between all of the design people because, ultimately, many minds are greater than one.

SBO: What are some of the variables that you have to consider, year to year?

DC: Well, you have to take into consideration what your strengths are going to be that year. You don’t want to pick a show that’s going to be Color Guard-heavy if you know you’re going to have 80 percent freshman; you don’t want to schedule a percussion-centric if you know that you’re not going to have a particularly strong percussion section. Every year there are so many elements that come into consideration when deciding what to do musically or visually. It can be a real challenge, but that sort of keeps everything fresh, as well.

SBO: Planning and arranging for a successful Marching Band season starts well before the academic year. Can you walk me through the process for a given year?

DC: Well, we do concerts and recordings all the way up until the end of May, but as soon as the students come back from winter break, all they want to know is what’s going on this coming fall. They’re pretty persistent, too. They ask me all the time, “What’s the show going to be?”

Traditionally we usually wait until mid-April to really start talking about next year. Prior to that, as early as possible we’ll set the schedule and announce what competitions we’ll be going to, because all of that information is extremely important to get out to the kids and the parents. However, as far as what we’re doing as a program, we don’t usually announce that until mid or late April at the Show Disclosure meeting.

SBO: What is the Show Disclosure meeting, exactly?

DC: Usually we’ll have a meeting during lunch, put all the kids in the auditorium and at that point we’ll talk a little bit about what we’re thinking for a show idea. At that time we’ll pass something out just to give the kids an idea of what we want to do from a show standpoint. On top of that, we’ll play a CD of the original cuts – the original music source – cut in a way that would make a little more sense from a transition standpoint.

I use a program called ACID Pro in which you can download music as a .wav file and then edit and make the music overlap in a way that wouldn’t necessarily have been manageable ten years ago. It’s very helpful because the kids can actually hear what the music is going to sound like in context, which is neat.

SBO: It must get a little confusing at times, planning for events and developments months in advance, while, of course, still having to attend to performances, rehearsals, and so on in the present tense.

DC: Oh, yes. Anybody who’s been in this activity for any serious amount of time knows that you’re never focusing on one thing at one time. In the middle of Marching Band season, you’re trying to finalize what you’re going to play with your bands at festivals and during concerts. During preparation for spring concerts you’re heavily involved in programming next year’s show and even arranging the music. What’s really challenging is that when you’re preparing your band for District Festival in January and February, you’re also in the midst of trying to recruit and register students in classes for the following year.

SBO: What’s the next step after the Show Disclosure?

DC: The next thing we do actually doesn’t happen until late May. We call it an Ice-breaker.

SBO: I’m guessing it’s not just a clever title, but I’m going to ask anyway: what is the “Ice-breaker?”

DC: You’re absolutely right. It is exactly what it sounds like it would be. Ice-breaker basically is the first meeting of the following Marching Band season. We invite all of our incoming freshmen and all of our returning members come. It’s not really a rehearsal, per se, although we do spend some time teaching the new kids how to stand at attention or putting their left foot in front of their right – we do those types of things, but it’s mainly, as the name would suggest, an opportunity to break the ice and get acquainted and begin the process. We also do some team-building and leadership exercises, as well. Those sorts of activities sort of break the kids out of their shells, especially the incoming freshmen. They come away from that first meeting feeling like band isn’t merely about marching and playing; it’s about leadership and team and family.

SBO: When do rehearsals start in earnest?

DC: We don’t start rehearsals until after we’re out of school. We normally have a leadership/rookie camp in the second week of June.

SBO: And following that?

DC: After rookie camp we start having rehearsals in the second week of July. We do a week of what we call “pre-camp,” which involves light rehearsals that primarily are 9-12 in the morning, Monday through Friday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we have two-a-days, where the kids go home for lunch and come back and we have another rehearsal from 1:30 to 4.

That’s just for that one week and then we take a week off after that and then we go to an away band camp. It’s there that we really get a lot done in terms of learning drill and music.

