‘The epitome of school spirit’: Alaska high schools embrace marching bands

Students in red jackets march and play instruments on a football field (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)
Kian Watkins, Bjorn van der Goore, and Lukaz San Juan perform in Anchorage with the Bettye Davis East T-Birds marching band at the East High Football field during a game against Bartlett on Sept. 30, 2023 (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)

The Battle of the Boot — a football game between Bartlett and Bettye Davis East in Anchorage — is tied 6-6 at halftime on a recent Saturday. The temperature is starting to drop, but the T-Bird marching band is just warming up. 

Luke Emerson is up front, conducting his peers in the band as the drum major. Emerson is a senior at East who plays three instruments and has been in the band program since he started high school. When the school started offering marching band last year, Emerson joined reluctantly. Now, Emerson hopes to continue marching in college next year. 

“I’ve just always loved music. It’s what I want to do, like all my life, and being the drum major is just a lot of fun,” Emerson said. “I never first intended to march at all, but I’ve really loved it and it’s just a ton of fun, and I definitely want to continue doing it.”

Marching bands are a staple at high school and college football games across the Lower 48. In Alaska though, only a few schools have them — mostly in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. But in the last few years, at least two schools beyond the borough have started marching bands, and enthusiasts hope it’s just the beginning of a marching band renaissance in the state.

A man with curly brown hair raises his hands to conduct a marching band in the bleachers of the football game between Bettye Davis East High and Bartlett on Sept. 30, 2023 (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)
Drum major Luke Emerson conducts the Bettye Davis East High marching band in the bleachers of the football game between East and Bartlett on Sept. 30, 2023 (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)

One sign of that renaissance was the number of schools that competed in Colony High School’s marching band invitational last month. There were five, including East, tying the record for the number of bands participating. 

In Palmer, Colony has had a marching band, called Thee Northern Sound, for nearly 20 years. The band has played at the Rose Bowl, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, a presidential inauguration, and even in France. However, schools without a robust marching band tradition have struggled to gain interest. Instruments and uniforms are expensive, and convincing high school students to walk and play at the same time when it’s cold outside can be a daunting task.

“They may not start super excited,” Alaska School Activities Association Assistant Director of Music Barb Carroll said. “But once they get started and they’re on the field, there’s that teamwork and camaraderie.”

Carroll started a marching band at Palmer High School when she taught there in 2018. She said part of the reason marching bands are catching on now is that teachers with southern roots are moving to the state. 

“When you get them out to the football field, the fans love it,” Carroll said. “It’s a whole new experience for the fans, a whole new experience for the kids. You know, Friday night lights isn’t just about football, it’s about band. It’s about school spirit and school pride, and these marching bands are the epitome of school spirit, which is awesome.”

Students in red jackets march and play instruments at Bettye Davis East High School on Sept. 30, 2023 (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)
The Bettye Davis East High Band marching performs during halftime at the East High Football field on Sept. 30, 2023 (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)

Jamin Burton started Thee Northern Sound in 2005, and has directed the band ever since. He said for many of those years, Colony was performing as a solo act. A former student of Burton’s started the second marching band in the state at Houston in 2017, followed by Palmer, Redington and Wasilla the next year. 

“I think we do a disservice to students educationally and musically when we don’t offer it,” Burton said. “I think that we have shown that it’s not too cold, it’s not too wet, the geography is not too big, you can do it, you just have to want to do it bad enough, and you have to want to provide that opportunity for students.”

Kenai Central then added the Kenai Peninsula’s first marching band in 2021. In Anchorage, East started its marching band in 2022. Burton and Carroll are hopeful more schools join the fun. 

Remnants of marching bands past are visible in old East High yearbooks from the 1970’s, which show a T-Bird band marching in the Fur Rendezvous parade. East’s current band has grown quickly, adding over a dozen students to the group that now stands at 45 students. East Band Director Heather Capshaw came to the school from Texas last year. She said she hopes marching band will provide opportunities for students to continue playing music beyond high school.

“The ultimate reason that I wanted my kids here to do it is because so many of my kids in Texas got scholarships for it, and I mean big scholarships,” Capshaw said. “So I wanted the East kids, my kids, to have the same opportunities that my Texas kids did, and that marching element seemed like the other half of music education that they needed.”

A marching band in matching red jackets sits in the bleachers of a football game between Bettye Davis East High and Bartlett on Sept. 30, 2023 (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)
Band Director Heather Capshaw and drum major Luke Emerson stand in front of the Bettye Davis East High marching band in the bleachers at the football game between Bartlett and East on Sept. 30, 2023 (Shiri Segal/Alaska Public Media)

During the football game the T-Bird marching band sits at the end of the home bleachers playing familiar tunes, including a song from the locally-grown Grammy-award winning Portugal. The Man. At halftime, the band lines up on the far side of the field and marches toward the home fans, playing a song called Aztec Fire while the various sections of instruments move around the field in formation.

Francis Rojas is a junior at East who leads the alto saxophone section.

“The hardest part was coming out and performing it because like with the footwork and all that stuff, it’s way harder than just playing it, you know sitting down with your stand and playing it. So that whole process probably took us like a few months,” Rojas said.

Rojas said during the game, the band feeds off the energy from the football team, and vice versa. 

“I used to play football, so I see them, I know all of them. I see them as almost like my brothers right?” Rojas said. “So whenever they go and score or something, I get super hyped up. I started playing, playing as loud as I can, playing as much as I can.”

Near the end of the football game, Capshaw prepared her students to play DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win” as the T-Birds hung on to a slim lead. Then, the band watched in horror as Bartlett marched down the field, seemingly toward victory. At the last second, an interception sealed the game for East. The crowd — and the band — went wild. 

Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at trockey@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8487. Read more about Tim here

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