OAK RIDGE, NJ - The South Plainfield High School Marching Band took to the football field at dusk on Saturday September 15th to perform their show, “Illusions,” at Jefferson Township High School in Oak Ridge, NJ.  Saturday’s competition was the first in a rigorous series of weekly Tournament of Bands (TOB) competitions leading up to the Region 10 Championships on Oct. 20th, and the Atlantic Coast Championships (ACC) held in Harrisburg, PA on Oct. 27th.

“The kids did amazing,” said Principal Ron Spring. “They were fluid.  They were smooth.  And they were just happy, which is the best part of it.  The students obviously loved what they were doing and they did a great job!  I was just really excited to be there for the first competition.”

“This group is capable of accomplishing so much,” said Band Director William Haughwout.  “They work really hard.  They like to hear feedback from the judges.  I think they did really well in their first competition.”

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“I definitely think this was one of our best performances so far,” said Drum Major Nithya Goel, Senior.  “Everyone was really excited once they got onto the field and everyone was really excited when they came off the field.  I know for sure that I was too.”

This year, S.P.H.S. Marching Band is taking part in the Tournament of Bands (TOB) Competitions, one of the largest organizations in the United States to provide an opportunity for competitive and exhibition marching bands to perform throughout a nine-state region.  The S.P.H.S. Marching Band was named 2017 Tournament of Bands Region 10 Champions in Division 2-A last year.

“Similar to gymnastics, marching band is an adjudicated sport scored by a panel of judges,” said Haughwout. “We’re given a compositional score of how difficult the show is, which is compared to an achievement score, which is how well the students perform the material.”

Scores are formulated by individual judges walking the field to critique students during the performance, and ensemble judges in the press box, observing the overall picture from above.  Judges digitally record their observations as they meticulously critique every movement, note, prop, uniform and overall presentation of each band’s performance.

“Towards the end of the night, we meet with the judges and they elaborate on some of the things on the recordings,” added Haughwout.  “We take that information and re-work the show a little bit.  Then we rehearse those things throughout the week and try to improve upon the show we did and make it better for the next competition.”

With 48 musicians, S.P.H.S. qualifies as Group 2-A, where the emphasis is on competition, education and development.  TOB Marching Band entries are divided up into five groups.  Those bands in Group 1 have up to 30 musicians, Group 2 ranges from 31-50 musicians, Group 3 has 51-75 musicians and Group 4 has 76 or a greater number of musicians.  In addition to group size, bands enter in three classifications or categories: Group A, Festival or Open Class.

“Most bands are in Group A,” said Haughwout.  “Festival Bands are for exhibition only and Open Class Bands are really higher level, with extremely demanding shows that are longer in length.  Hopefully, one day, we’ll bust into Group Open, but there’s really three classifications and then up to Group 5 for size.”

Days of competition begin early in the morning with three hours or more of practice.  After the show is fine tuned, students are treated to a home cooked meal provided by the band parents.  Each week has a different menu theme and parents volunteer to contribute to the meal.

“On competition days, the band and guard start practice very early in the morning at the high school and usually don’t perform until early evening,” said Band Parent Anne Clevenger.  “So the purpose of Meals on Wheels is to make sure the kids are well fed and hydrated.  Sharing a meal before competition also allows them to bond as a group.  They practice hard, eat well and have fun!”

The musicians and color guard then board buses to drive an hour away or farther for the opportunity to compete against hundreds of the region’s most talented high school students.

“Performing with the marching is a completely different experience than anything I have ever done,” said Mary Lee O’Dell, Freshman Alto Saxophone player.  “You see everyone smiling and you see the energy kick up as the music starts.  It’s something everyone should experience.”

This year’s show theme is “Illusions.”   Each movement meticulously planned and strategically choreographed by Assistant Band Director Sean Ferguson, the show draws the audience in with mirrors, magic and mystery.

“Sometimes marching bands will hire someone to create a show for them, but usually they don’t really know the band,” said Ferguson.  “I offered to write the drill for the show this year, mostly because I know the kids and I know what they are capable of.   They’re awesome and I thought it would be in their best interest to give them a show that’s specifically designed for them.”

“Back in late winter, we started thinking about what kind of shows we wanted to do,” said Haughwout.  “We wanted to get away from a good versus evil type of vibe, so we went with more of a concept, and that concept was ‘Illusions,’ where we can play tricks on the audience’s eye.”

“The essence of our show is magic,” said Goel.  “We feature many illusions, especially with props and mirrors.  There’s even a magic disappearing act with the drum majors and color guard captain at the end of the second song.”

