Hard as it might be for his students to believe, Steel Valley band director Mr. Michael Sisley was once in their shoes. He remembers walking into marching band practice as a high school freshman, eyes wide and butterflies in his stomach.
“My ninth grade year in high school, I remember not being able to get my feet out of my own way and play at the same time,” Mr. Sisley recalled.
Steel Valley band members have a couple more years to gain their footing now that middle school students are eligible to play in the band again. The policy was reinstated this year after a hiatus, and it’s helped the band grow from a low of 13 members at the end of last season to a more robust 36.
“My brother was involved in the marching band last year and I was very involved, even though seventh and eighth graders couldn’t be in the band,” eighth grade clarinet player Loki Brown said. “They were such good friends and they were so close. They had so much fun together and I was like, ‘I want these friendships.”
Band camp was intense, but Brown said she adapted to memorizing music better than she expected.
“I was very nervous, because I had never done that before,” she said. “I always had the music in front of me. But now I’ve realized that it’s not that hard. You play it a bunch of times and you’ve got it.”
The larger roster has brought a bolder, richer sound and formations to the field, fitting for this year’s superhero theme of Marvel’s “The Avengers”.
“Having people be able to join the marching band earlier definitely improved how many members we have,” said sophomore flute player Atreyu Convard. “We were pretty low on people last year. We had a lot of senior graduates. Now we have a much fuller band, we have a lot more instrumentation, and we can do a lot more things on the field visual wise.”
The Steel Valley Marching Band competes in Chapter 8 of the Tournament of Bands, a multi-state organization that encompasses much of the mid-Atlantic region. Besides their performances at halftime every Friday night, the band performs at shows around the region. The next show is at McKeesport Area High School on October 15, followed by the Chapter 8 championship at Penn Trafford on October 22. If it qualifies, the band would then move on to a state championship at Central Dauphin High School near Harrisburg.
A championship may be the dream, but the band understands it’s still learning. Almost all of the students have at least two years of experience on their instruments, but marching is a different story. Out of the 36, only 11 have any experience of playing while in formation.
It’s a juggling act to balance the inexperience of younger performers with the hopes and expectations of older members.
“Musicality is something that jumps immediately,” said Mr. Sisley, who has been the band director for 11 years and taught at Steel Valley for 10 years. “You have to pick something that’s going to keep the seniors interested, but not so hard that the middle school students can’t do. But then the middle school students’ musicality goes up tenfold, because if not, they’re going to be left in the dust.”
The big, bombastic theatrical score of the Marvel movies has resonated with the band.
“I’m a fan,” Brown said. “It’s very exciting to do something pop culture that everyone knows.”
“I like playing the Marvel music,” Convard added. “Avengers, I really like doing that for parades. For actually marching our show, I enjoy playing ‘Ant Man’ a lot.
With 36 students, Mr. Sisley said he has a decent balance of instruments. He doesn’t have a tuba player, the standard low note provider of any marching band. Instead, he has an electric bass player who has stepped up to hit the right notes in the mix.
“Strangely enough, we only have two drummers, which is super weird for marching band,” he said. He laughed and added, “I’m going to hate myself for saying this, I wish I had more drummers. Not many band directors are saying that. But it would be nice to be able to fill out a whole drumline rather than just have a snare drum and a tenor drummer.”
Mr. Sisley might get his wish over the next few years. The band has just five seniors, which means there is plenty of room for growth. He’s excited to see the possibilities unfold.
“I’ve said a few times to the administration that in three years, as long as we keep them all, this program is going to be a pretty amazing thing to watch,” he said.