Courtesy / Joseph Cook
Thousands of high school musicians and their families will swarm downtown San Antonio over the next six days as two major marching band competitions take place at the Alamodome.
Texas routinely features many of the nation’s best high school marching bands, not only because Texas school districts, unlike many of their counterparts around the country, have continued to devote financial resources to music education but also because the marching band is a valued complement to a school’s football team.
Now, thanks to a growing subscription service that livestreams major marching band competitions, followers nationwide are tuning in to watch the state's top high schools perform shows that feature flashy uniforms and flags, elaborate props, and intricate choreography.
Two San Antonio schools – Claudia Taylor Johnson High School and Ronald Reagan High School – are perennial powers in marching band. Both are expected to be among the top contenders at the Bands of America (BOA) Super Regional on Friday and Saturday and at the UIL State Marching Band Championships, which begin Monday and conclude Wednesday.
With 84 bands competing, San Antonio's BOA competition is the second-largest in the nation this year, having expanded from 64 bands last year.
"It's second in size to our Grand National championships, which has 110 bands," said Deborah Laferty Asbill, vice president for marketing and communications for the nonprofit Music For All, which runs BOA contests.
In addition, more than 40 schools have advanced to the state level in just the 6A classification of the UIL competition, with some of the largest 6A bands featuring more than 300 members.
Flower Mound High School, from a suburb of the same name northwest of Dallas, is the defending state UIL champion, while Johnson High won last year's BOA San Antonio contest.
“I think in San Antonio, there has been great support for athletics and extracurriculars for longer than I have lived in Texas,” said Jarrett Lipman, who moved to San Antonio in 2007 from New Jersey and is Johnson's band director. “For decades, the school districts in the area have put such a priority on what we call the 360-degree student. The administrators and the community really want band to be strong and they want athletics to be strong. I just think the tradition has been ingrained in San Antonio.”
Competition judges award scores based on how well a band plays its chosen music and how well it moves throughout its approximately 10-minute program. The BOA judges also score for an area called “general effect” or how well a performance connects with the audience.
The Reagan and Johnson bands, both in the North East Independent School District, were finalists at BOA's Grand Nationals, the nation's largest and most prestigious marching competition featuring 110 bands, in 2016. In the past five years, each has participated in the Tournament of Roses Parade, one of the greatest honors a marching band can achieve. The Reagan band has been invited to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2019.
"Texas is definitely known and recognized by music educators throughout the country as really having premier programs," Laferty Asbill said. "Definitely, Texas bands are of a very high caliber and not just marching bands but also program-wide."
Lipman is not alone in organizing the 300 students in the Johnson marching band. He is assisted by a music arranger, drum arranger, a choreographer, and a visual designer, who writes each marching show.
The same is true of the Reagan marching band, where Dan Morrison is part of a team of 10 adults working with 340 members. Morrison is one of three full-time band directors at the school.
Morrison grew up in Illinois as the son of a high school marching band director and played trumpet in his father’s marching band. He said he moved to Texas for the opportunity to work at Reagan, especially because Texas is well known for valuing music education and its marching bands.
After spending most of August learning their music and drill moves, students spend eight hours a week rehearsing during the high school marching season from September through half of November. They also play Friday or Saturday football games and Saturday competitions throughout the fall.
“I think it’s just a really fantastic activity for young people,” Morrison said. “It teaches so many things. It’s a musical outlet. It’s something that is athletic. Performing for big audiences and experiencing that, which is something that most people, not even just kids, but most people never get to experience, ever.
“And there are life lessons of sportsmanship, working together, dedication, responsibility, time management. I think that parents really see the value that this type of activity provides their child.”
Morrison said families make a significant investment – sometimes more than $1,000 a year – to have a student participate in band.
Amid the growing popularity of participating in marching band programs, Music For All is focusing on supporting music education programs in areas where funding is harder to get.
"The growth and overall participation I think is not only lateral but it's also in depth," Laferty Asbill said.
Schools that compete at the highest level of marching band are getting nationwide exposure via FloMarching, an Austin-based live and recorded video streaming service that has attracted a huge following since it launched in August 2016.
FloMarching is part of FloSports, which was founded to provide video coverage for sports that aren't typically televised by mainstream media outlets. There are 24 channels under the FloSports umbrella, with combat sports having the best track record, but FloMarching is expecting to move into the No. 3 spot by the end of November, said Wesley Sullivan, assistant director of rights and partner success.
FloMarching will stream between 65 and 70 competitions this year, including 22 this fall, Sullivan said. Between 4,000 and 7,000 people will stream video from FloMarching each weekend during the fall marching season, he said, and the viewership numbers continue to grow. The average time spent by individual users is a whopping 6.5 hours per visit, according to the livestreaming service.
“That’s a lot of band,” Sullivan said. “We have an incredibly passionate fan base who love watching kids achieve at the highest level and that’s what I attribute our success to. Everyone wants to see these kids succeed and they get a chance to do it every weekend this fall.”
Jeremiah Wooten and several of his friends were able to tap into that passion when they were still attending a Tennessee high school six years ago. Wooten and friends founded hornrank.com, a website that publishes its own rankings of what it considers the best high school marching bands nationwide.
Wooten, now a 22-year-old computer science major at the University of Missouri, said the best bands from around the country generally can’t afford to attend the Grand National competition each year and compete head-to-head. So he came up with the idea of ranking them, giving marching band fans a better idea of how they would stack up against one another.
The rankings at Hornrank.com are arrived at using an algorithm that figures in competition results and scores, and a group of voters, much like the coach and media polls used to rank teams in college athletics. Wooten said his group of voters is made up of current and former band directors, band contest judges and band aficionados.
The weekly rankings are eagerly awaited by students and parents involved in marching band and can spark controversy among fervent social media followers.
"Now it’s kind of grown into this thing where if I’m a little later than usual posting the rankings or one of our [competition] predictions, we’ll start getting people tweeting at us asking why it’s taking so long," he said. "It’s kind of neat to see how it has grown and become a thing that people do recognize.”
Six of Hornrank's current top 10 are from Texas, including No. 5 Reagan and No. 6 Johnson. The website's No. 1 marching band in the nation this week is from Tarpon Springs, Florida, but at least half of the top 30 each week usually hail from Texas, Wooten said.
Ticket information for the Bands of America San Antonio Super Regional are available here, and tickets for the UIL State Marching Band Contest can be purchased at the Alamodome box office.