DOWNERS GROVE – From his perch atop an aluminum ladder, Alex Rivera sees everything.
The drill instructor for the Downers Grove North High School marching band, Rivera looks across the school’s football field and can spot practically any misstep.
On a recent sunny, somewhat humid afternoon, the 200-member marching band worked on pregame and halftime routines. No instruments required. Instead, musicians moved to the sound of a metronome amplified by sideline speakers.
If a line isn’t straight, Rivera spots it. If timing is off, he notices. If movement from one spot on the field to another isn’t crisp and clean, he corrects it.
Band members consult an application on their cellphones that illustrates their location on the field as well as the movements required during a routine. This is the second year the band has used the app, which replaces cumbersome paper illustrations.
Rivera steps down from the ladder and walks through the formation. He wrote the routine and knows how it must be executed. He relies on repetition, constructive criticism and encouragement to achieve success.
Welcome to band camp. An intense, weeklong introduction to the marching band season.
“I think it’s about everybody coming together as a unit,” Rivera said. “It’s learning how to come together as one.”
Make no mistake, band camp is hard work. When the band takes the field for the first time Sept. 1, it will put on a performance that was more than 100 hours in the making.
Musicians participate in a morning session that runs from 8 a.m. until noon. After a 90-minute lunch, they reconvene for two hours to review the music that will be performed at the football games. After a dinner break, they return at 6 p.m. for a three-hour session on the field.
Despite the long hours, band members enjoy the experience.
“It’s a huge commitment, but it’s worth it,” said Abigail Bowers, one of the three drum majors.
Director Bill Miller said the camp relies on building blocks to prepare the band for routines.
“We start with how do you stand at attention,” said Miller, who is clad in a University of Illinois cap and T-shirt. The Downers Grove South graduate was a member of the Marching Illini and has taught at Downers Grove North for 23 years.
Once proper posture is perfected, the band works on marching, turning and timing. No detail is too small. The way musicians position their feet or turn their heads must be perfected.
“We do a lot of teaching,” said Aidan Purcell, a junior drum major.
Purcell said much of his time is spent helping freshmen get acclimated to the program.
“It’s really rewarding to see the transition,” said Purcell, a Downers Grove resident. “We really encourage them to get involved.”
Purcell said trading his clarinet for a baton was tough.
“It’s difficult to be on the opposite side of the field,” he said.
During performances, Purcell and his fellow drum majors are in charge of the band’s beat, timing, volume and entrance, he said.
But band camp is about much more that practice and preparation, Bowers said.
“Band camp is where a lot of bonding happens,” the junior said.
Band members are a family, Bowers added. Camaraderie and cohesiveness are cultivated during theme nights designed to help students get to know one another. Band members dress up in silly costumes depending on the theme.
“It makes you comfortable with the people around you,” Bowers, a Woodridge resident, said.
Drum majors serve as a conduit between the directors and the band.
“We help each other out,” Bowers said.
Moments later, she spots a sunburned bandmate in the hallway and asks if he’s applied a sufficient amount of sunscreen.
“There’s a lot of responsibility with being a drum major,” she said.
Miller said he relies on the drum majors to reinforce his instructions to the band, but also counts on them for advice. If he’s being too demanding or not pushing hard enough, he wants the drum majors to let him know, he said.
Emily Blanchard is the veteran, beginning her second year as a drum major. The senior embraces the role – one that she set her sights on from the moment she joined the band.
“The first day I walked into band camp freshman year, I saw a drum major and said, ‘I want that,’” Blanchard said. “I like doing the leadership stuff. It’s just my personality type. I can connect with people because I’ve been in their shoes.”
“It [involves] a lot of proactive stuff,” the Downers Grove resident added. “We try to solve as many problems as we can on our own.”