BIDDEFORD — When Micaiah Wert was asked to be drum major, she didn’t know what that meant.

She was in elementary school the last time Biddeford High School had a marching band. She had never even seen a marching band perform.

But here she was, nearly three months later, climbing up on the drum major stand to lead her own marching band through one final rehearsal before state finals.

“I’m going to be a mess on the way home,” the 17-year-old senior said.

Later that day, Wert would lead the band on the field for the final show of the first season for the Biddeford marching band after a 10-year hiatus. It felt like a triumphant return to many in the community, who remember the days when the large and loud Biddeford marching band was an integral part of the city’s Tiger Pride.

The Tiger marching band had a storied history, winning titles and playing in shows across the state. The band performed at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., and at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration.

But over time the band shrank from more than 100 members to barely a dozen, performing for the last time in 2009 before the program was cut. It’s a similar story to the one that’s played out in schools across Maine and the United States as student interest waned and school departments cut costly music programs.

Over the past decade there were occasional rumblings about the band returning, but nothing gained traction. Until this year, when community support – led by a mother and music teachers with fond memories of their own high school experiences – brought the music back.  

Band director Chris Ferrell said the first season – from summer band camp to competitions to football games – was a whirlwind as 33 students learned what it means to be a marching band.

“We’re a complete band of rookies,” he said.

BRINGING BACK THE BAND

Jessica Johnson sat in the stands at Waterhouse Field last year watching a football game with her son and found herself disappointed. Without a marching band, something was missing.

Johnson, who graduated from Biddeford in 2000, started playing the trumpet in fourth grade and by seventh grade had joined the high school marching band. It was there that she met her mentor and her lifelong friends.

“It really made me into the person I am today,” she said.

She didn’t want her own trumpet-playing son, Julian Truitt, to miss out on that experience. Johnson wrote a four-page letter about the band that landed in the hands of Jeremy Ray, who has been superintendent for eight years.

“One of the things I sensed was a huge loss for the community. A huge part of the Tiger Pride tradition was the marching band,” he said. “I would hear people talk about the great history and how it was sad it went away.”

Ray said he and the school committee saw the passion of the music teachers in the district, including Ferrell, who wanted to bring back the marching band and expand musical opportunities for their students. As Ray worked to find a way to make that happen, the school started a winter drumline that generated immediate excitement with student musicians.

“That really opened the door for the full band returning,” Ferrell said.

This year, the school committee included in the budget $40,000 for new uniforms, equipment, a trailer and staff to support the marching band, Ray said.

“We wanted to make sure we did it right for our kids,” he said.

Johnson helped raise another $1,200 for start-up costs by sewing old band uniforms into pillows, which sold for $50 each. She also sewed the color guard flags and became the band parent all the kids call Mom.

In August, a drum major, 27 musicians and five color guard members showed up for their first two-week band camp. None had marched in a show before and some were still learning to play instruments and twirl flags.

Katerina Warner, an 18-year-old senior, heard the band was coming back and was thinking of joining the color guard. Then she saw a set of tenor drums and asked percussion instructor Mike Murphy what they were. He told her to try them on and thoughts of color guard were gone. She joined the drumline.

“I had never played an instrument before,” Warner said. “But I thought it would be fun.”

And fun is what band members had as they learned to play while marching, or to pick their flags up and keep going after a mistake. They met after practices to give each other kudos, spontaneously burst into song and dance, and toted around their mascot, a toaster named Arnold.

Ferrell watched with pride as his band of rookies grew beyond everyone’s expectations.

“There have been moments throughout the season where you think it’s not going to work. Then all of a sudden it clicks for them and you see the joy on their faces,” he said. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of effort and a lot of time, but there’s nothing quite like taking something that starts as notes on a page and dots on a field and turning it into a live performance. There’s nothing like having music come alive.”

‘IT’S ALL YOURS’

The sun was high and bright in the sky over Waterhouse Field at noon on a Saturday, but it was winter cold on the field. The steady beat of the drum line warming up echoed through the quiet neighborhood.

Murphy, who is also the assistant band director, used to march with the band here in the early 1980s. Back then, he said, the band was impressive with nearly 100 members.

Murphy said it’s exciting to see a Biddeford band back on the field, but even more exciting to see the growth in his students.

“They had no idea what they were getting themselves into and they’ve really blossomed as musicians and people,” he said. “They’ve had to learn it all on their own. We couldn’t count on veterans to lead the rookies along.”

Near the sideline, color guard instructor Eric Desmarais led his “guard girls” through a sequence, their gold flags glinting in the sun.

“Five, six,” he called out. “Five, six, seven, eight and push.”

