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Bave Bellis

Mike Lawson • Features • June 1, 2002

Photos by David Huber, David Huber Photography, Worland, Wyo.

When the Wyoming High School All State Marching Band passes through town, it’s difficult to miss. The entourage consists of 13 motor coaches carrying 500 band members and a colorful, Pepsi-sponsored semi trailer loaded with the musicians’ instruments and equipment.

Throughout the summer, this massive band comprised of Wyoming high school students from 47 high schools makes stops along its statewide tour to perform in various towns – many of which do not even have a local marching band. At night, the sleeping figures of band members and chaperones on air mattresses and sleeping bags cover every square foot of the gym floors of area high schools and colleges.

The All State Marching Band comes together every couple of years to represent the state of Wyoming in a national performance, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York or the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland. Most recently, the 500-piece band marched in the millennium Tournament of Roses Parade in California. For that occasion, band members boarded 19 different flights out of four airports in four states in a single day and arrived in Los Angeles every few hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The students and chaperones filled up an entire Embassy Suites hotel during their stay.

And that’s just a small portion of the enormous undertaking that Dave Bellis and his wife, Dawn, orchestrate. Dave Bellis is the band director and his wife is a guidance counselor at Worland High School (Worland, Wyo.). Together, they serve as the executive directors of the Wyoming All State Marching Band and share the assorted responsibilities that go along with the job. Dave’s emphasis is on travel planning, while Dawn takes charge of chaperone recruitment, among other duties.

The first All State Marching Band was formed in 1991 for the state of Wyoming’s centennial anniversary.

“To be honest with you, I stole the i

big success, people around the state kept asking, ‘When are you going to put them together again?’ ” Dave remembered.

The Bellises answered that question three years later, when they took another 185-member band on a trip, this time to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1998, 130 students represented the band in Dublin for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. As the year 2000 drew closer, the band turned its attention back to the Rose Parade. For this special occasion, the president of the Tournament of Roses was encouraging large bands to participate. The Wyoming High School All State Marching Band responded with 500 marchers.

“This band was tremendous. I believe it was probably the largest, single-unit marching band the Rose Parade has ever had. If not, it’s right up there with the biggest. When we marched the Rose Parade with 500, we stretched over two city blocks,” he said.

The band enjoys this trip so much that Dave is already working on the application for the 2004 Tournament of Roses Parade – to which he plans to bring at least 350 students. He is also preparing a trip for the Worland High School Band to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin.

Dave’s talent for travel planning enabled the band to pull off a last-minute trip to Washington, D.C., to perform in the Bush/Cheney Inaugural Parade. (The band was invited because Cheney is a native of Wyoming.) With three weeks of preparation time, the band marched 350-strong for the country’s new president and vice president.

In the past 15 of his 28 years in music education, Dave has taken a dozen major band trips and broadened the horizons of an estimated 3,000 students.

School Band and Orchestra: How do students become involved in the All-State Marching Band? Is there an audition?

Bellis: Because students come from all over the state of Wyoming, the distances are something unreal. What a lot of people in the country don’t realize is that Wyoming only basically consists of 47 school districts. That’s less than some of the metropolitan cities. We have basically 47 high schools in the state of Wyoming and, out of those schools, we have approximately 12 schools that have marching band programs. It’s almost impossible to get all the students together for auditions. What we do is select the students based on directors’ recommendations. We send a confidential director’s recommendation form to all the directors in the state and they nominate their students. Marching is not a pre-requisite because, like I said, we don’t have that many schools that march. So we put them together at a week-long camp at one of the community colleges here in the state and we basically start at ground zero and teach them. We have a very good staff. Our staff consists of some of the very best marching band directors in the state. We put them together and we teach them how to march. Actually, sometimes it is easier to teach the kids that have never marched before than it is to take the kids from the marching band programs in the state and teach them all how to do it the same way. The rookies are easier to teach.

SBO: When selecting the band of either 185 or 500 students, is there a certain instrumentation that you’re striving for?