SBO: Tell me about the band camp. Is it overnight, offsite?

DC: It is an overnight thing, yes. The kids move into a dormitory at Urbana University.

We like the fact that we get away from home, because being a small community it’s nice to get away. Plus having a closed rehearsal atmosphere is helpful, too.

SBO: Could you describe a typical day at camp?

DC: Sure. The kids will wake up at 7 o’clock and every morning begins with what we call an attendance block, which ensures us that all of the kids are awake. After the attendance block everyone goes and eats breakfast. Following breakfast we usually do a Visual Rehearsal which normally takes place from 9 to 12.

SBO:Can you specify what “Visual Rehearsal” entails?

DC: Visual Rehearsal can be basics, plus learning drill. In a three hour Visual Rehearsal, we usually spend about 15 minutes stretching and then we’ll do about an hour of basics, marching fundamentals. We’ll use the remainder of the block to put drill pages on, which is kind of a tedious process when 160 kids are trying to learn their spots. It takes us anywhere between 10 and 12 minutes per page of drill. We try to put on at least 10 pages of drill a day, so that’ll easily take us two hours or so.

SBO: What follows Visual Rehearsal?

DC: After an hour and a half for lunch, we go into what’s called Music Rehearsal which normally runs two-and-a-half or three hours. Normally we break into sub-sections first, which means that flutes will go off and learn their music, clarinets will go and learn their section, and so on. Then we’ll bring it all together for the last half-hour or hour. That rehearsal is usually over at around 4 or 4:30. At that time we let the kids have recreation.

SBO: That’s a pretty tough day – I bet they’re ready for it by then.

DC: Yeah, they are (laughs). At that time they can use the pool. Some of them play basketball or Frisbee, or just hang out with their friends.

Recreation leads right into dinner and then after dinner we come back out to the Marching Band field at 6 o’clock.

SBO: Wow – back to work!

DC: Yeah, back to work. Usually what we do is, at that time, we’ll try to review what we learned drill-wise earlier that day and then we’ll immediately try to put music to what we learned. It makes sense – you learn the drill in the morning, you work on the music in the afternoon, and then in the evening you bring it back and try to put the music to the drill. So in a given day, it’s: Visual Rehearsal, Music Rehearsal, and Ensemble Rehearsal.

SBO: What’s the schedule for the rest of the summer?

DC: Our band camp is typically over at the end of July, so we have about a month between the end of our band camp and when school begins. What we try and do is take the following week after band camp off and then we’ll come back and do a similar schedule to what we have during pre-camp: 9 to 12 and then two-a-days on Tuesday and Thursday.

SBO: Once the school year begins in the fall, how often do Marching Band students rehearse?

DC: Marching Band typically rehearses three days a week. So what we normally do is we’ll do two full ensemble rehearsals per week and then everybody will have one sectional rehearsal. The wind players will have a separate sectional, the percussion will have a separate sectional, and the Color Guard will have a separate sectional.

This year the scheduling is going to be a little different, though.

SBO: How so?

DC: Our Monday rehearsal is going to be a Visual Rehearsal with our winds and percussion – the Color Guard will not be with us. On Tuesdays the Color Guard will rehearse after school and the percussion will have an evening sectional. Then on Wednesdays after school, we’ll bring everybody together. Thursday is a day off for everybody. If everything works out, on Wednesday’s everyone is on the same page, pardon the pun.

We have a lot of siblings involved in different elements of the Marching Band and, in the past, if a family wanted to do something as a group there was always somebody who had a sectional or some other conflict on the day in question. That’s why we’re setting rehearsals up this way now. Also, we try and keep at least one weekend a month free of any band obligations. We tell the parents and the kids the schedules way in advance, so that the families get a chance to just be together without being committed to any band projects.

SBO: With such rigorous demands on the Marching Band program, you must frequently come up against scheduling conflicts.

