The Spirit of Madison high school marching band took to the field last week and members were looking sharp.
"We had everybody in new uniforms -- jackets, pants, gauntlets, hats, plumes," said high school band director Nicole Decker with characteristic enthusiasm.
She was pleased with the effect.
"I think they look amazing. They look very clean, very sharp," she said, making special note of the three white lines across the body of the jacket.
The band performed the first movement of this year's competition show on Thursday night at the 4th annual Ag Bowl and again on Friday night when the Madison Bulldogs took on the Dakota Valley Panthers at Trojan Field.
The performances were the first since band members learned the routine at a two-week camp which started on July 29. Normally, they would introduce the competition show to parents at the end of camp, but they were rained out this year.
Decker said the band is performing an original score by John Fannin for the second year in a row. However, this year's show will demand more of the audience, because it's abstract. The show is titled "Bent."
"It's fun. It's upbeat. It's challenging for the kids," she said.
She feels the band is ready for the challenge. When she started four years ago, the high school marching band included 54 members. Since that time, the band has grown 40%. This year, 76 band members will take the field for shows and competitions.
In addition to increasing the size of the band, Decker has worked to foster leadership within the ranks and a sense of camaraderie among band members. During the summer months, this was seen in the way section leaders took responsibility for holding "sectionals" -- small group rehearsals -- to begin working on the competition piece.
"They're the ones in charge of organizing them," Decker noted.
By doing this, section leaders helped their peers prepare for band camp. When students got together following the summer break, they weren't starting from scratch. They were familiar with the music and ready to pull the parts together under Decker's leadership.
She said she begins selecting the competition piece early in the year. By April, she's made a decision, ordered the music and obtained the rights to perform it. By mid-May, she's distributed the music to band members.
"I always play a recording when I first pick the show," she said, explaining how members can prepare without knowing the full score.
Decker describes "Bent" as contemporary classical. The show includes two soloists -- Amy Hoph on alto saxophone and Callie Frantzen on flute.
"It's a complete change from what people expect a marching band to do," Decker said.
Normally, the brass instruments get showcased in a marching band. By choosing wind instruments for the solos, Decker said the show piece has "a different texture."
Frantzen, who normally plays tenor sax in the marching band, will be switching instruments for the solo. Decker said she is pleased with her soloists but didn't limit the auditions to wind instruments.
"I opened the solos up to anyone who wanted to audition," Decker said.
In addition to performing at home games, the band will enter six competitions this fall. Decker's personal goal is to have the band bring home more first-place awards this year.
Last year, the band placed first at the Quad State Marching Band Competition at the University of South Dakota and missed first by 0.1 point at the Tri-State Band Festival in Luverne, Minn. The judges and the way bands are classified can make a difference, she explained.
Some competitions are based on band size, others on school size. Changes made in response to feedback from one judge could draw criticism from another judge. Decker doesn't see these as barriers, though, just challenges.
"I'm just excited for this year. I think we have a good bunch of kids," she said.
On Sept. 14, the band will perform its competition show at 8 p.m. at Trojan Field. "Under the Lights" is free and open to the public. Decker said the show will last less than an hour.