Bellis: We shoot for a certain instrumentation in all the bands we do. The 500-piece band was quite unique because the drum line was 64. Sixty-four in the drum line is a pretty big drum line. What we did is arranged the band in such a way that they were right in the center of the band, like a heart beat. We had a “front” band from flutes to tubas and then we had a “back” band from tubas to flutes. That way, the heart beat of the band was that drum line and the low brass right in the center. That’s how we keep that size band together. A lot of people ask us that: ‘How could you keep a band that spreads out over two city blocks together and not have phasing problems?’ It’s all in how you arrange the kids on the street.

SBO: As a director, what is the most important aspect of student travel?

Bellis: First of all, always, is the educational value. It’s very, very important that the trips are meaningful and educational for the kids – although we have done the theme parks, too. If they’re done right and you work with the theme parks, they can be very educational. My philosophy is that any time you take the kids on a trip like this, it’s educational. It may not all be music education, but you’re teaching kids everything from living skills away from their family – some of the younger students are away from home for the first time – to living with your friends for a week. You thought they were your friends, but after a week, you get kind of tired of them. They’re learning how to take care of themselves in an airport, and learning money-management skills. When you’re away from home for a week, all of a sudden you’ve got to take care of the money and manage your money. That’s especially important when we travel overseas and the money is exchanged. All of these things are educational and, by far, that’s the most important thing.
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SBO: How do you determine what trips to take?

Bellis: Like any band director, we get tons and tons of materials in the mail from lots of travel companies. First of all, I look at trips that are going to match what I’m looking for as far as educational values. Then, of course, you have to check into the cost figures. Generally, I will never go on a trip without previewing it myself first. Most travel companies will oblige you in that area if they know you’re serious. I don’t believe in blowing smoke just to find a free trip. I want to see the trip first. I want to go a year or so ahead of time. I want to see other bands on the trip. I want to check sources. I will pick up the phone and call other directors that have been on that trip and find out what happened good, what happened poor, what would they do if they could make it better? Before I sign a contract with a company, I ask, “How’s this going to change? Why will this not happen to us?” You just need to check everything out. I don’t like surprises. I want to see where the kids are going to stay. I want to see the distances that we have to travel to get to different places. Generally, I will always meet with the bus transportation company that we’re going to use to find out if they’re reliable. I want to see or eat the meals that are going to be offered to them. I’m very, very thorough about preview of a trip.

SBO: How would you describe the ordeal of organizing and executing a trip involving 500 students, plus chaperones?

Bellis: Obviously, it takes a special person to do it. And when I say special, I mean a little bit different, a little bit weird. But I love doing it. It’s something even after I retire from teaching that I will probably continue doing. Some people think that it’s a little odd that I like doing this, but I thrive on it. I love taking kids out and having new experiences. I can’t count on both hands how many times I’ve been to Disneyland or Disney World, but I still love to go there to watch the kids. That’s why I do it.

It’s another job. When we were taking the All State Band to the Rose Parade, I would get home after school around five or so and work on this until 10 at night, or so. When we did the Inaugural Parade, that had to happen so fast that I was getting up at five in the morning, working on it until I went to school and then getting home at five at night and then working on it until midnight.

SBO: How did you manage to get the band together so quickly for the Inaugural Parade?

Bellis: That was almost a year to the date after the last Rose Parade band. We had 500 in the band and we lost our seniors, so that put us down to about 350. We used our mailing list and our database and sent out letters to the 350 remaining kids that were still in high school and they had to respond back to us within a week. You remember what happened with the Florida voting and everything – by the time they decided who the president was going to be, we had about three weeks to put that band back together and, in the meantime, come up with about a quarter of a million dollars to send them there.

SBO: What is the most challenging aspect of planning a trip for the band?

Bellis: The financial aspect, the bookkeeping is probably what takes most of my time. The planning stages and putting it all together I enjoy. The most tedious part is the payments: sending out letters for late payments or lack of payment. Otherwise, I enjoy setting it up, the timetables, working with the travel companies. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some good people.

