DETROIT — Standing together in the giant confines of Ford Field, performing for the final time after a long and enduring season, members of the Tri County Marching Band took one last collective breath.
There would be no do-over, no second chance, as for the first time in school history, the band was performing at the Michigan Competing Band Association (MCBA) State Finals.
With a cue from fellow drum major Lindsay Hornbacher, drum major Gracie Barrett played the first few notes of “Rhapsody in Blue” on her clarinet, as her solo filled the stadium with sound.
Under the lights of the domed stadium, at 8:15 a.m., her notes were soon accompanied by her fellow band members, and together, the students gave everything they had in their final performance of their “When I Grow Up” show.
“It was nerve-racking, honestly,” Hornbacher said. “I was really nervous that I was going to mess up.”
And sure enough, just moments into the show, Hornbacher’s fears came to light.
Following Barrett’s soothing notes, it wasn’t long before the band was no longer playing together, with members on one side of the field ahead of the beat, and the other half of the band falling behind, creating a “clash” between musical phrases.
But after three months of practices and performances and countless hours of preparing during evening rehearsals, the students weren’t about to come undone for good.
“We did fall apart a little in the beginning, but we came back together, and I think that was one of our best performances that we’ve done so far,” Hornbacher said. “I took a little break from conducting, and then we refocused.”
From that moment on, the band continued its performance, kicking off the competition Saturday among 12 high school marching bands in MCBA Flight IV, the division for schools with student populations of 680 or less.
Tri County Band Director Ryan Schultz, in his second full year as the director of the band, was proud that his students overcame the adversity so quickly.
“It took about 30 seconds and then they were able to pull it together,” he said. “After that, it was really a pretty strong performance. The kids were excited. There were a lot of wide eyes at the beginning, but once we got through the introduction, it was awesome.”
Once all 12 bands had competed on the day, the final scores were announced, with Tri County coming in 12th place with a score of 82.525.
But finishing in the last spot only serves as additional motivation for a program in just its second year of participating in the MCBA.
When he was hired as the band director, Schultz said it was his desire to enter the program into competitive marching, as opposed to competing for a ratings placement through the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association, which previous band director Howard Wilson had done with the program for 30 years.
“Growing up, I was heavily involved with Bands of America, coming from Illinois,” Schultz said. “Coming into Tri County, that was the direction I wanted to go. I wanted to get into the competitive circuit.”
Out of the gate, the growing pains were evident, as the band failed to qualify in the top 12 of Flight IV in its first year under Schultz’s direction.
“It’s been tough. Last year was probably the toughest,” he said. “The kids, they were used to a ‘show band’ type of show, and we changed all of that last year. That’s tough for some of the kids to get behind.”
But ‘get behind’ is exactly what his students did this year, resulting in the trip to Detroit as they qualified with a high enough score to compete at the State Finals.
“It was really pretty special, because they’ve never really done anything like this before,” Schultz said. “The kids, they were excited, but they had no preconception of what this was. They had no idea. This was a really great learning experience for them.”
As one of the 82-members in the band, Hornbacher said the experience was valuable for her and her fellow classmates.
“It’s been different. It’s been three months since band camp and there’s a lot more work involved,” she said. “But we’ve been enjoying the challenge. It’s fun to hang out and be in the band.”
As a senior, Hornbacher said performing at Ford Field was the ideal way to end a season.
“Of all the people I talked to, everyone was super excited that we get to go out with a bang, that in our last season, we get to do something amazing,” she said. “I’m proud, personally, and I think everyone else is, as well.”
Placing in the final spot, Hornbacher said she believes it’s only the start of greater things for the program.
“I think it shows everyone that we can do it,” she said. “Sure, there’s a lot of work involved, but we can do it. We focused on nothing but band while we were here.”
Schultz said moving forward, he’s confident the growing pains will continue to dissipate and the band program will only continue to grow.
“Coming back in future years, we now have kids who have done it before,” he said. “This year, they had a year under their belt, and our leadership was great. Everyone starts to buy into what you are trying to do.”
With parents and members of the community seated at the 50-yard line waving flags in support of the band, Schultz could see the program is heading in a good direction.
“At Tri County, we have great support, but it’s a pretty insulated community, which is awesome, but going forward, we want to look at doing other things, too, maybe even out of state,” he said. “From the pit crew to the parents in the stands, it was great to have so many Tri County people here. The parents were just as excited as the kids I think.”
With his students seated in the stands after their performance, taking in show after show from other bands, Schultz said the opportunity to travel to Detroit also helps in expanding the horizons of many of them.
“This really validates what they are doing,” he said. “Some of the kids, they realize … not only is band important, but the school is 100 percent behind the program. I’m lucky, because the school places a really high value on the arts.”