What does teen spirit sound like?

On chilly Friday nights in the fall, you can hear them.

Maybe you’re hearing “Everytime We Touch,” by Cascada or “Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow, or even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The orchestrated sounds blast through the night air and into the hearts of football fans in the bleachers. 

The marching bands of the Midland Public Schools are a true force. Between H.H. Dow High and Midland High, there are 366 students. Hours of practice go into performing each half-time show at Midland’s high school football games. 

Between H.H. Dow High and Midland High, there are 366 students. (Crystal Gwizdala)“I ask them to be cheerfully cooperative and I try not to waste their time,” says Steve DeRees, Dow High band director. “Talk less, play more. … I was teasing the kids the other day that if a 60-year-old fat man can march better than them, then that’s pretty bad,” he adds, laughing.

DeRees has been teaching band for 38 years total, 27 at Dow High.

“I was excited to come here because it was a full music program with a band, an orchestra, a choir,” says DeRees. “... To have all three programs being so strong and well-supported is a great thing that Midland does.”

Eric Attard, Midland High’s band director, has been teaching band for 11 years. It’s his first year at Midland High. While math can be a difficult subject, Attard says that band is one of the most challenging subjects because a student’s “wrong answers, or incorrect notes,” can affect how well other students do.

Midland High's band plays on Oct. 22. (Crystal Gwizdala)“There’s a lot of dependence that everyone has on one another that it really is like a high-stakes situation during performances,” he says. “... I always tell my kids that your part in our song is like a puzzle piece, and you’re carving it out as you practice. And when we come together to rehearse, it’s putting all of our puzzle pieces together, and making sure they fit right.”

DeRees agrees.

“[You learn] how to work together with people who might have different skill levels or interest levels,” says DeRees. “… You have to work together with all those people to make a final product.”

Gone are the days of “band geeks”

Despite being rivals, H.H. Dow and Midland High's bands have a lot of fun together. (Crystal Gwizdala)“Our motto here (at Midland High) is the Chemic Band is the heart of Chemic pride,” says Attard. “It’s the heart of school spirit.”

Before every home game, the Chemic Band marches through the halls. The football, poms, and cheer teams all follow the band through the school, and students from the classes will come out to cheer the band on.

“It’s hard to describe sometimes,” says Attard, “but the band just provides this service and an outlet for people to take that mental break from the demands of other classes, or work pressure, or home pressure. It’s just like, ‘all right, let’s celebrate. The band is coming; let’s celebrate what’s happening right here, right now.’”

At Dow High, band students are just as celebrated and involved.

The H.H. Dow High band students celebrate their football team's victory over Midland High. (Crystal Gwizdala)“If you can think of an activity at school that somebody might be doing, you’ve probably got a band kid who does it,” says DeRees. At Dow’s homecoming game, a band student was named Homecoming Queen. 

Within the band, the students are a tight-knit group.

Saydee Davenport is a freshman at H.H. Dow High. (Crystal Gwizdala)"They’ve been working on some of these friendships since fifth grade,” says DeRees. “... It’s like a big family, an extended family. When they graduate, it’s a pretty melancholy moment when everybody is splitting up and going their own ways, and they know they might not see each other anymore. It’s pretty tough.”

DeRees isn’t the only one who describes the band as a family. 

“It’s kind of like a second family — like a team,” says Saydee Davenport, Dow High freshman and alto saxophone player. After “getting hyped and screaming” after Dow High’s football team beat Midland High on Oct. 22, Davenport says, “My voice is dead.”

Midland High’s band is just as thick as Dow’s.

“It’s just like a really large family,” says Attard. “You never really do feel alone when you’re inside the high school building. There’s a good chance you’re going to recognize someone from the band.”

The energy at Oct. 22's football game between Midland High and H.H. Dow was intense. (Crystal Gwizdala)“Our section is literally a family,” says Jolie Wing, Midland High senior and trombone section leader. “… There’s just so much love in the band. You just feel a part of this community, that I don’t know that I would feel if I was just another student in school.”

Jolie Wing is a senior at Midland High. (Crystal Gwizdala)Wing has been in band since fifth grade. She plays her father’s trombone, who played in college. Besides marching, Wing does concert band, symphonic band, jazz band, orchestra, swing dancing, and she’s been a barista at Live Oak for three years.

Attard feels most rewarded when he sees students realize they’ve performed well, after putting in so much practice, and at times, being their toughest critics.

“Seeing that reaction is awesome,” he says. “It’s that feeling — that you’re able to conquer something that was extremely hard.”

“I’ve had thousands and thousands of students, and I’ve loved every minute of it,” says DeRees. “Even the challenges,” he adds with a laugh. 

Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.