By J. Wilson
Free Press Editor
“Everything we do, do with conviction. Treat this practice like it’s a performance.”
The sun is up, but barely, and instrumental music instructor Justin Von Ahsen doles out last minute instructions from atop the bleachers at the Southwest Valley (SWV) High School football field.
Von Ahsen’s marching band rose early and met at the high school band room at 7 a.m. to collect their instruments. Not everyone arrived on time, and the stragglers toted doughnuts and drinks to fuel their rehearsal. Behind the scenes, these early morning band practices are a fall ritual that will play out for over two months, an unsung avenue to parade and halftime entertainment for the public at large. And Von Ahsen and his student-musicians didn’t wait until school started on Aug. 18 to begin. To be prepared for their first halftime performance on Aug. 29, the melody makers assembled for band camp July 28 through Aug. 5.
Working on both parade marching and field marching, the Timberwolf band spends an extra hour each morning before school starts to prepare a season’s worth of performances, which includes five home football games, three parades, the Southwest Iowa Band Jamboree and the culmination of their hard work, the Iowa High School Music Association (IHSMA) State Competition in Treynor on Oct. 18.
It takes dedication to put in all the extra hours, especially early morning hours that seem contrary to the body clocks of so many teenagers. So far this year, Von Ahsen’s pleased with the band’s progress. “They’ve been working hard for me,” he said. “They’re buying into what I’m selling.”
In addition to musical aptitude and entertaining public performances, Von Ahsen’s selling commitment, teamwork, coordination, spatial skills, confidence and increased cognitive abilities.
The musicians are paying their dues, and satisfaction is a bonus they may not have realized was on the offing. Pleased with his career path, Von Ahsen’s living proof of the joys music can bring to one’s life—and they are joys that don’t end with high school. He still performs for pleasure, gigging in a jazz combo with his old college comrades.
Active in band and athletics, Von Ahsen grew up in Belle Plaine in eastern Iowa before attending Central College in Pella. He graduated in 2011 with a BA in Music Education and then obtained a Graduate Teaching Assistantship at Truman State University, where he focused coursework on trumpet performance and music theory while teaching freshman classes. After a few semesters, Von Ahsen was eager to switch gears and teach high school band. The trumpet-playing teacher began substitute teaching until Southwest Valley’s band director positioned opened up for the 2013-14 school year.
Parade marching is a standard skill, Von Ahsen explained, whereas field marching takes it to a higher level, with the musicians employing “cool visuals with their horns swinging around, marching backwards and to the side,” he said. “There’s a lot more visual [appeal] and showy techniques that are used in a field drill show versus a parade march.”
Pulling together a new program each year requires hours of practice, reiteration of fundamental skills, and—for the freshmen—learning a whole new language. The “drill” is all mapped out on paper, giving the musicians a view of their movements in much the same way football or basketball players would analyze and learn new plays. Von Ahsen says that reading the choreography can take time to learn, but soon, even the freshmen are fluent in the expectations for movement on the field.
The fundamentals that Von Ahsen works on with his musicians include upper body carriage, which includes good posture coupled with holding instruments firm and facing the crowd—no matter which direction the musicians are marching—and roll stepping, a marching technique that competition judges are keen to see executed properly and in time with the music as well as in unison with the rest of the band. “Thankfully, I have a really good set of juniors and seniors that help the freshmen and sophomores to step in time and use proper marching technique if they need help,” Von Ahsen said.
With a year under his belt at SWV, Von Ahsen found—despite heavy rains, which have interrupted practice time—speedy progress with this year’s program compared to his first year on the job. Familiarity has smoothed the working relationship for all involved. “The kids are starting to know how I operate,” he said.
Von Ahsen’s program choice has also been a motivator. As if chosen to speak directly to the musicians’ parents, this year’s program is titled “The Best of Queen,” and its 1970s-era classic rock sound will resonate with football fans and parade-goers of a wide age range.
