Rival high school marching bands combine to survive

Six trombones
High school art departments have faced slashed budgets for years, but two former rival marching bands found a innovative way to survive.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

They all knew the melody: Rural schools are finding it increasingly difficult to keep quality marching band programs going in the face of tight budgets.

What they didn't know was the harmony: Could two high schools combine their marching bands when they've been long-time rivals and prided themselves on their distinct traditions?

Or, as Yellow Medicine East music instructor Nicole Boelter laughingly put it: "We did our own things in our own quirky ways."

Now they do it as the 212 Regiment Marching Band.

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The Montevideo and YME high schools joined their marching band programs in May only to discover more harmony than either expected.

"A really nice sound," said Montevideo music and band director Ronald Stary of the first time he heard the music produced by the 93 newly joined students.

Boelter said they were just as happy to see how easily the students made friends and put aside longtime rivalries. No small matter considering that even the flag bearers came as arch rivals from the two schools' highly competitive dance line teams, Stary pointed out.

The 212 Marching Band rushed to the streets for the summer parade season only a few weeks after being created. Stary and Boelter said they heard from many who were surprised that a band so recently combined could produce the sound it did.

The greatest compliment was just heard earlier this month: The band is invited to perform for the 2010 Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C.

The 212 Regiment Marching Band is believed to be one of only a handful of paired high school marching bands in the state. There are others, but the more common trend seems to be for high school marching bands to end on a flat note when budget cuts become the theme song.

Tim Diem, director of the University of Minnesota marching band, said he is not aware of any statistics on the matter. But he said the word-of-mouth around the state is that the number of marching bands is on the decline. It is part of what he calls a worrisome decline in the offerings of music education in general.

Music education is expensive, and marching band is among the more costly of the opportunities that schools can offer, Stary said.

Yet the idea to join the two rival programs came not from number crunchers in the two Minnesota River valley schools. It came largely from the students.

Stary said his son Adam initially brought it up to him. He and Boelter began talking. They gathered student leaders from the two schools. The students met several different times to hash over the issues and come up with a name.

"212 Regiment" won everyone's favor. "It just rung," said Stary.

The merger probably saved marching band as an offering for YME students, according to Boelter.

But she and Stary said the more important motivation for joining the two is that it maintains a quality program for all of the students.

Well aware of the costs and challenges they faced, both instructors said they initially were hoping to do no more than launch the joint program in May. They would have settled for T-shirts as uniforms if necessary, said Stary.

Not the students, who had far bigger aspirations. They wanted uniforms. The instructors scoured the Internet for bargains and scored a real deal downstream in Mankato. They purchased their sharp, red, white and black uniforms at a cost of $10 per student as compared to the $200 to $300 new sets would cost.

Parents pitched in to help sew and hem the uniforms in time for the marching season. Stary said one mother would drive her band member to practices and sewed on patches while she waited.

The instructors said parents and friends of music groups in both districts are just as passionate about supporting the venture as are the students. They are looking forward to the coming year and hope the success and excitement may entice more students to be part of marching band.

As for the two instructors, they too found it easy to combine efforts, even though both definitely brought different sets of talents to the band. By their own admissions, Stary is the more creative and Boelter the more organized of the two.

One tune carried the day. "We have the same heart for it," said Boelter


Information from: Willmar West Central Tribune