Hermann High School Band Director Ben Sachs just wrapped up his 2019 Bearcat Marching Brigade competition season bringing home multiple accolades and trophies. This type of success doesn’t just happen, so the Advertiser-Courier spent a little time talking to the maestro to learn more about his orchestrated alchemy—how a small school gets tangible results within tough competition.
This summer, the Brigade started rehearsing a new performance piece called Phoenix Rising, that portrays the birth, death and rebirth of a mythological bird. It’s a dramatic piece that relies on lots of percussion and is based on Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”
Critical first step—the music
It is critical for Mr. Sachs to choose the right music for his band. If the music is too challenging, the schedule and performance suffer and his students could become frustrated with him, their instruments and the group in general. If the music is too easy, the competition judges would quickly make comparisons with competition that has chosen to rise to the occasion with more challenging parts. Being the best and showing musicianship and teamwork skills through challenging music is the point of competition.
He is tasked with finding music for his 6th-grade through 12th-grade classes that fits his given talent within each age group.
“When you buy a show (performance music), they are listed by difficulty rating,” he explains. “I try to find something that’s challenging, even for the best players, but not unachievable. If we can play it in the first two weeks of band camp, perfectly, then it’s probably too easy.”
Depending on the show, he says the music isn’t necessarily balanced for each instrument group to play at the same level. The woodwinds, for instance, might have many more challenging parts than the brass section or vice versa.
“With this show, the percussion is definitely the most challenging,” he says.
He has to look at each musical part and match that up with his talent to get a grasp of the level of difficulty. If a horn player has a lot of high notes to play in one piece of music, will fatigue play a part in the performance when that musician has to play more pieces in the competition?
These are important considerations and it takes a band leader with experience to choose music that pushes students to be better musicians, but not cause their rehearsals and performances to fall into disarray with a poor musical show choice.
Another consideration is the number and types of instruments in the marching band. Hermann’s marching band is a small group, but they are diverse when it comes to the types of instruments represented.
“We do not have [the people for] a drum line, so I rewrote all of the drum line parts for a drum set, (played by Andrew Horstmann), so it can all be covered by one person. “So it was a matter of re-working the parts to fit the group we have.”
Ben says percussion used to be responsible for adding to the pulse of the music. He notes that while that is still true, the mallet instruments are much more in the front when balance of the audio is considered.
“I have them all mic’ed now so they don’t have to pound on them so hard [to be heard outside],” he explains. “This way, they can use the same [playing] technique throughout the year.
He adds, the role of percussion is expanded to add sound effects from a synthesizer that are triggered using an iPad.
One thing about the band many may not know, is there are three eighth-graders in the marching band this year, all on the percussion front line. Ben knew he needed to beef up this music section so he recruited a couple siblings of current band members.
Jackson Poehlman plays the alto saxophone in 8th grade, but plays bass drum, gong, and other accessory percussion instruments (sleigh bells, tambourine, bar chimes, triangle) in the marching show. Jackson is the brother of sophomore trombone player Hiram Poehlman.
Andrew McKinnon plays clarinet in 8th grade, but in the Brigade, he plays the suspended/crash cymbal and china cymbal in the marching show. Andrew is the brother of junior Matt Mckinnon, a flute player.
Brady Klohr is a percussionist who plays the vibraphone in Phoenix Rising.
Music by numbers
The number of musicians in a marching band can make a big difference. Too many players and it becomes harder to maintain instrument playing and marching discipline when performing routines. Too few and the music lacks punch. It’s the latter that might plague Hermann’s efforts when competing against larger schools.
“We’re working on that,” says Director Sachs. “Our numbers are going up a little every year. Our biggest disadvantage is not being able to have a drum line and a pit.”
In spite of this, he says they have a good reputation as performers.
“I’ve had multiple directors from giant schools come up to me and say, ‘How do you get your band to sound like that?’”
He notes that in large bands, as much as 30 percent of the band don’t play their instruments.
“So if you’ve got 20 trumpets in a big band, six of them aren’t doing anything,” he explained. “We don’t have the numbers, so everybody has to do their job to get the sound we have.”
The A-C tried to pin down Mr. Sachs about the secret sauce that seems to have the festival judges smiling.
He says they just like the way the band sounds and they way they march.
“There are usually two music judges, one looking at the repertoire—the music you picked—and one judges how you play it,” he explained.
He says there are also two judges for the visual aspects of the performance. One looks a the drills being performed and one studies the technique, such as the consistent (or inconsistent) way the players hold their instruments, the snap-coordination of the marchers. There is also a percussion judge, a color guard judge, a drum major judge and quite possibly a “general effect” judge, who oversees the aspects of the total performance.
Many schools will pay for a “drill designer,” someone that designs the marching scenes within a performance. Mr. Sachs says they don’t have that luxury, so he wrote the drills himself.
The band did have a percussion tech coach that came over from Washington to help with band camp.
“We would never have been able to pull off half of what we did this year without him,” he shared. “It was awesome.”
A touch of color
The color guard adds to the pageantry of the marchers. Mr. Sachs’ wife Ally works with the three members, Heidi Hingst, Tavis Harris and Larissa Hoelmer. The colors of the flags and the guard’s movements help tell the story in ways that couldn’t be told otherwise, as they move in and out between the drill lines of the marchers.
With band concert season quickly approaching, there isn’t much time for the musicians to catch their breath. The work that goes into a marching season production will probably not be missed.
“During marching season, the kids are playing more than they do the entire rest of the year,” he explained, “because we practice so much outside of class.”
He says this is the time to see serious improvements in individuals and the band as a whole. Mr. Sachs also says he’s glad when the marching season winds down, because it means they can start playing other music besides their competition show (“we’ve been playing the same song for three months.”).
He says the kids really like their new marching uniforms and those will soon be put away until next year. There is just a touch of melancholy.
“This has been a special year, I think,” he said.
On Saturday, October 19, the Hermann High School Bearcat Brigade finished their competitive season. At the McKendree University Small Band Marching Band Championships, the Bearcat Brigade received First Place in Class 2A, Outstanding Music, Outstanding Percussion, Outstanding Color guard, Outstanding Visuals, and Outstanding General Effect. The Bearcat Brigade placed 2nd overall out of 19 bands in Class 1A-5A. This concludes one of the most successful seasons in the HHS band’s history—Director Ben Sachs