SBO: How did the band get corporate sponsorship from Pepsi?

Bellis: If you’re fortunate enough to find a corporate sponsor, it’s marvelous. I would do anything for Pepsi. You would never see that “C” beverage in my vocabulary. We have a large Pepsi-Cola bottling company here in Worland, Wyoming. That’s one of our major things here. The president and CEO is a friend of mine over the years – partially because of the band – and we have given him a lot of exposure as well as he has helped us tremendously. During the summer months, when we are rehearsing or performing around the state, all the Pepsi dealers around the state service the band. They supply us with all of the drinks and the water. They take care of us like royalty. When we took the big band to the Rose Parade, he supplied me with our own semi trailer. They had it all painted up for us and it had shelves in there. He basically gave me a semi trailer for a year to use for this band. We were very fortunate to come across Kelly Clay and the Pepsi Corporation. It works a little both ways. Most often, if you see us coming down the street, it’s pretty obvious we are Pepsi-sponsored. The uniforms are red, white and blue, which are Pepsi colors, but that was not originally the idea behind the uniforms. The first band that we did for the Wyoming Centennial wore those colors – those were the centennial colors and Pepsi was not involved with us. In the last Rose Parade, we were not allowed to show any Pepsi logos or anything because another beverage company was a sponsor of the parade. When we marched the Inaugural Parade, it was obvious we were Pepsi-sponsored. We wear these big white cowboy hats and right on the front is the Pepsi globe logo. I honestly believe that this is something that bands are going to have to do. I’m not saying it’s a necessary evil by any means because it’s marvelous. But as tight as money is getting in the schools and public education, I think corporate sponsorship of bands to do these trips is absolutely marvelous and I think that school districts should welcome them, arms wide open. It’s a marvelous thing if a company elects to support your kids.

SBO: In addition to the equipment and beverages, did Pepsi support your band’s fundraising efforts?

Bellis: It was mostly just the equipment, but they made a substantial contribution. Most of the finances for the kids are the kids’ responsibility. Being that we’re spread out all over the state, it’s almost impossible to do a fundraiser together. Each student is responsible for coming up with their own funds. For example, if 20 kids from the Riverton High School down the road are in the band, they can get together throughout the year and do a combined fundraiser, and that’s what they do. My Worland kids that make the All-State Marching Band do exactly the same thing. They form their own little organization and have a president and a vice president and a secretary and a treasurer and they do their own fundraising.

SBO: How much money did each student have to raise to travel to the Rose Parade?

Bellis: For the Rose Parade trip, our students paid $1,200 apiece. Some directors reading this article may say, “Whoa, that’s way too much.” Others might think it’s a bargain. It just depends on the locale of your band. I know a lot of directors out in Idaho and Nevada and they’ve been to the Rose Parade several times, but they bus out and they use their own school buses. That $1,200 includes airfare, first-class hotel accommodations – we always stay at Embassy Suites or Double Tree – breakfast every morning, several dinners, all the bus transportation and all the attractions. For example, on the last trip, we visited Universal Studios, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Medieval Times dinner theatre, and some smaller things. But that’s a pretty good bargain for $1,200.

SBO: At what point do you start the planning process for an upcoming trip?

Bellis: For example, the Rose Parade was about two years. To put together the application for the Rose Parade is quite an involved process if you do it correctly. I’ve given a couple of seminars on how to put together portfolios and applications for these kinds of events. I did one at the Northwest MENC in Spokane last year. People think that you’re just going to fill out a sheet of paper and apply – that’s not the right way. Basically, you’re talking about a portfolio, a professional video, and also letters of recommendation from lots of people. My portfolio’s about 36 pages long, with pictures and letters from governors, senators, congressmen and people who have worked with or seen the band.

