MAHOMET — Balance in the family is showing strong this year among the Mahomet-Seymour High School Marching Bulldogs.
After all, band members are family here — and their 2019 show is all about balance. They look to be walking the walk — or marching the march, as the case may be.
The Marching Bulldogs brought home an armful of top awards Oct. 5 from the 43rd annual Panther Marching Band Festival at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. The Bulldogs won for overall Class 5A champion, the top award in their division. They also earned first place, color guard; first place, drum major; and first place, visual general effect.
On Oct. 12, the band competed at Illinois Wesleyan University in the eighth annual Normal Marching Band Invitational. The Bulldogs earned second in their class, and they brought home a fourth-place trophy out of 24 bands.
“The weather was rough,” director Michael Stevens said of the Normal invite. “It was windy, it was chilly and the weather kind of took its toll on their mental psyche. I think we could have performed better than what we did, but all in all, despite the weather, they pulled it through and did a nice job.”
The Marching Bulldogs, about 200 strong, next travel to St. Louis on Saturday for competition. They head to the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, Ariz., from Dec. 26-31; it’s their fifth appearance there.
This is Stevens’ 27th year at Mahomet-Seymour in the band program. When he started out, the band numbered about 125, and its highest number of members has hit nearly 215.
“It’s grown considerably,” he said.
Stevens did his undergraduate coursework at Western Illinois University in Macomb and earned his master’s from the University of Illinois.
“This was my first job out of college, and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Stevens was assistant to Richard Watkins from 1993-2000, and then the two swapped roles. Stevens took over marching band duties at that time and, in 2006, when Watkins retired, became band program director.
He must have some philosophy to keep young people motivated, right?
“That is probably half of my job. The teaching the music part is the easier half,” Stevens said. “The teaching the drill is (an) easy half. Getting kids to believe that there’s something bigger than just themselves personally and that when you’re working as a group, the dynamic — it has to be more of a family, where you hold each other accountable.
“We’ve always had section leaders. The past seven or eight years or so, I’ve gone to ‘families,’” he explained. “So the section leaders each have about six or seven kids that they’re responsible for. So when we break up into small groups to work on either music or choreo or marching or whatever, they work with their core group. The purpose of that was, again, to hold each other accountable; to have that person who’s looking out for you, who’s your go-to.
“For the most part, it’s been very successful,” Stevens said. “I’ve seen a huge increase in just kids trying harder — they don’t want to let down their section leader, they don’t want to let down the people in their group.”
Keeping teenagers’ attention requires some finesse as well, according to the director.
“It’s always trying to find ways to explain something in a different way,” Stevens said. “If you say it the same way every time it (tends to) turn you off.
“Some years, it’s better than others. It all depends on your leadership — the stronger the senior class is, the stronger the band is,” he added.
Stevens and a crew of others start early every calendar year to create a marching band show. The marching band staff of adults gathers in January or February to brainstorm, and the show takes shape from there — from music to choreography, drills and more.
Yet the process is almost ongoing, year-round.
“During the middle of this season, I’m listening for next season,” Stevens said.
This year’s theme is “Balance of Power,” with the yin and yang symbol a big part of the visuals and the philosophical heart of the show.
“The whole show is about balance,” the director said. “There’s not a story we tell — it’s just a constant idea of balance. It’s worked out pretty well so far this year. Most judges have really liked it.”
Stevens said for students in marching band, the activity is about much more than playing a musical instrument.
“I think people don’t realize the physicality that it takes to do what we do,” he said. “When we’re doing our show, it’s eight minutes long, nonstop. They’re playing; they have to have their music memorized; they’re moving while they’re playing; they’re doing choreography while they’re playing. It’s a true physical stress.
“It’s also very emotionally draining. You’ve got to create music and play it musically that goes along with all these movements that you’re doing — so you’ve got the art side and the physical side all in one, and most people have no idea the work it takes, the hours it takes,” Stevens added. “It’s pretty intense.”
Community and parent support is big in Mahomet, according to the band director, and part of the Marching Bulldogs’ success.
“I could not ask for more,” Stevens said. “There’s a huge, huge army of parents behind the scenes.”
What’s the secret to this band director and his bands’ success?
“I think consistency is big,” Stevens muses. “Since 1971, there’s been two head directors. So the kids know what to expect. Since I teach 5-12, I get them when they’re 10 years old. They spend a lot of time here.
“There’s a trust involved. There’s a mutual respect involved. And when there’s consistency, you build a program,” he said.
Junior Ryan Bushell, 16, started in the fifth grade playing drums in the band.
“I always loved playing the drums,” he said. “My siblings also were in the band before, when I was younger, so I would watch them. I always liked watching the drumline.
“I love being able to play snare drum with a great group of people in the drumline. It’s really fun to create a show and put it on the field and be able to perform it a bunch of times for people,” he said.
Sixteen-year-old Wyatt Taber, also a junior, is the bass captain and plays bass drum himself.
“I have to wrangle all of the other basses and get them to do everything that they need to do a lot better than they would without me,” Taber said with a grin.
He’s looked forward to marching band since he started with concert band in junior high.
“My sister’s been in it. It’s just always been a dream of mine throughout my years of doing percussion in the concert band,” Taber said. “I’ve always been waiting to join this. It’s a big deal for me.”
Taber gives Russ Weber, drum coach, a lot of credit for motivating the Bulldog drumline.
“This year, at least for drumline, we’ve put in so much hard work — more than I felt we’ve done the past years I’ve been on,” he said. “This has been the hardest-working drumline that we’ve had. Everyone just clicks. It’s like a small family here.
“We’re definitely a family.”