Marching to glory with the Marian Catholic High School marching band

Life on the road can be hard on Marian Catholic but strengthens bond between student and band

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The kids in the Marian Catholic band look as if they're about to collapse.

They came to class at 7:45 a.m., performed a full-dress show in the afternoon and took a jerky, four-hour ride bound for Indianapolis in crowded school buses after dark.

At 10 p.m., they're wondering when they'll get to turn in for the night -- not in a luxury hotel, or even a shabby one, but on the floor at Center Grove Middle School Central in Greenwood, Ind., a half-hour south of Indy. No beds, no cable, no room service.

Unfortunately, Greg Bimm, band director at Marian Catholic High School, calls a rehearsal. Though the school's marching band recently pulled off an improbable win at the state championship, the students are about to face off against 29 ensembles from Arkansas to Ohio in regional competition.

For Marian, this will be a kind of dry run for the ultimate event in the fiercely competitive world of marching bands: the upcoming Grand National Championships, where they are to perform Friday. Marian has won seven times -- no other band comes close -- but it hasn't taken the top honor since 2000. So the Marian students are about to be tested, not just by their competitors, but by the weight of their history and the vicissitudes of life on the road.

They pour into the middle school's gymnasium -- which, in a couple of hours, will become makeshift sleeping quarters for the girls -- and begin stretching and warming up. The horns echo like crazy in the wide-open gym; the drum corps unleashes thunder; the color guard tosses its flags in the air, creating a near-constant whoosh.

As the instrumentalists practice, they march softly in place.

While the students practice, Bimm studies his score and his assistants prowl the floor, hunting for errant steps and out-of-tune pitches, and something more.

"It's about how much of your soul you're putting into each note," says Bimm, imploring the students from high in the bleachers.

Though the competition doesn't officially start until the next day, the kids know the contest already has begun.

"At these moments, that's where true bands are made," says senior Jordan Billups, 18, a burly alto saxophonist. "Exhaustion might be a body thing, but tired is a state of mind. ...

"You put that aside, you stop being a high school student and become a performer. That's what makes a championship band."

Outside the school, the Marian road crew, staffed entirely by parents and other volunteers, unloads three rental trucks stuffed with more than 1,000 pieces of luggage for 240-plus band members, from air mattresses to sousaphones.

"It's like Napoleon invading Russia," says Gary Vander Hye, one of the parents hauling the load.

After an hour-and-a-half, Bimm mercifully lets the kids go to sleep, but for the boys, at least, there will be no peace. After they crawl into sleeping bags and flop onto inflatable mattresses scattered on another floor of the school, a security alarm in their wing of the building shatters the silence. Every hour. Five times to daylight.

So much for that night of sleep. And the hard part is yet to come.

A musical obsessionWhy do they do it? Why do high schoolers who could be playing video games or loading up their iPods spend their days and nights trying to master the peculiar art of playing Stravinsky and Bartok while marching in circuitous patterns on a football field?

"The emotion you get performing on that field you can't get anywhere else in life," says senior Kathryn Wolske, 17, a commanding figure who leads the clarinet section. "It's such a high. Where else are you going to find that?"

Says senior Briana Engelbert, 18, the band's hard-driving president: "It's healing. Music does a lot for you."

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