DC: When you’re in a small district, we all are pulling kids out of the same pool for academics, athletics, band, vocational things, so these kids are extremely involved and busy. We just try our best to work out those individual schedules. Sometimes we do have kids leaving practice early or coming late and it can be frustrating at times, but occasionally it’s just the only arrangement that makes sense.

Band programs from bigger schools really don’t have that problem because they have so many students that, basically, if you’re a band kid you’re a band kid. They have the option of saying: “Hey if you can’t be here every rehearsal you’re going to be an alternate.”

SBO: So because of your district’s size you just don’t have that option?

DC: I suppose we could have that option; we just choose not to exercise it.

When you have a really special kid who’s a great performer, musically, but is also the star forward for the soccer team, it makes sense to try and find a way to work that out. It is challenging, though, to say the least.

The number one key is communication. As long as you have an open communication with the students and the parents, it does tend to alleviate things. That’s something that we all struggle with – and I put myself at the top of the list. I do try and go to the parents as much as possible, but I do leave a lot in the students’ hands as well, as far as them being responsible for themselves. Students can decide to do a lot of things academically, athletically, and also in music, and we must try to provide the tools for them to be organized.

SBO: What style of uniform do the Marching Eagles have?

DC: We’re currently in our second year of a brand new uniform designed by Michael Cesario from Fred Miller’s. Basically, we have a black bib-pant and our jacket is purple, which is part of our colors. We’re actually purple and gold, but we didn’t like the way gold looked on the uniform. The jacket has basically three diagonal black stripes that lead from the left shoulder to the bottom right side. At the end of these diagonal stripes we have three sliver reflective mirrors. Also, the top half of the left sleeve is purple and the underside half is black. In addition to that, the entire back of the uniform is solid black.

We find the purple to be very striking and we wanted to make sure that, if we wanted to, we could use the uniform for visual effect. When the kids turn around – especially if they turn around fast or in a ripple – it, all of a sudden, goes from solid black to a bright purple.

SBO: What sort of hat do the kids have?

DC: They use a shako with a plume and at the front of the shako is a reflective mirror which is basically an upside down triangle.

SBO: I’m guessing dark footwear?

DC: Yes: Black footwear and black gauntlets, as well with silver buttons.

SBO: What characteristics do you think are essential to a child being a good Marching Band student?

DC: Well, they have to be dedicated and they have to have a love for what they do. I just find that kids are motivated when they have a strong sense of leadership and of the teamwork approach. We do everything we can with our students to foster the growth of those skills.

SBO: What sorts of things do you do?

DC: Starting in February, we start having little pow-wow sessions during lunch for anybody who would be interested in becoming a leader.

When I first came here, four years ago, all the kids wanted to be section leaders but they just wanted the title, not the responsibilities that go along with it. When I announced that we were going to meet once or twice during lunch, I met with some resistance, but in the last two years it’s really picked up steam. What was really encouraging this year, which blew my mind, was that the students started to organize their own leadership meetings in January, prior to any mention from me. They just started coming down during lunch and holding their own meetings.

Even though we only select a finite number of leaders, we have maybe three times as many kids who go through the training and are involved in these discussions. I think the larger your leadership base is, the more you’re going to outreach to the general membership, so I think that’s important. It’s essential that these kids know that their teachers are taking them seriously and taking their opinions and ideas into consideration.

SBO: What factors do you take into account when grading your students?

DC: During the fall, we consider Marching Band participation to be co-curricular. Because it’s co-curricular, what we do after school is considered an extension of the class. In other words, when students come to rehearsal or a performance they earn credit, so it’s very rare that I give a kid anything other than the highest grade, unless they have unexcused absences. The only other thing that we do is I give my kids a grade for preparation of their chart book. Other than that, if the kids are in it and showing up and doing their job, they’re getting A’s from me. I mean, they’ve got to worry about their other academic classes, and I don’t want them to have to be concerned about getting an A in band.

SBO: Based on the success of your program, I’m guessing it’s not too difficult to generate student interest. You probably don’t have any recruitment problems, correct?

