To a different beat

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Sensing last year that the Dublin Scioto marching band was "kind of in a rut," director Jim Gray dramatically changed course.

He put away the traditional uniforms -- and the standard Latin jazz and old-school music, too -- and opted for black jeans and mock turtlenecks, red bandannas and globs of eye makeup (even on the guys).

Then came the halftime music: the heavy-metal stylings of Metallica.

Not exactly the stuff of puffy plumes and polyester pants.

"People didn't know what to think," said 17-year-old Jamie Polzin, field commander for the high-school band. "It made things a lot more fun."

The offbeat concept struck a chord, prompting Scioto this year to showcase songs by the Police and sport shirts painted with red, yellow and blue stripes -- a nod to the British rock trio's Synchronicity album cover from 1983.

"It has really set us apart and made it so people didn't look at us and say,

'Oh, there's that band that plays whatever,' " said Gray, who has taught for 24 years in the district. "We wanted to break the mold."

Scioto might be dramatic in its Bach-to-rock transition, but it isn't alone.

Westland High School featured the music of Led Zeppelin last year.

Gahanna Lincoln tackled Jimi Hendrix and the Monkees this season. And the Big Red Band at Johnstown High School recently performed a tribute to Van Halen.

"It's pure entertainment," said Joe Carver, 24, a recent alumnus of the Ohio University marching band and the new band director at Johnstown, where his students have played hits by Kid Rock, Rihanna and Michael Jackson. (Like OU's band, they often break into choreographed dance in midsong.)

"We're still teaching the fundamentals -- everything the textbooks say -- but with different music."

That's a winning strategy for some music educators who must keep the interest of overscheduled students.

Yet some music purists, especially those who oversee marching squads that travel to big weekend contests, remain unconvinced.

"Our biggest concern is education," said Phil Day, marching-band director at Worthington Kilbourne High School. "I personally like some of the more classically oriented music -- to push and challenge my kids.

"A lot of times, they'll stop paying attention when it's something they know."

Brian Stevens, chairman of marching band affairs for the Ohio Music Education Association, said show music should be "educationally sound" as well as "entertaining and competitive."

"That's a tough mix to achieve," said Stevens, who is also band director at Reynoldsburg High School. "There's a philosophical difference among directors as to what's important."

Competing bands are judged on education association criteria, including music difficulty level and interpretation. Schools strive to achieve a "1" (or "superior") rating in four of the seven categories, thus qualifying them to participate in the state finals.

Although familiar fare is often viewed as less challenging, Stevens said he has seen a few schools achieve a successful balance.

"It's an age-old battle -- that pop music has to be trite or simple," said Douglas McCullough, director of the Beavercreek High School marching band in suburban Dayton, which this year performed the music of Tears for Fears.

"We take our lumps once in a while, but who gets the standing ovation?"