“Back in the day,” when Jon Waters arrived at Heidelberg to re-create a respectable Marching Band, the task seemed daunting.
“I walked into that first rehearsal to 12 dazed sets of eyes looking back at me and thought, ‘Oh my goodness,’” he recalls. He turned to Pat Page, the long-time administrative assistant for the School of Music & Theatre, and inquired about the band instrument inventory. “We had literally nothing more than old drums in the basement that were unplayable and no marching instruments.” And there was no sheet music for the Heidelberg fight song or the alma mater.
But Jon – along with a core of nine seniors who have stuck with him since that first year – never stopped believing in the possibilities. The band has grown from “22 on a good day” in the fall of 2016 to 75 this year. In addition to growth in numbers, the quality of their performances, their sound and their showmanship have improved dramatically. And the seniors have embraced the leadership opportunities Jon has offered them.
Senior trumpet player Megan Gwirtz knew she’d have to remain with the band for her music major and planned career. But she had a lot of trepidation “back in the day.” “I wondered if I would survive,” she said. She not only survived but thrived.
“I don’t think I knew what the end goal was. But after this year, it’s rewarding to see how far we’ve come and the serious potential to leave something memorable,” Megan said.
The final half-time show of this season will be Saturday – the swan song for the seniors and a memorable day for Jon, too. In a show of appreciation for buying into his bold ideas, for their hard work and growth personally and musically, he has turned over all elements of the half-time show to them.
Senior flute player Maia Brower, the band’s vice president, said the seniors have selected the music for the half-time show, with the theme, “Iconic Queens of Music.” They’re writing the drills, leading rehearsals and will conduct the entire show, which will also include a tribute to veterans on Military Appreciation Day.
“We’re trying to convince him (Jon) to play with us,” Maia said. And he just might!
It’ll be one last chance for Jon to watch his seniors shine – and for them to make him proud. “He’s an amazing conductor,” Maia said. “He pulls things from us we thought we couldn’t do. When he challenges us, it always seems too much – until we do it.”
Megan remembers arriving at band camp her freshman year “and seeing this random compilation of people” there to begin rehearsals. Although so much has changed, one thing has remained: Jon’s ability to help them reach their full potential.
“He gave us one of his rousing motivational speeches,” Megan said, “and from there, we really just focused on always improving.”
Jon is quick to give credit to the students for investing in his ideas and working hard. But he knew he had to walk a fine line that first year. “I knew I couldn’t push too hard,” he said. “Expectations were low, but I was impatient.”
Soon enough, the band had people wanting to write music for them. Jon’s good friend, Lisa Galvin, composed an arrangement for the fight song and the alma mater, as well as a fanfare for the band’s entrance.
It was the emergence of a new culture, one in which everyone’s voice is heard and valued. “That’s one of the things I love about our group. You can’t tell the freshmen from the seniors. It’s very collaborative, very open, very encouraging,” Jon said. “It’s nice to be a part of that and to have helped to build that culture.”
And to build good people. “Our students leave here with leadership experiences unlike any other organization,” he added. “One of the best things we have going is the senior leadership that’s passed on to the next class. It’s a good experience for everyone.”
Strike Up the Band
Jon borrowed instruments from old friends to get by in those early years. The students moaned and groaned when he involved them in fund-raising activities early on. That’s when the highly successful Strike Up the Band campaign was launched.
The campaign raised more than $550,000 from alumni and friends to purchase uniforms and instruments and establish an endowment for the Marching and Symphonic bands. Campaign funds also were designated to purchase supplies to enhance half-time shows. And for other band initiatives.
“When we saw the support and love we had, that really helped give us passion. Everyone wanted to see us continue to succeed and continue to grow,” Megan said.
The show goes on
In Jon’s very first half-time show, the band formed a simple arc on the field and played five songs. Fast forward to today, and the band has become a source of pride on campus. They look fabulous in their uniforms. They sound even better, and their creative half-time shows are becoming legendary.
This year, a full color guard and a drum line have been added. Drum major Marques Johnson has brought energy and personality to the performances, not to mention those awesome back-bends at midfield. And then there’s the script “H,” which has quickly become a ’Berg tradition.
With its growing size, the band has outgrown its corner of the stands at Hoernemann Stadium, moving to a more prominent place in the west end zone.
They have found strength in numbers, which has allowed Jon to work with the band to memorize their music, making them more visually aware of their placement on the field. “That has really cleaned up our look, along with our marching, spacing and precision,” he said. “The students have taken to the memorization really well.”
In reality, they’ve risen to every challenge he has thrown at them. “I continue to be impressed with their work ethic and dedication. They’ve really bought into what we’re trying to do and that’s to establish a tradition of excellence. It’s fun to be a part of it.”
On their way to 100
When he arrived, Jon said he’d love to have an ensemble that topped 100 members. Now, that seems like a realistic goal. “But that’s not a cap,” he said. Today, Heidelberg’s band is the second largest in the OAC. With at least half of its members who are non-music majors, it’s one of the largest student organizations on campus.
“On one hand I am not surprised, because I know hard work pays off. But I am surprised how far we’ve come in such a short period of time. … It’s easy to take a good band and make them pre-eminent. But it’s much harder to make something from nothing,” Jon said. “I’m much more proud of this band.”
Audiences – including the band alumni band which returns annually during Homecoming – are impressed by their progress, too. Going forward, the sky’s the limit. The band has made a name for itself in the community, among high schools (think prospective students!) as well as on campus.
Current students will come to realize that they helped to create something really special, and Megan can’t wait for that day.
“That’s my biggest dream … to break 100. That would be phenomenal,” she said. “I want to come back and see the band better than I ever thought it would be. I just hope it continues to grow.”