Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," turned into a movie in 1962 by Warner Brothers, was the story of a fictional Midwest town swelling with pride for a marching band that didn't really exist. Who can forget Paul Ford, as the Mayor, insisting "I'll stake my River City Band against any town west of Chicago!" And who can forget librarian Shirley Jones retort, "What band?"
Jake Matheson, 15, of Forest Lake can identify with the dilemma. The marching band in his future high school no longer exists and that's put the 9th grader on a march with a mission.
"Bring back the marching band. That's my main goal."
Matheson is a true believer in bands. He carried his vintage tuba in two different bands in the same parade on July 4th in Forest Lake. First, he appeared in the yellow-shirted City Band at the head of the line. Then, rushing to the back of the procession, he joined his Junior High School band, somewhat conspicuous since he was still wearing the City Band's yellow shirt.
Matheson enjoyed the City Band experience, but many members of that group are decades older than the teenager. Further, the City Band only marches in one parade. Matheson wants more, which is why he is trying to resurrect the age-specific and active Forest Lake High School band in time for his own secondary school career.
He has appeared at several school board meetings, using his surprisingly resonant voice in a passionate pitch for support. So far, he's had little luck convincing the grownups of the plan's wisdom.
"A lot of times I feel like I'm being talked down to like, you know, I don't understand why it was cut or why things are the way they are."
Matheson insists he understands the board's argument about funding. Fielding a fully equipped and trained marching band can, and often does, cost more than $100,000. But, Matheson does not accept price alone as a deterrent.
"I think that the school district kind of wastes a lot of their money, but that's a whole other issue."
He offers the town a memory of the band's glory in years before Matheson was born. Forest Lake's unit was once among the elite of Minnesota marching bands.
Choral instructor Jim Lindstrom remembers. "Our band had gone to the Rose Bowl twice, Macy's (Thanksgiving Day Parade) once and the Cotton Bowl once."
The Forest Lake band even performed a half-time once at Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers.
In 1991, the cash-strapped district called a halt. Forest Lake taxpayers turned down levy-increase requests. As is often the case when districts are struggling, they looked for someplace to cut.
"And they came to each department and said what can you cut and not affect the classroom?" Lindstrom says the answer was obvious. "Basically, the only thing that we could do as a Music Department was to take a look and say we can cut Pep Band and we can cut Marching Band."
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Forest Lake is hardly alone. There are no figures on exactly how many Minnesota marching bands have been cut or severely downsized in recent decades, but it is clear that high-quality, high school marching bands are down to a handful in the entire state.
"There's maybe 20 or so," estimates Rosemount High's Leon Sieve. "Yeah, not too many, street, summer 'parade' bands, there's more of those. It takes quite a bit more time to do the field show portion."
Jake Matheson wants what kids in Rosemount already have. The 160 members of the Rosemount High Marching Band are the 2007 Minnesota State Champions. They spend hours in the summer and fall rehearsing complicated formations involving horns, woodwinds, drums, a 24-person color guard and "pit" players on the sideline including four xylophones.
Their sophisticated music is borrowed from the "O" show by Cirque Du Soliel. Rosemount has band director Sieve and three assistants. They also have the support of a band booster group, the community and the school administration. Student life at Rosemount High can, for those who wish, include marching.
"We're pretty fortunate here," Sieve agrees, "because it's a part of our curriculum."
When marching band is "extra-curricular," there can be too much competition for a teenager's after-school attention. Sieve understands the problem for many other schools.
"It is tough, because they can't get the kids that are in sports that want to do both. They'll have to pick there, where our students do both."
Eden Prairie's Brent Turner, former Corps Director of the Minnesota Brass Drum and Bugle Corps, is another marching band believer.
"It's something that is not only a learning and educational environment, but it's something that a lot of kids can participate in this. It's not something where somebody sits on the bench."
Turner has been working to give marching bands a boost by organizing an annual competition featuring high school units from several Midwest states.
The "Youth in Music" program (www.youthinmusic.org/) is in its third year and the 2007 competition will take place at the Metrodome on Saturday, October 27.
(Copyright 2007 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)