Maryland high school marching bands are back to strut their stuff in person

After a year of rehearsals on Zoom, where members of Maryland high school marching bands struggled to stay in sync over glitchy technology, students are taking the fields again.

On Saturday, high school marching bands from across the state will meet up at Arundel High School in Gambrills for the last competition before the state championships.

Ian Burns, instrumental music director at Arundel High in Anne Arundel County, is clearly thrilled to be rehearsing in real life with the students.

“Oh my gosh! Walking into the building and being with the kids is just … it’s fun,” Burns said.

Mike Harrison, director of bands at Urbana High School in Frederick County, is just as enthusiastic. Being able to work alongside his students is “absolutely wonderful,” he said.

Burns said that for some of his students, the experience of trying to rehearse online was “disheartening.” While students could see each other online, frequent audio delays made everything more challenging. “It almost made it worse” than not being able to rehearse at all, Burns said.

Now, as students get ready for what’s being billed as the Maryland Marching Band Association’s “Wildcat Spectacular,” there is a sense that things are “almost back to normal,” said Harrison.

Being able to once again travel and compete in high school and college stadiums “has been such a gift,” he added.

Band directors aren’t the only ones ready to get excited for halftime shows and competition.

Nicolle Grayson, the mother of a ninth-grade band member at Arundel High, said, “I’m hugely psyched to see the competition!”

Her son, who plays the flute, has been coming home smiling after band rehearsals. “It makes quite a difference from being home for, you know, 19 months,” she said.

Burns and Harrison said the in-person rehearsals are especially important because competitions for marching bands are not just about the music. Showmanship in the form of choreography is a big part of the crowd-pleasing performances.

Asked about what their students will be playing in the Oct. 16 competition, Burns said he’d bought the rights to play Radiohead’s “Creep” and has been sitting on that for a while. Now, for the competition, and as Halloween approaches, he’s woven it into some classical music “that would fit, sort of like skeletons coming back to life for one night for a dance party.”

Harrison said his students asked him if he’d ever seen the 2009 animated film “Up.” He had not, but once he saw it, he was struck by the same bit of music that his students loved — the part of the score titled “Married Life.” They settled on the theme of “love” for their upcoming show.

“We thought that after the past couple of years, we needed something positive with a feel-good message,” Harrison said.

Burns said he is thrilled that Arundel High will host this Saturday’s competition. While students at some schools rush from the stands to get food at half-time, “at an Arundel home game,” he said, “the student section stays put and watches the band. And sometimes they’re louder than the band. It’s wild!”

Harrison said he’s discovered a powerful “take-away” from being able to make music in person for crowds: “To never again take for granted the things that we get to do with students and with each other in this wonderful activity.”

The “Wildcat Spectacular” at Arundel High School starts at 4 p.m.

The Maryland Marching Band Association’s state championships are scheduled for Oct. 23 at Towson University.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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