Elberta High School Band Director Josh Cockrell tromps up and down the line of musicians. His face and hair is damp under the August sun. As he passes each student their expressions are a mix of exhaustion and glee.
Those who have experienced the heights and hell of high school band camp know that this is as tough and as glorious as it can get.
These are eight-hour days marching through the thick Alabama air. Feet ache. Instruments grow heavier with each minute. Stomachs turn. Heads pound.
But this is also the place where unbreakable bonds are forged. This is where the soul of the school’s most vociferous supporters comes to be baptized in the blood, sweat and tears of their dedication.
At Elberta High School, these band members are not following a time-honored tradition, they are creating it.
When Baldwin County’s newest high school opened its doors in the fall of 2017, it also opened its very first page of history. New traditions, new school mascots, and the newest Baldwin County marching band – the very first to represent Elberta.
These students will be the first to graduate. They will host the first prom and the first 20-year reunion.
This also means they have the first uniforms, the first truckload of band equipment and the first of hundreds of fundraisers to cover the cost of those items. After a year of dedication the tiny band still doesn’t have marching uniforms and much of the equipment is borrowed from other schools.
Even worse, sometimes being first means muffled expectations and even doubt. Many students say they’ve heard words of encouragement but they’ve also heard the hesitation in the voices of community members. This was year one, they shouldn’t worry about marching or competing like other bands, some naysayers told them.
They didn’t have to be good, they were told.
But by May the band not only performed at every halftime show, away and at home, they were far more than good. They brought home two superior ratings from regional competitions, the highest accolade they could earn.
The year brought exhaustion, pain and absolute victory. And on the very last day of the school year they walked out of class ready to do it again.
“It was tough but that just meant it took a little bit more skill to get through and we proved we have it,” said Nico Ahrens, ninth grade tenor saxophone player. “That’s all it takes. You don’t need millions of dollars to be a good band.”
The first step is the hardest
The beginning is the toughest, for any band member, Cockrell said. The transition from middle school to a high school band means more music, more memorization and more hours. Having no upperclassmen to lean on makes it even more difficult.
“It is a hard transition into a high school band setting without having an example from older students, which these kids did not have. A high school band anywhere puts in countless hours outside of the normal school day to work for a solid performance and to improve their skills. The amount of extra time was something that a large majority of the students were not accustomed to in the beginning,” Cockrell said.
“What can be said is that they have handled it phenomenally, and the proof of it is in how well they have performed in each venue throughout the year,” he said.
At an afternoon rehearsal last August the air was still stiff and sweltering. The 40 students lined up in a small practice field behind the school, their faces red, their hair wet and sticky.
Cockrell raises his head. He nods. The students play. His eyes dart to the left. Nope, stop. He reviews the notes with one student and helps an entire section change their marching pace.
Again, he nods. Sweat drips. The students play. Stop. Adjust.
In front of him the students manage as best as they can. Drip, wipe, play. Drip, wipe, play.
There is no well-oiled machine of teaching assistants and well-versed volunteers buzzing in the background yet. Instead, during breaks the students run inside to refill water bottles and duck out of the summer sun.
The group hustles excitedly to the parking lot when a band mom arrives with treats in tow.
Back on the line, single lines of music are played again and again until they are near perfection. Cockrell often joins the students in the formation to review foot movements and marching procedures until the steps becomes second nature.
His push to strive higher is what students say kept them going through the year.
“I wasn’t used to being pushed to be the best,” said Lindi Heeman, ninth grade alto saxophone player. “He gets us out of our shells. He teaches us that it’s ok to play your instrument alone and that no one is going to judge you. I learn something from him every day.”
Seventh grader Willow Chunn, on trombone, agreed.
“He gave us our inspiration, he kept driving us to do it,” she said.
Students say when the band isn’t in motion, Cockrell is there to see them through tough days too.
“When you’re having a bad day he’ll talk it out with you,” Heeman said. “I’ve had some of those and he’s always been there to talk to.”
This spring Cockrell’s dedication to his students was lauded when he received the teacher of the year award from Baldwin County Schools, an accolade he is quick to shy away from to focus on his students’ achievements.