Arriana D’Eon sang in the choir and was looking for a new activity when she found the color guard. The 15-year-old sophomore said the band now feels like home and calls the other members her “icky band kid family.”

At the beginning of the season, she worried about disappointing people, but has learned to have fun while performing and move on when she makes a mistake. She performs a solo in the show, which challenged her to be less shy and more confident.

For 16-year-old Aiden Maliski, the percussion section leader, the marching band provided a chance to play different types of drums and find a passion he didn’t know he had.

“I’m always going to look back on this,” he said as he walked back to the field for the last run-through of the show before finals. “We made so many memories. I’m already excited for next season.”

After practice, the band gathered around visual designer and instructor Brandon Johnson, who stood on the bleachers above them, for a pep talk before they traveled by bus to their final show.

“This is all in your hands now. All year I’ve been saying that’s not what I wrote in my drill, that doesn’t look like my drill,'” he said, dropping his notebook to the ground in front of the band. “It’s all yours.”

‘ALL BECAUSE OF YOU’

Biddeford was the first band to arrive at Sanford High School for the Maine Band Director’s Association marching band finals. They’d be the second of 13 bands, including four from New Hampshire, to perform under the lights in Alumni Stadium.

This year, nine Maine marching bands competed in the MBDA’s circuit of shows. Two decades ago, twice that number performed, but over time schools cut programs as fewer students joined the band and districts tightened up their education budgets.

Schools that dropped marching band programs include Deering in Portland, Thornton Academy in Saco and Leavitt Area High School in Turner. But South Portland, Westbrook, Marshwood, Old Orchard Beach, Wells and Sanford are among the local high schools that still have thriving programs.

This year, about 650 students from Maine and New Hampshire performed in the finals.

Once a marching band folds, the music usually stops for good.

Dave Graichen, president of the MBDA and director of the Marshwood marching band, said it’s unusual to see a marching band program like Biddeford’s come back. But it’s encouraging, he said, to see a school administration so supportive of a music program and students excited to participate.

“We’d like to see more marching bands come back,” he said. “It would be great to see more students involved.”

For its first new season, the Biddeford band presented an eight-minute show, “Phoenix Rising,” featuring music by Randall D. Standridge.

“Being as we were resurrecting a band, we thought it would be fitting to use that piece,” Ferrell said.

In their warm-up area behind the school, band members unloaded their instruments and flags and pulled their jackets out of garment bags. The band’s new uniforms didn’t arrive in time for this season, so members used the classic orange and black uniforms worn by previous generations of students. Truitt, the trumpet player, wore the same uniform his mother used in high school.

At the edge of the parking lot, Desmarais sprayed each color guard member with glitter until they sparkled, then the girls stepped inside the equipment trailer for a quiet moment together. They held hands and squeezed gently, making a pulse as they reflected on their first season together.

“Thank you for making this season so good. I wouldn’t trade you for the world,” captain Camdyn Cote said. “You’re going to kill it out there tonight.”

And all of a sudden it was time. The band marched onto the field, the black plumes on their hats rustling in the breeze.

“Drum Major Michaiah Wert, is your band ready?” the announcer boomed over the loudspeaker.

Wert, dressed in a black tuxedo and orange bow tie, raised her white-gloved hands and brought her band to attention, then turned to salute the crowd. The crowd cheered as the first soloist stepped to the sideline and raised her horn.

At the top of the stands, the band instructors clapped and cheered as musicians moved across the field, hitting their marks and filling the stadium with music. Desmarais called “yes” over and over as the color guard flags arced through the sky in unison.

Eight minutes later, the band marched off the field, holding in their shrieks of excitement until they were back in their warm-up area. A teary and smiling Wert hugged her bandmates. She hoped this performance was the one where she’d earn a five-star drum major score.

“This is the last time we’re going to do this,” she said. “It made me motivated to do better.”

Wert would have to wait until all the other bands performed to find out her score. And the entire band would have to wait just a little longer to resurrect an old Biddeford band tradition: eating pickles after performances.

Later, with the band lined up behind her during full retreat – the awards ceremony after the show – Wert listened as the announcer read their scores: “Drum major, five stars. Color guard, four stars. Visual, four stars. Percussion, four stars. Music, four stars. General effect, four stars. Overall, four stars, a silver medal.”

Band members again held in their excitement until they were off the field, only melting into cheers and laughter once they were out of view of the crowd. They clinked their silver medals and huddled together for photos.

The drumline pulled pickles from jars, passing them to the rest of the band. With juice dripping down their fingers, they pushed into a circle, raised their pickles and started chanting.

“Da, da, da PICKLES,” they yelled, making an old tradition their own.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.