DC: It’s really not a challenge and I think that has to do with the size of our community and the previous success of the program. We do two parades a year and literally everyone is there applauding the kids and that has a real impact on younger children.

Also, beginning last year I created what’s called the District Honors Marching Band. All of the high school kids as well as all the 8th and 7th grade students who accept the nomination do a parade together. So we have a massive band of over 180 kids and I think that generates excitement, as well.

We try and perform in the community as much as we are invited to do so, because I remember my own experience when I was in sixth grade and I saw the high school band put on a stand-still performance at a farm team baseball game. I remember it like it was yesterday – when I saw that band I immediately knew I wanted to do that, myself. I think lots of kids have that type of reaction.

That’s one thing I really enjoy about our Command Performance: there are those who don’t necessarily make it out to football games or local competitions and the Command Performance gives us a chance to be exposed to local folks in a different context. Don’t get me wrong – the football crowd is really supportive of the band program and we’re really appreciative of that, but it’s nice to sometimes perform for people who are there exclusively to see the band.

SBO: It seems there’s a lot of local pride in the Marching Band’s accomplishments?

DC: There’s a lot of area pride connected to the program because this small town is on the national map because of the Marching Band. You drive into Bellbrook and it says “Home of the Marching Eagles.” I remember when I drove into town for the first time and saw that sign; I sat up a little straighter and was proud to know that I was going to be the director.

SBO: What types of fundraising does the Marching Band rely on?

DC: Our cost analysis projects an expense of $1,100 per student for participation in the band, including band camp. The Sugar Creek local schools, our local school district, charges a band fee of $550 per student. $300 of that goes towards the week-long band camp and the remainder goes towards summer instruction and also towards food and a portion of the travel costs for the fall. The remainder travel and hotel cost – that remaining $550 – is paid out of our booster budget, which can be upwards of $85,000 to give you a round figure. We call that “fair share” which is simply, as the name suggests, the amount that we expect parents to either contribute or work off through the numerous fundraisers that the boosters provide.

SBO: And what sorts of fundraisers are those?

DC: We work concessions at two collegiate and pro athletic in the local area: The Dayton Dragons, which is a local farm team for the Cincinnati Reds, and during the college basketball season we work the concessions at the UD arena for all of the Fires basketball games and any other special events. We also do an annual community calendar sale, an annual spring flower sale, and other things such as our Marching Band invitational and Winter Guard invitational.

There’s also the Scrip program, which is basically a gift certificate program.

We purchase gift certificates from national retailers and local vendors at a discount and then people buy them at face value from the Bellbrook Music Boosters. Scrip is identical to gift certificates purchased directly from stores and used in the same manner.

The Boosters are actually making some money under this arrangement. When parents buy Scrip, there’s a percentage of that profit which goes directly into their own account which then goes towards paying band fees or paying off fair share. It’s pretty clever.

SBO: What do you consider to be the most challenging part of your job?

DC: For me the most difficult thing is keeping a consistent line of communication open with everyone involved. When you consider that you have 160 students and then that number multiplied by two parents, per student, and then you have all of the staff… that ends up being a lot of people! If you utilize e-mail and your phone it becomes a little bit more manageable, but I find that whole side of it much harder than actually getting the kids to stand at attention and play their parts well.

Sometimes when you finish rehearsal the only thing you want to do is lock the door and go home and be with your family, but maybe you have those one or two phone calls that you really need to make, instead. Keeping an open line of communication really makes the job so much easier.

SBO: It’s such a successful program and you really seem to be making the most of the resources available to you – do you have any future goals for the Marching Band program?

DC: I would like to see the numbers continue to grow. I want the program to get bigger, better and keep it fresh.

I’d like for the students to continue to perform challenging music and, most importantly, every year I want the students to experience something different. If that’s through what they do musically or visually, that’s great, but even if they gain new experiences through the personal experiences that they have with the other students then I consider that a success.

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