Von Ahsen noted seeing a marching band last year that built a Led Zeppelin tribute show. “That was the catalyst for this year’s show,” Von Ahsen said. “Zeppelin is probably my favorite band of all time, so I thought we should step away from what we did last year and do something that they could really grasp onto and get behind.”
Whereas last year’s show was a jazz-influenced “core” style show, the band director sought a fun change, with more contemporary music that the kids can easily connect with. The choice was met with cheers, and preparation for this year’s performance has gone well.
To assist him during rehearsal and to take the helm during parades and field performances, Von Ahsen selected junior Beth Herzberg as the 2014 drum major. For that role, Von Ahsen sought a student leader who was musically proficient and able to act as his assistant and an ombudsman between the band and him. “When we do parade marching, she is completely in charge,” he said. “I just walk alongside, and if I see a drummer drop a stick, I pick it up. When we’re in a parade or a field competition, the band is hers.”
With seven talented candidates trying out for the position, Von Ahsen found the choice a difficult one.
Five weeks into the school year, the band is becoming increasingly proficient, gaining endurance and picking up new pieces to the program much more quickly than what was possible during the shaky days of band camp. “We learned the drill for the second song in three days,” Von Ahsen said. “I anticipate that we’ll have the third song ready within a week.”
With “We Will Rock You” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” under control, the Marching Timberwolves have turned their attention to the final piece, “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
But the early mornings are weighing on them. “Rehearsals start to wear them down, and morale can dip,” said Von Ahsen, who tries to be mindful and switch gears to take the pressure off.
The band director possesses his own challenges. Marching band season is time consuming, and this cuts into prep time for the classes he teaches as well as the time he can spend with his wife. Though rehearsal starts at 7 a.m., parents drop their kids off at school early so they can get to work. This dictates that Von Ahsen arrive at the band room by 6:15 a.m. “That starts to wear on me a tiny bit,” he said.
Behind schedule due to rainy weather conditions, but with a few halftime performances and successful parade marches at Prescott’s Septemberfest and Creston’s Balloon Days, the pressure is on to master the full show in time for the Sept. 26 homecoming game. “The other morning I worked them really hard to get the second tune on the field, and I thought they were going to hate me, but at the end of the rehearsal, they asked me if they could do it one more time,” said Von Ahsen.
Despite the lack of sleep and hard work, the payoff is the performance itself. This year’s first parade march went well, and early season halftime shows have offered opportunities to work out the kinks before a supportive audience.
“Initially, they’re not big fans of early morning, but they see the value in it,” said Von Ahsen. “They’re just tired high schoolers.”
In some cases, they are tired high schoolers who also juggle sports, family and part-time jobs and still have the wherewithal to commit two months of intense work, often leaving and returning from home under the cover of a darkened sky.
Each year, they work harder and harder, and each year, the judges grow tougher.
The criteria for judging has risen over the years, said Von Ahsen. “They’re not handing I-ratings out like candy anymore. I’m really hoping to get a I-rating this year. Our marching technique is tenfold better than it was last year. The kids are playing at a much higher level than they were last year. And so I have very high hopes.”
As the band makes last minute adjustments in time for the Southwest Valley High School homecoming celebration, which brings both a parade and halftime performance on Friday, Von Ahsen finds not only optimism for their final test—the state competition in October, but also for the future of the band.
“The program’s going in a good direction,” he said. Numbers, especially at the middle school, are going up. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive administration than what I have. They understand what we do. They’re supportive of it. And they give us the amenities that we need to do what it is that we do.”
The Marching Timberwolves have worked hard to pay back the administration’s trust in their activities at a time when funding for the arts can be in danger of disappearing. With dedication and more than a few early mornings on the practice field, the musicians representing Southwest Valley will reap real world benefits of playing with conviction long after their high school performances are over.
For more information, follow the band at Facebook.com/southwestvalleymusic