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Marching to their own drummers

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2010

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MILTON — Fans of the revived Milton High School Wildcats Marching Band will get to hear its 50-plus members blast out the contrasting sounds of “Sweet Caroline’’ and “Bad Romance’’ one more time this football season at a pep rally the day before the Thanksgiving game. The band’s directors anticipate a big crowd.

It’s been more than 20 years since Milton fielded a marching band, and the reception has been wildly positive, according to band leaders Rebecca Damiani and Gary Good.

“It’s been pretty amazing,’’ Damiani said. “We’ve had adults whose kids marched in the band 20 or 30 years ago come back to watch our half-time show. It adds a lot of excitement to have a band fully participating and marching.

“It’s a symbol of school pride and community pride,’’ she said.

Milton had a marching band until the late 1980s, when student enthusiasm flagged and the administration pulled the plug on the program.

“The kids at the time just kind of lost interest in putting in the extra time,’’ said Noreen Diamond Burdett, who has been director of fine and applied arts at the school since 1985. “They were doing competitions, doing home and away games; it demanded a lot of extra time.’’

The school switched to a less formal pep band that played in the stands at home games. The change worked well, she said, but recently a few students started asking about starting a marching band.

Damiani and Good, who teach instrumental music at the high school, had grown up playing in marching bands — Damiani on saxophone at Wakefield High School and Good on tuba in high school and college in Ohio.

They realized that marching bands were more a Southern and Midwestern high school tradition — only one other town, Needham, in Milton’s athletic league has one.

But they were eager to try it, anyway. “We thought it was the next step in building a band program,’’ Damiani said.

Richard Rigolini, president of the New England Scholastic Band Association, said pep bands are more common than full marching bands in Massachusetts, although high schools in Wrentham, Dartmouth, and Reading have outstanding marching units.

Dedham, Norwood, Marshfield, Plymouth, Stoughton, and Weymouth also have high school marching bands that competed in the association’s annual championships last month, he said.

“It’s a whole different ballgame in places like the South and Texas, where they actually support the program as part of the curriculum and the state provides’’ money, Rigolini said. “Here it’s mostly supported by band parents, and maybe a mayor who used to be in the band. For a town to start one up, that’s very unique. Good for them.’’

“The time seemed right to bring it back,’’ Burdett said.

The teachers worked out a choreographed routine over the summer — complete with interweaving lines of players and a color guard, composed mostly of girls from the chorus, waving flags. The music: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance’’ and Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe.’’

Good found the old marching band uniforms, with their tall fur hats, in a closet, but quickly decided against using them. “They were falling apart and had an awful smell,’’ Good said.

Instead the music department spent part of its equipment fund to buy inexpensive warm-up suit uniforms — black pants and red jackets with white stripes on the arms and legs — which students could buy or rent.

But the band took whatever instruments it could find.

“We used stuff that hadn’t been used in 30 years,’’ Good said. “We had a 30-year-old sousaphone; we were putting gum and tape on it to keep it from leaking.’’

Superintendent Mary Gormley put in a plug for the marching band in her fall newsletter to parents, asking for donations for the resurrection of what she called “a powerful symbol of community pride and tradition.’’ Good said he received several tambourines and, from a parent of a Milton marching band alumnus, a set of old but serviceable percussion bells.

A local barbershop also made the marching band its monthly charity, he said. All the donations were welcome additions to a group that practiced in school during seventh period and essentially has no budget.

The band debuted at the Sept. 11 home football game and has played at every home game since.

“At first it was a hard sell’’ to the majority of the band students, Good said. “Kids looked at us, and said, ‘You want us to do what?’ There was a little negativity in the beginning, but they really got into it. Now we’re this polished marching unit.’’

He said the football team has gotten into the marching band spirit, as well. When seniors on the football team were honored with flowers on Senior Night, seniors in the marching band received bouquets, too.

And when the marching band performed for the last home game — forming a tunnel for the football team to run through as members were introduced — Burdett said the energy was electrifying.

“I truly was standing up and shouting, with so many other people shouting all around me, that the next day my throat hurt,’’ she said.

Band members decided they wanted to play once more this season. They’ll perform at the pep rally in the high school field house on Wednesday.

Good and Damiani say they’re already getting ready for next year’s football season.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.

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