Abilene Cooper Texas High School Marching Band Memories
Abilene Cooper High School Drum Line at Pep Rally
My 460 Member High School Band Played in the Rose Bowl. I Was There!
Abilene Cooper Performs in Texas State Marching Finals
I was one of 460 kids in my West Texas high school marching band. Yep, you read that correctly. 460 kids. At Cooper High School in Abilene Texas, being a band nerd was not only acceptable, but popular. Our football team was, for a large, 5A school, at best, average. But the band, well, it wasn't only phenomenal, it was a phenomenon.
How does a person who has to wear a sweaty, itchy, polyester band uniform with epaulettes and ugly white shoes that most high schoolers wouldn't be caught dead in derive this much pride from marching band? Well, it started on the football-field sized practice area where we met every morning at 7:15 a.m. sharp. All 460 of us, for marching practice.
Our band director was Mr. Jack Nall, a musician's musician. He was intense, driven, middle-aged, and he seemed constantly angry. I was afraid of him, as were about 80% of the band kids. He ran the Cooper Cougar Marching Band with military precision. Show up late to practice? Then you're doing laps around the band field. Forgot your instrument? Well you had just better not do that.
Mr. Nall would stand up on an one story metal scaffold that loomed over the practice field, megaphone in hand. The megaphone would squeal and sqwak at him when he'd become truly outraged. He was constantly yelling through the megaphone at members of the band, in a thick West Texas drawl that I can hear to this day.
In West Texas, marching band is just as serious a sport as football, with fans that are just as ardent. Marching band meant serious business.
Imagine a 460-member band practicing at 7:15 a.m. every Monday through Friday for the duration of football season and for a month before school started. The sounds of our drum section reverberrated through the Abilene neighborhood like echos across canyon walls. We were loud! Our percussion section had over 7 or 8 base drums, and an additional 12 or 15 snare and tenor drum players. Our drum line even included cow bells, xylophones (stationary, of course), and triangles. The drum line was a key component of our marching band, and they showed up earlier than the rest of us and practiced more intensely. But the percussionists were also the rock stars of the marching band. They had the notoriety of playing percussive band pieces that rocked the football stadium every Friday night.
Mr. Nall was a professional, symphony-level trombonist, so he favored the brass section. We had over 150 brass players, who played instruments including trombones, euphoniums, cornets, and saxophones. We even had a french horn section, which is a tremendously difficult instrument to play and master. The brass section was also favored because the sounds of brass instruments carry quite a bit more easily in the open air and dwarfed the sounds of the woodwinds.
As with any band, our woodwind section was the largest. We had approximately 200 clarinetists, flautists (flute players), and a few oboists. With so many woodwind players, Mr. Nall divided the woodwind section into two halves. Each section had lead marchers, whose job was to march out the patterns of our formations. All the other players for the most part just played and followed.
I played Bb clarinet in the woodwind section, and during my last two years of high school acted in one of the lead marching roles to carve out formations. At the time, I found this heavy responsibility quite stressful. I would wake up in cold sweats dreaming I had lost my clarinet among a sea of empty black clarinet cases. To this day when something is stressing me out and I am experiencing feelings of inadequacy, I still have that dream.
The Flag Corps
The Flag Corps, or just "flags" as we called them, carried flags and other props to enhance the halftime show. Members of the flag corps met after school and sometimes were band members and sometimes were not. The members of the flag corps had a thankless and difficult job, and were the butt of many of Mr. Nall's angry tirades.
Most years we had two drum majors, and 10 or twelve additional band officers. The drum majors were in charge of leading the music the band played and beginning the marching shows. their coveted leadership positions required a lot of extra work and earned them the right to wear fancier, newer uniforms with capes and cool cowboy hats. Most of the drum majors were serious musicians who used the opportunity to lead the music in such a large band as a stepping stone to college music scholarships. Many graduates from the Cooper High School music program went on to become college directors themselves.
In Texas, where football is like a religion, half time shows were an important part of the tradition. Our band went to every home and away game that our football team played in. For home games, we were transported in 10 chartered Greyhound busses that our band booster organization paid for. Our West Texas football team was in the same division as the Odessa Permian football team, made famous by the movie Friday Night Lights. We were bussed two and half hours from Abilene to Odessa, where we looked forward to being tromped by the football team. We never hung our heads as we marched into the Odessa Permian football stadium, because we had the best band in West Texas. I remember a few times we played there our halftime show was met with a standing ovation.
During the game, our drum line would get into friendly competitions, playing "the beat" and other drum and percussion pieces against each other. Our drum line was always the best, of course. Our band played among many other pieces, Long Tall Texan, the Texas State Song, Out of Africa, the theme from Silverado, and many other entertaining musical arrangements. During marching season, music was an integral part of what happened on the marching field, but it was only a piece. We had to learn to march, coordinate our movements with hundreds of other players on the field (which was often sodden and rain soaked, or covered with hoary frost later in the season). We learned to snap our instruments up to attention, and I chipped many a clarinet reed doing this. We memorized and played our music while moving to a complicated routine over a series of hash marks on our familiar football field at Abilene's Shotwell Stadium, which we shared with the rival cross-town high school Abilene High. Then we had to take our remembered routine with us to rival schools during away games, and adjust to different conditions, such as astroturf! Our band was so large that we would wear ruts into our practice field, and this would create issues for us if we weren't careful, and we'd lose our formation when we went to play at other venues.
Texas Band Competitions
Most people don't think of marching bands as being competitive, but ours was competitive on a high level. In addition to marching in our high-school halftime shows and being invited to play during the halftime at the Dallas Cowboys Football game and numerous parades, our band participated in the Texas State Marching competition hosted by the UIL organization.
As in football, to compete at the state level meant beating out regional-level competitors who also wanted a chance at winning the coveted State Champion title. We competed first in a district competition, then a regional competition, and finally, at the state level, where we competed against polished bands from rich suburbs of some of the larger Texas metropilitan cities. Regional and State Championships were heart pounding, sweaty-palmed affairs where hundreds of band members poured their hearts and souls into playing their best, performing their best, and meeting all of ther UIL marching requirements, like getting entirely on and off the marching field in a matter of only a minute or so. Not an easy task at all for a band our size!
I was a freshman during the exciting heart-pounding year we played in the state finals. We were thrilled to place in the top four, and honored to compete, but first place was what we wanted. In an interview with the local Abilene television station, our drum major that year summed up the essence of our high school marching band when she said "the reason we do it all is we want to be the BEST."
The Legacy of the High School Marching Band Experience
Being in the Awesome Cooper Marching Band was an impactful experience. Beyond the usual rigours of learning to play a musical instrument (in my case, the clarinet), I was able to be part of something much larger than myself, literally and figuratively. Our band was and continues to be a presence in West Texas and around the world. Sure, its size makes it something of an oddity, but there is no denying the powerful sound that this great band produced.
Being part of something that united an entire community of band supporters created a strong sense of pride in us. Doing our best and striving to be the very best became a value to many of us band nerds. Character education is one of the proven benefits of extracurricular music education. I often remark to my husband that I WISH my own children could feel the same sense of pride in something, anything, like we felt for our high school band.
We learned to work in a team setting, putting our individual and personal agendas aside for the better good of the group. I remember when my brother, who is 15 years younger than me, was born on a Thursday night, I marched off to band practice and the football game, announcing we had a new addition at my house.
"The Reason We All Do It is We Want to be The BEST"
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