By Jody Steinberg

Parades and half-time ceremonies wouldn’t be the same without marching bands.

Often overlooked, the marching band is more than an after-school music or athletic activity. For many, it is the most demanding and defining experience of high school.

Cross Keys High School band director Bernard Short, left, and band member Andrew Conaway accept a trophy during a recent DeKalb County high school competition.

In a very short time, students must learn music and arduous marching techniques – then combine them. They earn a varsity letter and a physical education credit for participation. They spend summer vacation at band camp, practice for hours after school and attend game nights that end late at night. Bands perform at football games, pep rallies, band showcases, regional competitions and community events. And when football season ends, the players join the school concert band.

“Marching Band is the most public ensemble any school has,” says William Henderson, Dunwoody High School band director. “It gets to perform for so many community members.”

But all bands are not equal. Just a few miles separate Cross Keys and Dunwoody high schools, but their band programs illustrate the cultural and economic chasm that divides them.

Henderson arrived at Dunwoody two years ago with over 15 years teaching experience and a stint in the private sector. The former University of Georgia drum major came to rebuild a dwindling program that was once one of metro Atlanta’s best. So far, he’s brought the marching band from 40 to 85 core members and increased band class participation to 150 students.

Freshman Alex Cameron, who was recruited from the Peachtree Charter Middle School band, loves everything about marching band. “It’s definitely worth all the hours when you do a good show.”

Dunwoody does put on a good show. This year, they performed a repertoire of popular rock & roll tunes using traditional marching instruments as well as a percussion pit, electric guitar, viola, stationary drums, air guitars – and multiple flags. The large instruments, props and platforms are usually hauled, set up and moved by parent volunteers – an important part of the Dunwoody Wildcats band program.

“Parent support is great,” says Henderson. “There are so many things big and little that we couldn’t do without strong parents.”

Dunwoody High School music teacher William Henderson rehearses the school band.

DHS Band Boosters president Teresa Browning says volunteers make sure students are fed, watered and chaperoned at each game and have stadium cushions to insulate them from the cement bleachers. They also maintain communications and raise about $50,000 each year through dues and fundraisers. The money is used to pay extra instructors; maintain and repair instruments; and provide dues scholarships.

Cameron’s mom was in the marching band, and encouraged her to join. “It’s such a fun experience to be with your friends and get to do what you love,” says the trumpeter.

When band schedules threaten to interfere with schoolwork, Henderson tells students the demands and commitments are a metaphor for adult life.

“I tell them, ‘You are going to have to find a way to do it all. We have to figure out how to make our lives work.’”

At Cross Keys, the pressure to balance school and home life keeps students from marching band. Only 18 freshmen and sophomores participate – and many of those never held an instrument before joining this fall. With parents juggling jobs and other children, the students seldom enjoy the parental support, attendance or even transportation that many of their counterparts at other schools take for granted.

“I would have twice as many members if students didn’t feel like they have to work to help out at home,” laments band director Bernard Short.

Those obstacles bother Short, who sees marching band as a ticket to a better future.

After a year substituting around DeKalb, the Morehouse College grad knew he wanted to work at Cross Keys, citing the high level of teacher dedication and great students. Since 2007, Short has taken marching band from three to 18 members, and band and orchestra classes from three or four students to as many as 60. But he still only has one involved parent, some lackluster fundraisers, a low participation rate and students who lack music experience.

He recruits aggressively year-round, from Sequoyah Middle School to the Cross Keys cafeteria and hallways.

“Every person who walks by the band room, Mr. Short says ‘Come join the band,’” laughs drummer Andrew Conaway.

Short comes by his zealousness honestly.

“It’s my passion. Marching band literally saved my life,” says Short, who says it kept him from getting into trouble with his gang friends in New York and helped him land a scholarship to Morehouse, where he met his fiancé in the marching band. “I want to teach these kids… that there is more. There is life beyond the Buford Highway.”

“The culture of band is really nonexistent here,” he said. “I tell them, ‘I’ll teach you everything you need to know.’”

Short espouses discipline and responsibility, reminding band members they are ambassadors for Cross Keys. Members say marching band has motivated them to become better students and, for the first time, encouraged them to plan for college.

Trombonist Terry Falconer takes a bus home from practice, arriving about 7:30 p.m. to begin homework and practice. “It forces us to be disciplined,” says the ninth grader, who has set his sights on Morehouse College. “It teaches us good study habits and how to focus.”

Chuan Fu gets home at 7:45 p.m. most nights, but she’s committed. “I come to band room every chance we have.”

Short likes students to hang out in the band room. He wants to take them places and show them the opportunities that await them. “I’m trying my best to make it a family environment. For some students, this is most stable environment they have. I know I can make a difference.”