My high school had an award-winning marching band. We would learn a new show each year — and although I stubbornly stayed on third part even into my senior year (I was not an award-winning clarinetist) my marching was solid. Although actually, because I played third part my playing was usually pretty solid too.
The best year was my first. We played The Rise & Fall of Rome, composed by a man who writes these things with marching bands in mind and they all kinda start to sound the same if you listen long enough. But, at least to me and the rest of the newbies, it was brand new and epic. I can still hum bits of it. I can still remember that bit in the second movement when the clarinet section’s arc to merged with the mellophone section’s arc, and we had to be very precise in order to avoid being whacked in the head by a brass horn.
Just about every weekend in the fall we would pile into several busses and road trip it to whatever show we were competing in that night. As one of the larger sized bands, it was almost always a nighttime performance, which leant a sort of crispness and sense of anticipation to the whole thing. Traditionally, our last show of the season was in Napa, and the thing about the Napa competition was that it was often rainy. Rain meant marching without feather plumes on our hats, and that the woodwinds had to practice with our instruments under our clear plastic rain ponchos much as possible so the water wouldn’t get into the pads. (I don’t know how the flutes and piccolos made due with that, to be honest. I’m also not sure, in a heavy enough downpour, how the sousaphone section didn’t drown.) At Napa my freshman year, it rained all day — all the way there, all through warm ups and rehearsals, and all through dinner and the pre-show pep talk. We had our ponchos on in preparation. And then, miraculously, when we lined up in the on-deck area during the tail end of band performance before ours, the rain stopped. The chaperones rushed through our ranks and files, collecting ponchos and handing the plumes back out.
Naturally, it started raining again as soon as we took the field.
But what followed was absolutely amazing. It wasn’t the rain made the field muddy, that was already a disaster area well before we arrived. I don’t know if anyone else about this or if it was just me, but it seems as though the rain made everything together. The entire show became one thing. The entire section, the entire band became one thing. The sets flowed together the way they were supposed to, like water. Muscle memory took over completely and I find myself actually watching my surroundings without having to consciously think about interacting with them.
Several of my sets took me towards the front center of the field, where the pit percussionists were stationed. These are the instruments that you can’t mount and put on a person, like a bass drum or a snare. The pit is full of timpani, chimes, xylophones. Sings on wheels. Big, chunky things that require mallets instead of sticks.
I remember very clearly as I passed by the pit and saw the water flying up from those big percussion instruments. Have you ever heard timpani drums played? They reverberating your bones like something you might not of actually heard but felt. They are wide and round and flat, and when struck in the rain they send spray impressively high in the air. I wasn’t thinking much at the time — I had entered a clear, calm sort of headspace that now I associate with meditation, despite all the physical activity and demands of marching in playing at the same time — but I thought about that water flying up from those drums.
I’ve seen plenty of water show since then. Have you ever been to Disneyland’s California Adventure and stuck around for the nighttime Worlds of Color show? It’s spectacular. But in a way even that will never impress me as much as what I saw one rainy night in Napa while I was still in high school.