I actually start planning the trip before we’re even accepted. If you wait until after you’re accepted, sometimes that’s not enough time. We’ll find out whether we’ve been accepted or rejected by the Rose Parade in mid-December. Applications are due June 1. It’s the same with the Macy’s Parade and most of the other places. With a project as big as the Rose Parade, I will already have hotels and buses reserved and I will already be looking at air flights before we’re accepted. I can always back out. People don’t like that, but they also understand. When we did the last Rose Parade, the band and the chaperones took up one entire Embassy Suites hotel. We rent the hotel for a week. We put our 350 adult guests in a hotel totally different from the students and chaperones. I believe that when you do a trip like this, it’s the students’ trip, not the parents’ trip. I don’t want parents interfering with the kids’ opportunity to experience it themselves. I always put my parents someplace else.

SBO: How is the parents’ boosters organization involved in trip-planning?

Bellis: Actually, I don’t have one. I’ve seen too many booster programs get out of hand. My parents are always here when I need them. If we’re planning a trip a certain year, we put together a committee and have parent meetings, and the parents are always here when I need them. But, just to have a parents’ organization all the time, I don’t do that. I never have and that’s just me.

SBO: How do you recruit chaperones for the trips?

Bellis: They contact me. I’ll put in the first letter that we’re going to need “x” amount of chaperones. My wife is in charge of the chaperones and she has a questionnaire that asks them various questions. One of the questions is: Are you a teacher? Teachers make the best chaperones because they are used to dealing with large groups of kids and they’re more tolerant of the way teenagers behave than some parents are.

SBO: How many chaperones are assigned to accompany the students?

Bellis: With the 500-piece band, I took about 45 chaperones. The chaperone-to-student ratio is usually one to eight or one to 12, with four students in a room. One chaperone to three rooms is very reasonable.

During our summer tour around the state, we can’t afford hotel rooms for 500 kids so we do gym floors. For the weekend parades, students bring their sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses and we crash on gym floors at local high schools or colleges. My chaperones are right there on the floor with them. Chaperones are vital and good ones are tough to find. But we have been very fortunate to find some good ones.

SBO: How do you ensure that every student shows up at scheduled times during trips?

Bellis: What I do is when I make an itinerary for the kids – get up at this time, be at the buses at this time, etc. – I shrink that itinerary way down to pocket-size. I call it pocket itineraries and I laminate them and I make sure that every kid has one of those in their pocket at all times. That way, they always know where they’re supposed to be and when. Also on that pocket itinerary I will put their hotel phone number and my cell phone number, so that if they ever get separated or lost, they can always find me or get back to the hotel. That way, there’s never any question by the kids about what time they’re supposed to be anywhere.

SBO: How is food prepared, transported/ stored, distributed, etc.?

Bellis: That’s one of those things I address when I preview the trip. I talk to the hotel manager and the food managers of those hotels. For instance, when we went to the Rose Parade, we stayed in one of the Embassy Suites and their food management on site there prepared all that for us. On the morning of the parade, the kids picked up their sack lunches and ate them on the way.

SBO: What are some of the other logistics that must be dealt with?

Bellis: Transportation is probably the biggest thing. When we traveled to the Rose Parade with 850 people, we flew them out of four different locations – Rapid City, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Billings, Montana. We flew them out on 19 different flights. They arrived in Los Angeles from seven in the morning until seven that night. All the different people on the trip were from all over the state, so we flew them out of regional airports. Wyoming does not have an airport right now that services jets. It’s not that we don’t have the runways, but there’s no jet service in Wyoming right now. Rapid City is northeast, Billings is northwest, Salt Lake City is southwest and Denver is southeast. They went to whichever airport was closest to them.

Feeding is another big one. We try to do everything in cycles. For instance, a certain section of the band will go eat from 11 to 11:30, and the next section will go from 11:30 to 12. It’s the same kind of a schedule a large high school would use to feed their students in the building. When we have, for example on the last trip, 13 to 14 motor coaches, we use a lot of two-way radios. When you have 13 buses lined up in front of the building, number one can contact number 13 and make sure everybody’s ready to go.

SBO: How do you handle the discipline of 500 students away from home?

