Henry Sibley’s ‘Little Marching Band That Could’ finds excellence in being small


Katie Lauer/Review • Members of the Henry Sibley Marching Band’s color guard took to the auditorium stage to work on flag-handling techniques and skills in preparation for the band’s trip to Washington, D.C., this summer. The band, successful in competitions despite its small size, was invited by Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Amy Klobuchar to represent Minnesota in the Independence Day Parade and is working to raise money to make the trip happen.

Katie Lauer/Review • Band director Amy Powers conducts the Henry Sibley Marching Band through its first read-through of its music for this summer’s performance program.

Katie Lauer/Review • For its first rehearsal, the drumline worked on marching and rhythm basics.

Band seeks help for trip to Washington, D.C., for July 4 parade.

 

Marching in sync to the beat of the center snare drum, last year you couldn’t tell which Henry Sibley Marching Band members were rookies or vets.

Competition judges — who were also looking for any misstep, error or confusion — couldn’t either. 

At just 58 members, but growing — most bands boast around 100 members — the Sibley band’s difficult task of precision can only be achieved with hundreds of hours of hard work and dedication.

Dubbed the “Little Marching Band That Could,” it’s beat out bands twice its size in competitions. 

Now it has the chance of a lifetime, having been invited by Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Amy Klobuchar to represent Minnesota in the Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C., this summer. 

No one would have predicted this six years ago. No one, except maybe band director Amy Powers, who’s leading the charge on fundraising to make the band’s trip to the U.S. Capitol a reality.

 

Making do with 32

“That first year, we had two trumpets and two trombones,” Powers said of her start with the band in the summer of 2013. “It was very hard to design winning shows for a group that small.”

Whereas other troupes combine diverse instrumentals and intricate marching routines for their performances, Powers and her team opted to get creative.  

“We had 32 kids when we started, so we had to be clever,” she said. “That’s our niche — we come up with unique themes. Now we’ll be able to make things memorable from a musical standpoint too, but when we were that small ...”

Some of those past unique themes included dancing with open water bottles and featuring vocal soloists — not typical high school marching band fare.

It worked, and they started to win.

“A lot of bands were mad, saying that we were so small that we were supposed to be insignificant,” senior tuba Mitch LaCroix said. “We used every little trick in the book. We did everything that the other bands didn’t, so that’s what set us apart.” 

That difference led the band to start defeating organizations four times its size, including the historically successful Waconia and Mankato Lancers bands. 

Since that first year, LaCroix said a high performance level has become the Henry Sibley band standard. 

“We’re all very similar in how we commit and how intense our rehearsals are now,” LaCroix said. “We all know how to do this.”

 

Financial hurdles

While Henry Sibley’s first obstacle was becoming good enough to play in D.C., Powers said the challenge now is simply getting there. 

“When we got the invitation, it was a very difficult decision,” Powers said. “Maybe 25 percent of my kids could do this [financially].”

The band started fundraising to help ease the financial burden. In total, the trip is a $91,000 effort. Since October, the band has raised $66,000 — Powers said it’s mainly come in the form of $100 checks from the community that she finds in her school mailbox.

“It’s been the most humbling thing of my life,” she said. “Every day it chokes me up, I can’t even believe it.”

However, while the reality of D.C. is in the back of many minds, it has never been at the forefront of what the marching band strives for as a whole. 

 

SUPPORT THE BAND: Donations to the Henry Sibley Marching Band to support its trip to perform in Washington, D.C., can be made online at www.henrysibleyband.org or by mailing a check payable to Henry Sibley Marching Arts to the Sibley Band Department, 1897 Delaware Ave. Mendota Heights, 55118.

 

Practice is in session

In the minutes before rehearsal starts, a cacophony of instruments fills the high school band hall: trumpets belt out their highest notes; clarinet reeds squeak with warm-ups; scales race up and down marimbas. 

But as soon as Powers gets on the podium, the room quiets and practice starts. When rehearsals last anywhere from one and a half to 12 hours, time is valuable.

“My staff and I, we didn’t care that they were small,” Powers said. “We were going to teach them like they were champions, and we expected them to rehearse like they were champions.”

In fact, the idea of easing into her new directing role was never an option.

“I’m a band director’s daughter, so I was raised in this environment,” Powers joked.

But even for younger members, including flute player Emily Inserra, that level of practice paid off.

“What surprised me was how we’d practice for so long and practice so diligently that performances weren’t really pressure,” the sophomore said. “You knew exactly what you were doing, and you trusted the people you were doing it with.”

 

Sense of family

That feeling of trust at Henry Sibley is intentionally built from the ground up, through the band’s own student leadership.

“We were a really close family because it was such a small group,” senior flutist Sophia Barnard said of her first years marching. “It felt like there were no upper or lower classmen. Everyone mattered so much because you had so few people.”

She said the smaller numbers allowed for tighter connections and closer role models to be made. Now a co-conductor herself, Barnard is in one of the leadership positions she admired. 

“Early on, I knew I wanted to be a leader,” she said. “When I was a freshman, we actually did have someone conducting us, and I really looked up to her.”

Powers tells her students that in their first year, they give nothing and receive 100 percent of the success. Over the years, they add more and more, ultimately giving everything they have to the band. 

Senior tuba Daniel “Buddy” Rundquist said the final year is the most rewarding, as older students motivate by example.

“We had to work twice as hard to be better in the beginning,” Rundquist said. “We, as seniors and vets, try to show that with how hard we practice now, even from the first rehearsal.”

Students would come into practice with the mindset that judges weren’t going to like them and would spot every mistake since they were such a small band.

“Powers always says it feels good to be good, and you really feel that in the later rehearsals,” Rundquist said. “But that’s the hard part about it — the payoff is so late. You compete for the first time and then you realize, yes, we are good and it feels good to be at that level.”

 

Bringing joy and accessibility

The concept of accessibility is a staple in Powers’ band room. 

Since the beginning, providing every student the opportunity to study with a professional musician — paid for by the Sibley band and its boosters — has been her goal.

Now, 88 percent of the program is taking private lessons. 

“That makes our program accessible to all and gives every kid an equal opportunity,” Powers said. “What does it say to a kid when you say, ‘You can have this, no questions asked about you or your background?’ It sends an incredible message to them when you say, ‘We are investing in you.’”

Some bands strive for success by winning competitions and taking big trips, but Powers always strives for more: joy.

“D.C. is a great honor,” she says, “but it is not who we are. It is just a thing that is highlighting something cool that is happening. We’re focusing on what’s happening on the inside.”

“That’s something that — every single day — I answer to.”


 

– Katie Lauer can be reached at klauer@lillienews.com.

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