“It is kind of difficult to describe the role that I see myself in. I try to allow myself to be whatever I need to be to help each one of the students. My main goal is to have them develop the same love and passion for music that I have, because it is life-long,” he said.
“Along with that, I really want all students to understand that whatever they want out of life requires hard work and dedication. I also want the students to know that the right thing is not always the popular thing, but the right thing is always worth doing,” Cockrell said.
Hard work. Check.
Worth doing? Absolutely.
One of Cockrell’s favorite first year memories was taking part in the annual Baldwin County Band Jamboree last September.
“They knew that they were the smallest band there that evening. If any of them were nervous, they bottled it, and they performed in front of every other marching band member from the entire county,” he said. “They played and performed great, and the crowd erupted when they took the field and when they finished. I am sure that made them proud of themselves. I was certainly proud of them for it.”
It’s a memory the kids cherish as well.
“We started marching and everyone in the crowd went wild. My adrenaline was rushing,” said ninth grade tuba player Joey White.
In that moment, the doubt that many adults in the community expressed over the band’s ability to perform melted away.
“We blew their socks off,” said Carissa Nelson, seventh grade tenor saxophone player. “We did so much to be on top of our game. I was surprised by how much people doubted us but we used that as a booster. And we did it.”
Cockrell said a new high school band generally builds for three years before tackling a halftime performance or competition. The community support, he said, was there but expectations were guarded.
“I believe that people were behind them all the way, but I am not sure that they were expecting them to turn up to perform the way they did this year,” he said.” The number one comment that I received after their first halftime performance this year had more to do with that people were impressed that they looked and sounded like a high school marching band.
“Our band did all of that exceptionally well from the beginning,” he said. “I know that the community and town of Elberta is very proud of them for all they have done this year”.
The energy carried them through competition season. The band competed at the Little-Big Horn Marching Band Contest hosted by Opp High School in Opp, Ala., and received a superior rating, the highest that can be earned.
They also brought home a superior rating from the White Sands Concert Band Festival held at Foley High School and received an excellent rating from the Alabama Bandmasters Association Music Performance Assessment in Mobile.
“It feels really good to show we can do it,” said Demmie Peck, eighth grade clarinet player. “Even though people think we’re just a little band, we can do it.”
The next step is harder
While most after-school clubs are accustomed to raising money, the Elberta High School Band has a mountain of fundraising to climb.
Most of the larger instruments are borrowed. They don’t have a band truck to carry any equipment. They don’t even have uniforms.
During an unseasonably cool football season the students huddled together in the stands under jackets and blankets to keep warm. When they took to the field, they stripped off their warm clothes and marched in tan pants and short sleeved polo shirts.
“We’re gonna freeze,” one student muttered as they headed out of the stands.
In addition to competition, local performances, half-time shows and extra practices, the band held a fundraiser nearly every month of the school year and has yet to put a noticeable dent in the nearly $150,000 the band needs.
The instrument list alone is numbing. Currently, the band is in need of an entire set of sousaphones (what tubas march with), about seven of them. The five they currently use are borrowed from other schools. They need new concert percussion (a new set of four timpani, auxiliary instruments, mallet instruments), more concert tubas and euphoniums, countless other instruments, field equipment like a drum major podium (they are currently borrowing one), guard equipment, and uniforms.
The sharp-looking marching uniform coats, just the coats, are estimated to cost roughly $20,000. Without a major donor, or massive community push, it may be years before the students take to the field in anything but matching polo shirts.
Still the students remain steadfast. Uniforms would be nice, they said, but the community they have built is what counts.
“Our band is a very welcoming place,” said Heeman. “That’s something I really love about our band.”
And no matter how much money they raise, they hope those who come after them look to the first members of the Elberta High School Band as a reminder to work hard, strive to be the best and remember what is really important.
“It doesn’t matter how much money we have or how many shiny instruments we buy,” said Nelson. “This is about the community we’ve built. We’re a family in here. I hope that’s never lost.”