Bellis: We have a chain of command. The first step is the chaperone. If there are problems that the chaperone can’t handle or that the chaperone feels are more severe, it goes to the sectional director, the staff person in charge of each instrument section. Nine times out of 10, it gets taken care of right there. If it’s very severe, which always happens, we send the kid(s) home. No trip usually goes perfectly. I’ve had shoplifting. I’ve had people get lost. I’ve had a disagreement between two students. Kids are kids. Anytime any director thinks they’re going to go on a trip and not have something come up is living in a fairytale. It’s going to happen. On the last Rose Parade trip, I sent three kids home. That’s the most severe disciplinary action – a phone call to the parents and, once all the arrangements are made, we take them to the airport and send them home. It’s happened a couple of times, and that’s not very many, considering I’ve taken probably 3,000 kids out.

We do meet with our chaperones on a daily basis when we travel. When we put the kids to bed, my wife always meets with the chaperones before the end of the day. There is also a nightly staff meeting where we go over what went well, what went badly, what are we going to do tomorrow, how’s it going to be better?

SBO: What were some of the highlights of the Rose parade trip for you, as a director?

Bellis: When we got off the buses and formed the band up and people would walk by and ogle – when they saw this band stretched out for two blocks – what a thrill. Anyone who’s ever marched the Rose Parade, once you turn onto Orange Grove Boulevard, the crowd is tremendous, and it just goes on and on in that parade. People are just so supportive. I can’t imagine another parade that is as neat as that parade is. The highlight is performing in front of all those people and knowing that all the work that we’ve done is paying off. This is it. This is what we’ve aimed for. I’ve actually had tears in my eyes when we hit that first corner and get on the main street because it’s the culmination of two years’ worth of work.

SBO: Are there any things you would do differently on your next trip?

Bellis: Every time, something different happens and you always learn to make it better. I think that’s one of the reasons my staff and I pulled off the Inaugural Parade in three weeks. We are experienced – we knew what to expect and how to do it. My advice to a young band director who is trying to work on a trip for the first time is contact somebody that’s “been there, done that.” Don’t let people turn you off either. Somebody might have tried a trip once, had a bad experience and said, “I’d never take kids on a trip again.” What a shame. Yes, there are going to be some things that go wrong. But you keep a stiff upper lip and say, “Okay, next time I’ll be ready for this if it happens again.” And go on. Every time you do it, you get better at it. Something may go smoothly one time and the next time it may not.

SBO: Do you have any other comments about student travel?

Bellis: My band is probably the second-largest band in the state of Wyoming, behind Cheyenne East High School, and that’s from the largest town in Wyoming. Some people say, “Well, you always have these big bands because you dangle this carrot out in front of them – if you’re in band, you get to do this.” My response to that is, “Yeah? What’s your point?” You can choose not to dangle that carrot and you can have your nose up in the air, and you can have your 45-piece bands. My job is to involve kids in music. If I have to dangle a carrot and I include 160 kids out of my 440-student school, more power.

SBO: Have the tragedies of September 11th changed your attitude about traveling with students?

Bellis: It hasn’t changed my attitude at all. I’m one of those people with the philosophy that I’m not going to let a few people, like those terrorists, mess up my life. I’m going to move on with my life and do what I do. We had 10 students not come on the last Rose Parade trip because they’re parents were upset and scared about the 2000 millennium bug. They pulled their kids out right before the trip because they were worried something was going to happen. Now, I look back and think, those poor kids. They worked all summer and then right at the end they pulled them out.

The only thing I would say about 9/11 is that it would deter me traveling certain places overseas. I intend to take my band to Ireland pretty soon. I’m going to fly through Heathrow in London and go to Ireland. Would I go to Afghanistan? No, I don’t think so. There are places I would not go, and there might be some airlines I might not fly if they’re not really reputable airlines. But overall, it hasn’t changed my feelings at all.

This article appeared on pages 30-41 in the June issue of School Band and Orchestra.

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