High school marching bands compete at Tacoma Dome

For high school marching bands, Saturday was the big time.

Nineteen bands from three states — nearly 2,500 musicians in all — competed in the cavernous Tacoma Dome for the Bands of America Regional Championship.

“It’s not a place for beginners,” said Joe Carl, director of the 185-member Sumner High School Band. “We’ve been working all year for this.”

Saturday’s competition was divided into two heats: daytime preliminaries and evening finals. In the preliminary rounds, from 10 a.m.-4 p.m, each band had just 15 minutes to hustle into the Dome, play its set and hustle back out again.

By noon, with 19 bands crisscrossing the parking lots with trombones, marimbas, glockenspiels and drums, accompanied by hundreds of players running through warm-up riffs at top volume, the energy level was well up into the molto agitato range.

The tension was high enough that Justin Ehli, director of the Peninsula High School band from Purdy, took time to lead his 90 members in a calming breathing exercise before they marched into the Dome for their performance of music from Disneyland’s Fantasmic show.

“Breathe in for four and out for four,” Ehli said, snapping his fingers over his head to set the tempo. “Now in two, out six.”

Peninsula High School was designated the host school for the competition, so it had extra duties.

“We’ve got a ton of parents here,” said Ian Carr, president of Peninsula’s band booster organization. “Bands of America asked us if we could host it, and we had an emergency meeting to vote on it. We said we’d love to.”

Fifty Peninsula parents spent the day directing bus traffic, selling programs, setting up staging and directing bands to where they needed to be. Afterward, they cleaned up. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Carr said. “This is such a fantastic opportunity for these kids.”

Saturday’s competition was one of 18 regional events sponsored and organized by Bands of America, which is part of a national nonprofit organization called Music for All, based in Indianapolis.

A Grand National Championship for 104 bands will be held in Indianapolis in November, but Music for All events coordinator Laura Blake said the regional competitions do not serve as qualifiers for the national event.

“Any band that wants to can come,” she said. “We do all of this for fun and to provide opportunities to the students. Our goal is to create positive life-changing experiences for everybody involved.”

At Saturday’s Regional Championship, bands were separated into categories based on enrollment and judged on, among other things, individual and group music performance and individual and group marching ability. The judging criteria also included a loose category called “general effect.”