Saturday will be an historic day in South Carolina, and area high school marching bands have Billy Joel to thank.
The Palmetto State will host its first ever Bands of America regional championship — if Hurricane Michael rains don’t interfere — at Gaffney High School. Typically the event plays out at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. But this year, the piano man took the stage instead.
“Wake Forest University booked Billy Joel at BB&T Stadium on Oct. 13,” said Martin Dickey, director of the seven-time state champion Nation Ford High School marching band. “This happens from time to time across the country so it is not unusual.”
What is unusual is a regional event so close to home. Of 24 competing bands, 13 are from South Carolina, including defending champion Fort Mill, Nation Ford, Clover, Rock Hill and York high schools.
“A lot of South Carolina bands that have never been before are going with it being so close,” said Douglas Brooks, York band director. “This will be the best competition most of us will see all year. This is probably going to be the best panel we see, the best adjudication we see.“
Fort Mill has been to several regional and national events, last year placing third in its class and 19th overall in the country.
“We are no strangers to the big show,” said Ren Patel, interim director at Fort Mill High. “We welcome the heavy competition. I think we are inspired by really good band programs.”
Nation Ford will be performing at its second regional in as many weekends. The band placed third with outstanding visual performance and tied for outstanding music performance among bands from five states at an Oct. 6 competition in Alabama.
York finished ninth at the North Carolina regional last year, making it through preliminaries.
“Our first time that we ever went we made finals, and that was a big deal for our program,” Brooks said. “We’re hoping to do that again.”
Nine York, Lancaster or Chester county schools have won state marching band championships, most with multiple wins.
Five schools have won three or more state championships in a row, a total of nine times. Several of them across multiple classes, sometimes even within the same run of titles.
*Titles span multiple classifications **Titles span multiple classifications and include Festival Format in 1984
Those results are despite past years when not all the top schools competed, for instance in recent years when Fort Mill skipped state competitions because of regional date conflicts.
▪ Only twice since 1976 did no schools from York, Lancaster or Chester counties win a state title in 1988 and 2006.
▪ For nine years, either Fort Mill or Nation Ford — or both — won a title.
▪ Nation Ford has won seven titles in 11 years of existence since 2007.
▪ From 1989 to 2003, two schools won 3A state titles. Fort Mill won 10. York won five.
▪ Since 2003, only six schools have won a 4A title. Four of them — Fort Mill, Clover, Northwestern and Nation Ford — are from York County.
Marching to titles
The BandBEAT Marching Band Championships Oct. 6 at District 3 Stadium in Rock Hill featured 16 competing bands, with host South Pointe High School marching in exhibition.
Fort Mill won overall and took first in its classification. Northwestern finished first in its class, one division smaller than Fort Mill, and finished third overall.
“It was certainly a positive one,” said Mark Yost, Northwestern band director. “It’s a younger band for us this year. We only have 17 seniors, which is about half of what we normally have.”
Andrew Jackson and Lewisville high schools both performed in the smallest classification, with Andrew Jackson taking second place.
Other schools went a different route. York and Rock Hill high schools opted to compete that weekend on the road at the Bands of America Reservation Tournament of Champions in Gaffney. York finished second overall out of 21 bands, and first in its division. Rock Hill finished second in the same division, and seventh overall.
Chester High School and York Preparatory Academy also performed.
Area bands have competed in large and small events this season, which leaders say, is key to taking on state or national competitions.
“They’re capable of a much stronger performance yet,” Yost said of Northwestern’s band. “Getting this first-real-competition jitters out of the way, and we got some great feedback from the adjudicators on what we need to do to make it better.”
Putting on a show
If listening to a marching band performance is a treat, listening to the description of one can be an adventure.
“With Greek mythology as a background, the story develops from the underworld and the river Styx,” said Dickey, describing the Nation Ford show “From the Other Side.” “Charon, represented as a hideous demon, is the ferryman that helps souls cross the river to the afterlife.”
Throughout history, Dickey said, there have been tales and myths of the afterlife. So his band put it to music.
“Is it heaven, is it reincarnation, or is it death?” Dickey said. “The audience gets to decide.”
York’s “Do You Mind?” also is thought-provoking. It explores the brain.
“It’s all about the logical side and the creative side of the brain, the left and the right,” Brooks said. “We portray that musically and visually.”
Fort Mill’s “Birds of Paradise Lost” show is whatever the audience makes of it.
“On the surface, if you’re watching it and you’re not really paying that much attention to what’s going on,” Patel said, “the idea is, it’s a bird show.”
It’s also a mash-up of architecture and epic poetry, remnants of civilization turned to ruins, an aviary takeover of Mayan, Tibetan and Greek structures as nature reclaims human territory.
“If you’re watching from top to bottom, it’s a bigger story,” Patel said.
Shows run from simple to abstract, orchestral to modern pop. Marching band events pick winners, but are more about the artistry, leaders say.
“It’s really not about the competition with a particular school as much as it is with the student themselves, to see how strong and great we can make this eight-and-a-half minute production,” Yost said.
The competition isn’t so much standing across a football field as it is standing all around band members once the drum majors lift their hands.
“We just want to be better than we were last week,” Brooks said.
Directors also use shows to introduce students and audiences to new music, literature or history. They use show themes to inspire.
“We have such talented students,” Patel said. “We force ourselves to perform shows with deeper meaning. We’ve turned marching band into an art form.”
Strength in numbers
Ask area band directors why programs here are so strong, and it isn’t their first time fielding the question.
“A lot of people statewide wonder that,” Brooks said. “And I’m not sure what the answer is. It’s hard to say, but York County has always had a rich history of very good band programs.”
Some point to Carolina Crown, the Fort-Mill based drum corps that works with school programs. Some talk of talented directors and motivated students. Many point to school leadership.
“We are very fortunate to live in an area where the school administrations have made it a priority, the arts programs as a whole,” Yost said.
Support breeds strong programs and strong programs, tradition, he said.
“Families, they kind of expect and they know what the traditions are,” Yost said. “They expect that the bands are going to be solid.”
Patel sees one constant among championship Fort Mill bands.
“If we had to choose what’s been the common denominator, there’s only been one thing,” he said. “And that’s the students. They are the hardest working students you can find.”
If area bands show out Saturday, in their home state for the first time at an event on scale with Bands of America, they’ll be able to add another reason.
“We can thank him,” Brooks said.