CHARLOTTESVILLE — The elation in Kiana Wilt’s eyes says it all.
The drum major of Eastern Hancock High School’s marching band beams when she thinks about what’s to come Saturday: the band’s first competition in nearly 20 years.
“My entire band career has been working up to this point,” said Wilt, a senior. “This has been a long time coming. It’s so cool we’re finally big enough to compete.”
EHHS will compete Saturday at Band Day at the Indiana State Fair, one of the most prestigious band competitions in the state. The band that was once known around the school as a hotbed for nerds is becoming cool again. It’s also strong enough to at least give a competition a shot.
They know they won’t win. In fact, they might not even place. But the sheer fact that they’ve improved the band program enough over the years to set foot on a competitive field is accomplishment enough.
“We’ve worked really really, very hard,” Wilt said.
Jitters abound among the 49 members of the marching band, who have practiced their show only for seven days. Band camp was last week, and after learning 22 marching sets and memorizing two songs, members say they’re excited to show off what they’ve got even if it isn’t polished to perfection just yet.
“It’s really exciting,” said Olivia Campbell, a sophomore flautist. “Of course, you feel nervous about it, because we’ve never done it before.”
Campbell hopes the band can at least place in the top 16 among the 40 at Saturday’s contest. But even if it doesn’t, Campbell said at least the band has earned a little more respect at the school.
“Not being viewed as geeky,” she says, is the prime reason for the band’s growth. It was as small as 15 members a few years ago, but the last two years, there’s been a big bump in underclassmen.
“It’s kind of been my goal since I got here to build the band up,” said director Dan Buckalew. “It’s hard to compete with 15 kids.”
Young and enthusiastic, Buckalew is one of the main reasons the program is earning respect and gaining members, students say.
Buckalew started work at Eastern Hancock fresh out of college in 2008. He was an elementary music teacher then. He started teaching high school band in 2009.
Since he still teaches at the elementary level, Buckalew is able to feed into the high school program by gaining momentum with young students. The students who loved him years ago are now old enough to march in high school.
“I don’t think kids are afraid to be in band anymore,” Buckalew said. “I’m trying to really maintain respect for band throughout the school.”
Saturday’s competition is free and open to any band. Prize money is available, and Buckalew says the experience itself will be valuable to the students.
In addition to their 10:44 a.m. performance, students will watch at least two other bands perform and write a paper about their experience.
Buckalew said many of the other bands have been practicing all summer, so it won’t be surprising if EH doesn’t place well. Next year, he says, they’ll have an extended two-week band camp to put a little more practice under their belts.
But some of the members are already walking, talking, eating and sleeping their performance. The songs – jazzy to highlight the large saxophone section – are catchy and are constantly in their heads.
“It’s gotten to the point where we all eat in time,” said freshman Shelby Wade, a member of the inaugural color guard team.
Four members have started the band’s color guard – another program Buckalew has wanted for years. Freshman Audrey Effing says the fact that they’re all new at spinning flags adds another layer of nerves to Saturday’s performance.
Junior Shyanne Badillo has one hope for their competition: “hopefully not last.”
“The experience is going to be the best part about it,” Wade added.
EHHS Principal David Pfaff said he’s proud of what the band has become in the past few years and is pleased that the negative perception of the program is fading away.
“The increase in the number of kids in the band program and the quality of the performance since he’s taken over has just been amazing,” Pfaff said. “There’s enough kids in it now that it’s very mainstream. It’s something we’re very proud of. Everyone knows what’s gone on here over the years and the changes he’s brought. The numbers in the middle school are strong, so it’ll just continue to grow.”
Strong support from parents has been another factor in the success of the band, Buckalew said. Many of the parents are more excited than the students because they remember competing when they were in high school.
Conducting the band in Saturday’s performance will be an honor, said Wilt, who is grateful for the friends she’s made in the program and the leadership skills she’s gained. She hopes that even after she graduates in the spring, the band will grow stronger.
“It’s starting to be cool again,” she said.
IF YOU GO:
What: State Fair Band Day
When: 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; Eastern Hancock’s band performs at 10:44 a.m.
Where: Hoosier Lottery Grandstand at the Indiana State Fair
Price: General admission into the fair ($10 for adults, children 5 and under free) plus $6 for adults for the band competition; $4 for children