Marching band inspires pride, community support at BMR

Marching band inspires pride, community support at BMR

Faye Lucas, 14, of Blackstone, plays the flute during a performance by the Blackstone-Millville Regional High School Marching Band, at the school last Sunday. The performance was the culmination of more than 40 hours of intensive rehearsals at band camp this past week. (Valley Breeze photos by Bill Murphy)

BLACKSTONE - On a hot August day, a group of student percussionists stood on the Blackstone Millville Regional High School athletic field waiting for their next signal. They would stand for roughly eight hours, some carrying drums weighing up to 65 pounds.

On a grassy clearing in front of the school, the color guard section waved long batons - the flags would be added later on - in coordinated movements, with few breaks for rest. Now on their third day of long practice hours, the crew looked a bit fatigued, but most of the team was still smiling.

Meanwhile, a group of parents stocked a refreshment station with water, Gatorade, chips and other snacks by a shaded entrance to the school's basement. Another parent cut and stacked slices of watermelon.

Inside the school gymnasium, even more parents could be found at work sewing flags for the color guard. Some of the same parents would later fit the students into uniforms, then go to work hemming clothing items as needed. Some would also need to create ornamentation for the shakos - the tall, cylindrical military caps worn by band members.

It's all part of the "whatever it takes" attitude that goes into creating and supporting an award-winning team.

This is BMR Chargers Band Camp, and while the week-long event certainly includes its share of fun, it's also a lot of hard work for the 120 students and 40-plus parents who take part. Over six days, the Chargers log more than 45 hours practicing marching technique, instrumental and guard technique, music ensemble, section drills and visual formations.

And there's plenty of behind-the-scenes work that goes into making it happen.

"It's really amazing to watch how it all unfolds," said Cindy Jolicoeur, a member of the parent organization that not only funds, but also staffs the camp each year. "You're really a jack of all trades when you're a band parent."

At a time when the cost of marching bands makes the program unrealistic for many schools and grand performances at homecomings and parades seem to be a thing of the past, the BMR program is thriving, thanks in great part to the massive support it receives from the Blackstone and Millville communities. The students compete both regionally and nationally, and their long list of awards includes 27 consecutive gold medals from Massachusetts Instrumental Choral Conductors Association.

Last week, the kids prepared in earnest for their 2014-15 season, spending what might have been their lazy days of summer working to master their art.

"The kids work so hard and you really do see a transformation with their work ethic," Jolicoeur said.

Senior Samantha Hackenson, a clarinet player and one of the senior leaders of the band, attended her 5th band camp this year.

"It's a lot of hard work, but in the end, it really does pay off," Hackenson said. "I like learning all the stuff that we do because it will turn into a great show, and I love performing."

If the school's trophy case is any indication, the band has consistently put on such great shows since it was first formed in 1970. BMR's first band director, Thomas Hessney, is credited with establishing the band's tradition of excellence, and with attracting a high level of community support.

"He got the town to put a lot of interest into the potential of what this program could be, and it just never died," explained the school's current music director, Todd Shafer. "We have kids whose parents also marched in this program. It keeps the interest level really high and the support really high."

That interest extends well beyond the driveway of the school. When the students won the NESBA championships, they returned home find cheering fans waiting for them and off-duty fire and ambulance trucks lining the streets with lights and sirens blazing. The fire chief, who has a child who went through the program, had made some phone calls to surprise the kids. Parents say that such shows of support are not uncommon, and that students often return home to find neighbors waving and clapping on their front porches.

"It goes to the whole community because the community takes pride in having a group come from these two small towns that competes on a national level and has success," Shafer said.

At the conclusion of last year's season, the Chargers had not only won their 27th consecutive gold medal at MICCA, they placed first in the New England Scholastic Band Association Division 5 Championship and won first place in the Bands of America Regional Class A Championship in Towson, Md.

Their high-profile appearances over the years have included the National Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C., the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, and the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

This year, the band will compete with a performance titled "An Arabian Tale," set to the music "Scheherazade" by Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The piece was arranged by BMR Fine Arts Director Buddy Bibeault, who retired last year, and designed by Visual Caption Director Brian Murphy. The performance will be unveiled at the Chargers' first competition of the year, their home show, which will be held at Medway High School on Sept. 27.

Shafer said this year's performance puts more focus on showmanship and creating a visual experience with integration of props and body movements than shows of the past.

"It's more theater-based now, where it used to only be about musical integrity," said Shafer. "Now, music is just one part of it."

The same number will be performed at competitions throughout the year, but the band will strategically hold back a few tricks until later in the season, with a special ending that will be gradually added to their performance.

Around one quarter of the student body participates in marching band, and Shafer says it could never happen without the parent association. The group raised $60,000 for music programs at BMR this year, roughly doubling the district's regular funding.

"Compared to the size of the program, we get just enough to cover the very minimal requirements," said Shafer. "We really wouldn't be able to have this marching band without the parent support group."

While some districts charge students upwards of $1,000 just to get on the field, the active organization is able to keep the cost to the students down, with only a $140 starting fee that goes to the school.

For their part, the students earn the attention with both skill and an enormous time commitment. The band, which also includes some junior high students in 7th- and 8th-grades, is invitation-only.

"We look for kids who excel at their instrument and show a lot of interest," Shafer said.

For those who participate, it's an honor.

"I still remember when I was invited into the marching band. That was a big day for me," said Hackenson.

For many of the students, the commitment level extends to other activities throughout the year. Fifty percent of the students in marching band are also athletes, with 25 percent participating in fall sports. Thirty percent also participate in National Junior Honor Society and/or student government.

"Every day after school, they're in games and practices, and then two to three days a week they're in four-hour practices for marching band. They spend Saturday and Sunday traveling on buses to competitions," said Jolicoeur.

"I have no time," joked Arthur Knust Graichem, a freshman trumpet player. "When you're not in marching band, you're practicing."

Knust Graichem said that this year he'll also participate in drama club, jazz band, track, Boy Scouts and choir.

Another freshman trumpet player, Lily Jolicoeur, said she hopes to be on the varsity track and soccer teams, play basketball, and participate in jazz band and central districts. And she said she had no regrets over dedicating one of her last weeks of summer to marching band, which she said is as much fun as it is work.

"It's a very good balance," she said. "We work hard, and in the future, it pays off. And it's fun along the way doing the work."

Rebecca Rivard, 16, of Blackstone, front, a member of the Color Guard, performs with the Blackstone-Millville Regional High School Marching Band at the school last Sunday.
Joe Smith, 17, of Blackstone, plays the bass drum as the Blackstone-Millville Regional High School Marching Band performs its routine "An Arabian Tale" at the High School last Sunday.
Music Director Todd Shafer, of the Blackstone-Millville Regional High School Marching Band, smiles as he watches a performance by the band last Sunday.
Brittany Dwyer, 15, from Blackstone, plays the marimba as the Blackstone-Millville Regional High School Marching Band performs its routine "An Arabian Tale."


Many thanks so much to the Valley Breeze for coming to BMR High School to witness the magic of our marching band, and publishing this wonderful piece highlighting our talented kids and staff and dedicated community. It truly takes a village to pull of a program of this magnitude... thanks for being a part of it!