PORTSMOUTH — As high school band director, Ted Rausch is prepared for any crisis that comes his way.
Take sophomore Ryan Lee’s emergency during a break in band camp Friday.
“Um, how do you get red syrup off a saxophone?” asked Ryan, shortly after treating himself to some ice cream and toppings that had been donated to the band by Frosty Freez in Middletown.
“Take a napkin,” Mr. Rausch advised.
“But this is after I wiped it. It’s sticky.”
“Then use a wet napkin,” replied the band director.
Problem solved. Now back to the music.
As they do every August, members of the marching band have been gathering at the high school over the past two weeks to work out the kinks, learn new songs and drill charts and help freshmen distinguish their left feet from their right.
The band is coming off a big year in which it represented Rhode Island in the Presidential Inaugural Parade before taking a cruise out of Miami. This year, things will be someone more low-key.
“There’s no big trip looming over us like the Bermuda cruise,” said Mr. Rausch. “We’re going to work on a smaller trip — maybe New York City or something like that.”
Band members have taken the news in stride. “We can’t have big trips year after year,” said band member Kyle Wentzel.
Still, the senior is excited about this year, especially the band’s “Star Wars” theme for upcoming field shows.
“It’s something that Mr. Rausch has been trying to do for a long, long time,” said Kyle. “And most of the music is out of print, so they’ve been working all summer trying to get this music. Plus, just looking at some of the drill charts that we have, it looks really impressive with some of the effects they have with us moving across the field. They’re actually have us make a Darth Vader mask.”
As for the biggest challenge of marching band, Kyle said it’s probably just marching in a parade block, “just keeping that straight line and keeping the straight lines on the field for the shows. Memorizing is also kind of tricky.”
One thing’s for sure this year: The band isn’t lacking in numbers.
“The band this year has been the largest that I’ve ever seen. We’ve got 178 right now. When I started it was 65 and it just kind of slowly increased,” said Mr. Rausch, noting that the middle school has a strong music program and that he tries to meet with even younger students to get them interested in pursuing music. “I try to do as much as I can in the district to promote the music program like visiting the elementary schools. I try to create an environment where the kids feel safe, a place where they fit and belong. I don’t lose a lot of kids each year going from freshman to sophomore to junior to senior year. They stay on and want to come back.”
A rite of passage at band camp over the past 16 years has been the march-off, a contest in which students are tested on how well they follow simple drill commands — “forward march,” “about face,” “right flank,” “mark time” (march in place), etc. — while an electronic metronome keeps time.
“We are going to keep doing the march-off until we have one person standing,” said Mr. Rausch, who will repeat the contest for parents on Wednesday, Aug. 21. “If someone taps you on the shoulder, you move to the sideline — no arguing.”
As the contest goes on, tensions rise as more students drop out and the electronic rhythms get faster and faster. After a tight battle, the last one standing Friday was Sawyer Nichols, who took home a band shirt as his prize.
“Last year I did pretty well, but didn’t win it,” said Sawyer, adding that “keeping your head clear and just focusing on what he says” is the key to success in a march-off.
It’s too early to tell what kind of pranksters Mr. Rausch has on his hands this year, but he expects he’ll be the target of more practical jokes delivered by his students.
“That started years ago on a New York trip, where they collected soda cans and built a soda can wall. From there they’ve done everything from moving my car and calling me down with the principal — saying there was a drinking problem — to decorating my room with piñatas,” he said.
Last year, two band members pretended to get “married” on the Bermuda cruise ship. A flabbergasted Mr. Rausch entered the “ceremony” while the scene was videotaped for prosperity.
Students have even been known to pop in at the band director’s home, like a group of boys did back in March. It didn’t matter that it was a holiday.
“We’re all ‘Walking Dead’ fans and they wanted to come over and watch the season finale,” said Mr. Rausch. “I said, ‘But it’s Easter Sunday, guys.’ Sure enough, at 9 o’clock at night they showed up with two bags of chips and a case of Mountain Dew.”
To help support the PHS music program or to learn more about the Portsmouth Music Boosters, visit www.portsmouthmusicboosters.org.