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Are marching bands out of step with the times?

Staff writer

With only 172 students, even Professor Harold Hill might have had trouble assembling 76 trombones for the big parade — not to mention 110 cornets right behind.

That’s part of the reason why Hillsboro High School’s band will again be riding instead of marching in this year’s Marion County Fair parade.

But it’s not the only reason. And the situation isn’t confined to Hillsboro.

Although an ever-increasing number of students seem to be participating in an ever-wider array sports, student involvement in band has waned significantly throughout Marion County.

Gone are the days when close to half the student body of local high schools was in band.

Hillsboro’s band enrollment this past school year was only 14.

Faced with prospects that only five of the 14 could show up for last year’s county fair parade, band director Bruce Major abandoned marching, put his musicians on a trailer, and invited townsfolk to join in, making it a true community band.

“What’s a parade without a band?” he explained.

He’ll be doing the same thing this year, with a projected total band enrollment of only 17 for 2012-13. And he’s not alone in taking such actions.

Marion High School, with fewer than 30 band members in 2011-12, had to augment its band with middle school students during football and parade season last fall and at commencement this spring.

“Those kids loved it,” Principal Tod Gordon said Tuesday. “A couple of games they played the national anthem. Four or five played during graduation.”

The band was so short on members that custodian/alumnus Oliver Good and various Tabor College musicians had to perform as part of the pep band during basketball season.

“Last year, band was as low as it has been in several years,” Gordon said. “We were at 40 or more for quite a few years.”

Gordon expects a number in the mid-30s for Marion’s 2012-13 band. Major expects his band to grow by four to 17, so both Marion and Hillsboro will be increasing.

Why the numbers fell in the first place is another story.

According to Gordon, there’s been somewhat of a shift in student interest.

“We have 60, maybe 70, in choir,” he said. “Bigger choir numbers mean smaller band numbers. Out of seven classes, students can only have two fine arts credits, and if they want to be in a selective-performance group as well as choir, band may lose out.”

That’s not the case in Hillsboro, Principal Max Heinrichs said. Hillsboro students have no limits on fine arts credits and take eight instead of seven classes a year.

“We’re just flat out smaller than we used to be,” he said. “My best guess is we’ll have 172 in the building this fall. Six years ago, we had 275. Fewer students means fewer available for band.”

Band participation also has been impacted by budget cuts.

“We have gone through a process of change that maybe caused some of this,” Heinrich said, quickly adding that many of those changes are now being reversed.

To cope with budget cuts a few years ago, Hillsboro combined vocal and instrumental music into a single position. Now they are going back.

“It became a point where it was too much,” he said.

Major, who played in marching band as a student at Kansas State University 30-plus years ago, took over the band after having taught math full-time.

“We’re really confident that he’s going to get us back in the right direction,” Heinrich said. Despite its small numbers, “our band had a huge year, winning at regional and state competitions. It’s going to come back.”

Major himself is a huge proponent of band — not just what it can do for a student in high school but what it can do for students who continue in band in college.

“I’ve never known anyone who was in a college marching band who had any regrets whatsoever about the experience,” he said.

Marion also has a new band instructor, Chris Barlow, who already has relocated to town and will start work this fall after having completed student teaching last spring.

To help free up space in the curriculum, Marion is merging what had been separate classes for band and jazz band. It also has 20 in separate instrumental music classes in keyboards and guitar.

Meanwhile, Hillsboro musicians beyond high school age who want to help out performing marches and patriotic music from the back of a trailer during the fair parade July 25 can contact Major at (620) 947-5985 for more information.

Rehearsals are scheduled for 7 to 8 p.m. July 16 and 23 in the high school band room.

Marion abandoned marching at the county fair several years ago. Its band’s first performance each year is at Labor Day in Florence.

Last modified June 13, 2012

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