Dartmouth High School’s marching band bound for its first Grand Nationals

Aug 27, 2023

For the first time in Dartmouth High history, the school’s marching band will trek to Indianapolis in November for the Bands of America Grand National Championships at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

“When we announced we were going, I think everybody was shocked,” said Music Director Ian Flint. “It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. They might be the band that gets to do this — and that might be the one time.”

Dartmouth typically competes at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey at the smaller USBands National Championships, where they have won 11 times, including six titles just since 2016. Bands of America is a larger, more competitive circuit and hosts its championships in Indianapolis every year. 

The band gained some confidence last year after winning the regional Bands of America competition, a precursor to Grand Nationals, even as the smallest band in the finals with 92 members. It was the first time Dartmouth even opted to participate. 

“We had a small senior class last year — we only graduated a handful of kids, so we have a very veteran group, a very experienced group coming back this year,” Flint said. “We just felt it was time; we’ve talked about it for 15 years now.”

‘We’ve never done anything quite to this scale’

Going to Grand Nationals will mean more than just a 16-hour bus ride — the school will face a higher level of competition than ever before. 

The competition pits all sizes of schools against each other, meaning Dartmouth could wind up facing schools with four to five times its student population.

“These are their varsity marching bands: some of those schools … only have sophomores to seniors in their marching band,” Flint said. “We have 7th through 12th graders.”

Last year’s winner was Carmel High School from Indiana, which enrolls 5,300 students. Dartmouth High enrolled just over 1,000 students last year. 

“We’ve never actually done anything quite to this scale,” said senior Elliot Dion, who plays quads, a set of four drums. “We don’t know when this could happen again, so that kind of makes us feel almost more special.”

Senior Thomas Jansen, who plays in the tuba section, said the band will need to prepare for the level of competition they’ll face at Grand Nationals, the likes of which they haven’t seen locally. To him, that also means a more enjoyable year.

“I know for a fact that, before I’ve even started the season, this is going to be my favorite season,” Jansen said.

The competition starts with 100 teams, then narrows down to 36, then finally to 12 for the finals. 

“The stadium for grand nationals is a very big one and being able to experience it with these people will be very nice,” said senior Jesse Walker, who performs in the band’s color guard. 

November will not be Walker’s first time in the stadium, as he competed with Drum Corps International in Indianapolis over the summer, but performing in the stadium with Dartmouth students “has been a dream,” he said.

“I feel like my biggest challenge is not treating the season like my last,” Walker said. “Expecting perfection every time.”

The sounds of street art

A special year demands a special show. Dartmouth’s 2023 performance is about street art — specifically, the art of Banksy. The music is a modern take on the orchestral piece “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky, but the traditional arrangement has been modified with “hip-hop themes” and “urban sounds,” Flint said. 

“Doing something about modern street art, it just connects with students on a different level,” Flint said. “And it’s the art of their time: for students today, Banksy’s as modern art as it gets.”

The band tries to switch up the sound and style of the show every year so that students get a completely different experience. Last year’s “Forgotten” featured a western theme, “Thorns and Petals” took inspiration from Moulin Rouge! and Seal, and “The Witching Hour” incorporated spooky, supernatural sounds.

“We’re not a big group, so to be entertaining, we have to think outside the box a little bit,” Flint said.

The band is still learning the new show, but Walker said students are excited about the performance, and he gets a “good energy” from it. 

“I feel like the show’s definitely unique compared to our past marching band shows, but I think it’s definitely … going in the right direction,” Walker said. “I feel like it’s definitely going to be an audience pleaser as well.”

“The music’s really challenging, which should be fun,” said senior Calvin Higgins, who plays snare drum.

‘A sense of urgency’

For the next three months, preparation will be key, but Flint said students are excited about the challenge.

“There’s a motivation behind going to Grand Nationals,” Flint said. “There’s a sense of urgency. [The students] don’t want to be good in a month, they want to be good today.”

The band is currently in band camp from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. three days a week. Each section practices for 3 hours at a time.

“The show’s going great, we’re further ahead than we’ve ever been,” Flint said.

Going to Indianapolis will likely be a one-time event, as the 16-hour bus ride is not an easy one to make. Because the band tries to keep costs of membership for students low, they will need to drum up some extra fundraising this year to even make the trip happen, Flint said. 

The band’s weekly pledge drive will begin soon, where students will ask for a $20 or more donation from fans.

The band will perform for the first time this year at Dartmouth High School’s opening football game on Sept. 8, where Dartmouth will face off against cross-town rivals Bishop Stang.