“The mirrors were designed by one of the band parents, Mark O’Brien,” added Haughwout.  “He made us five big mirrors.  It works for us because they blend into the field, so as kids walk by and they go behind the mirror, they kind of disappear and then reappear.  It helps with the overall theme of the Illusions Show.”

By evening on September 15th, the S.P.H.S. Marching Band stood in position on the field, poised to perform before the judges.  As they were announced, the audience applauded wildly, then fell silent, abiding to the strict rules of competition etiquette of no talking, standing or applause while students are performing.  The first notes of music rose into the twilight skies above the stadium and South Plainfield’s marching band began their show.

“I was very nervous at the beginning,” said Freshman Jillian McConville, who plays the trumpet.  “But once we got into it, I wasn’t so nervous anymore and it was really fun.”

“It was a lot of fun,” said Sophomore Michael Nguyen, who plays Mellophone.  “I would definitely do marching band again next year.”

The show unfolded as the illusions came alive on the field, reflecting months of preparation and dedicated hard work.  As the show built to a finale and dramatic ending, applause erupted from the audience.

“They did a really good performance,” said Haughwout.  “The thing we try to stress to the kids is not to go too much by the score because it is very subjective, as one week a judge may like something we do, while the next week a judge may not.  We tell them to go by how they generally feel after they have performed a show and if they feel like they’re doing better from week to week.”

Competition days go long into the night as marching bands from all five divisions perform every fifteen minutes.  Students have time to see the other performances while they wait to hear the final results at the end of the evening.

“Each week, essentially, we’re competing against ourselves,” added Haughwout.  “We don’t get too hung up on scoring and placing.  We feel it’s about the enjoyment of the activity and how the students feel achieving the goal of a successful show.”

By 9:40pm, the drum majors and color guard captains of each division stood before the judges under the bright stadium lights.  When they reached Group 2-A Division, the announcer’s voice echoed through the stadium awarding South Plainfield High School Third Place.  Drum Majors Aleks Slicner and Nithya Goel as well as Color Guard Captain Helina Alamerew accepted the trophy on behalf of the S.P.H.S. Marching Band.  The student section of the stadium cheered excitedly as South Plainfield graciously accepted their trophy.  For many of the marching band members, this was their first experience of a marching band competition.

 “I’ve been in many plays and have done choir solos,” said O’Dell. “I feel like we’re just more united as a whole in marching band and nothing beats being together to experience something like this.”

“It was fun,” said Freshman Joel O. Arias, who plays guitar, percussion, piano, several string instruments and xylophone. “For any future marching band members, don’t be nervous, just go out there and have fun.”

The celebration continued as the S.P.H.S. Marching Band congratulated fellow winners and the accomplishment of a show well done.

“My favorite part of marching band is the energy that the band has,” said Goel.  “I know that I wouldn’t be able to be drum major or even be a part of the band if it wasn’t for the people in it.  If you come into the band, you know you’re going to make some friends and you know everyone’s going to be really nice to you and immediately accept you as one of them.  Honestly, the band is just a really great group of people to be around.”  

As the stadium lights shut off, the band and color guard made their way to school buses by the light of their cell phones.  They were exhausted, but anxious to get back to work and ready for the next competition.

“The students asked me as soon as they got on the buses if I could put the judges’ recordings up on Google Classroom so they could hear them and know what kind of feedback the judges gave them, ” said Haughwout. “They’re really open to feedback and criticism.  They want to work and improve.  They’re very capable of achieving anything.”

“The band had a great first performance,” said Clevenger.  “We have a very large group of freshman band members and they worked great as a group.  As the season goes on, I see us only getting better!”

“The show is really like a living document,” said Haughwout.  “It’s never going to be the same from week to week.  It’s always going to have something else to it.  It will always be improving and evolving until the end of the season.  These kids are all really willing and able to work.  We’re excited for the next competition.”

On Saturday Sept. 22nd at Matawan High School in Aberdeen, NJ, S.P.H.S. Marching Band will once again compete, taking their turn on the field at 4:15pm.  Competitions will also take place on Sept. 29th at Brick Memorial High School in Brick, NJ, Oct. 6th at Sayerville High School in Parlin, NJ, and Oct. 13th at Woodbridge High School in Woodbridge, NJ.  The Championship Competitions start on Oct. 20th with Region 10 Championships held at Union High School in Union, NJ, and ACC Championships, which will take place in Harrisburg, PA on Oct. 27th. 

The S.P.H.S. Marching Band will also be traveling to Florida from Nov. 28th through Dec. 3rd, where they will perform in Walt Disney World.  Tickets to any competition bought in advance will benefit the S.P.H.S. Music Program and can be purchased by calling the Music Department at 908.754.4620 ext. 1150.  More information is available on the S.P.H.S. Music Boosters Facebook Page.