People in band uniforms in formation, playing instruments (Courtesy of South Bend Tribune/Greg Swiercz)
A John Adams High School cheerleader plays the flute during the 2011 homecoming parade. (Courtesy of South Bend Tribune/Greg Swiercz)

This is the first of two articles about the role of secondary school activities in communities across America. The second story is about football.

If you ever find yourself on a Friday evening in autumn on treelined Sunnyside Avenue in South Bend, Indiana, an hour before sunset, well, your timing is perfect. Stand on the sidewalk and listen. Pretty soon, a deep, distant thump of drumming will confirm that it’s high school football season and the marching band is on its way.

Within moments, everyone in the neighborhood knows. Children burst from their front doors, leaving dinner unfinished on the table. Big family dogs on leashes haul their masters forward, and the oldest neighbors step out to see the band their own children played in once upon a time. Nearly every household on Sunnyside stirs as a hint of brassy melody rides high in the air above the beating drums.

Almost a mile away, the band has commenced its ritual march from John Adams High School down the middle of the neighborhood streets to the playing field we matter-of-fact Midwesterners long ago named “School Field.” All along the route, children secure good spots at the edge of the pavement.

Girl riding on man's shoulders (Courtesy of South Bend Tribune)
Adam Riggs enjoys a gripping moment with 3-year-old daughter Mackenzie. (Courtesy of South Bend Tribune)

Horns in harmony and drums in sharp unison grow louder and then louder still. Before the potatoes have gone cold on the dinner plates, the first rows of musicians round the corner onto Sunnyside. Adults pause their conversations, and the smallest child watches keenly from a mother’s or a father’s arms.

The band members march toward us in full uniform as they play. Their shoes are dark and formal, the navy blue pants sleekly tailored, the jackets blood red with dark blue epaulets and a dark sash that sweeps down from the shoulder. Their round navy hats have sharp brims.

The instruments are organized by rows. The woodwind players are such good citizens, up early every morning for band practice knowing that their flutes and clarinets will never be the stars of the marching band. Rows of proud, shiny trumpets and trombones follow, then the great bowl-mouthed tubas thumping out the bass line overhead, and the firecracker patter of the tom-tom drums. Twirlers pull bright, rippling flags in circles through the air.

The sidewalk crowd claps in rhythm with the band; big-eyed dreamers a few years too young for high school spontaneously march alongside. There will be no trouble recruiting the next generation of horn players and parents to drive them to early practices.

The band walks through the gates of School Field, drums pounding. John Adams fans fill the south bleachers tonight, and their opponents fill the north. Like serious sports fans the world around, students stand and cheer the entire length of the football game, even if the youngest ones haven’t learned the rules.

A well-thrown football slices through the air like a spear. Dropped on its nose, a ball bounces awkwardly this way and that. Play after play, in padded uniforms, young athletes gallop and crash into each other. When one team scores, the crowd in each bleacher roars its approval or dismay.

At halftime, while the athletes rest, the band marches out under the field lights. Lines of musicians sweep left and right across the field, while twirlers decorate the edges of formations with arcs of colorful fabric. Boosted by the drums and brass, music fills the bowl of School Field and spills out far into the neighborhood. No doubt some future trumpeter, currently wearing pajamas, listens at her bedroom window.

This essay is by freelance writer Ken Smith.