“Remember, to be early is to be on time.”
It’s one of the first rules students of the Castle High School Marching Knights learn when they start camp at the beginning of June. The phrase is included in the first entry on the band’s website, written by one of the band’s directors Tom Dean. It’s just one example of the discipline required and shown by the students of the program.
“I spend probably a good 85 to 90 percent of my life here just with band and guard,” says senior and four-year Color Guard member Shelby Groves.
The dedication of the members over the years has reflected in their performances and competition finishes. Days and nights spent practicing music and marching drill has translated into top finishes at state and national level competitions since the early 1980s. The Marching Knights have qualified for Indiana State Finals 24 times in the school’s history. It’s a long tradition of excellence, says Dean (a 1984 Castle High School graduate), who directs the program along with Mark Eifler (a 1975 CHS graduate).
The life of the Castle Marching Knights includes giving up their summers and many of their school nights to rehearse; they do it eagerly to be a part of one of the largest bands in Southern Indiana. Castle’s program has 230 students for the 2015 season, competing in Class A in Indiana State School Music Association competitions and going toe to toe with the big bands of high schools in Indianapolis and Northern Indiana. Not only do they compete against these bands, they have a history of finishing well against them.
“We’re not only the largest band in this area, but also the largest single organization in the high school,” says Dean.
A glance at their accolades over the years shows consistent results in ISSMA competitions and fall invitationals. Castle claimed grand champion awards at the Evansville Central, Evansville North, and South Spencer invitationals last season. At last year’s state finals competition, they placed seventh out of the 10 bands performing in Class A. ISSMA determines a band’s class by the enrollment numbers of grades nine through 12. Castle’s student body of 1,940 places them in the top class.
Castle also competes in Bands of America championships. BOA — a program of Music for All — organizes high school band competitions across the country. Rather than competing against fellow programs in their state, BOA allows students to play against others from across the country. Schools compete in regional or super regional championships before moving on to the Grand National championship.
In 2014 at the BOA Regional competition in Louisville, Kentucky, the Marching Knights took home first place, beating out 14 other bands from across Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Tennessee.
For senior trumpet player Keric Rudisill, winning BOA Regional was an amazing moment. “We were just sitting in our rows there, waiting for the announcements,” he says. “Then it was in the top three and we were just praying for second. Then they called another band before us and there was just that feeling (of winning). You look around and you’ve got your best friend to your right and you’ve got your family right behind you … it was just wow.”
Getting to the high performance level Castle competes with is not an easy or quick task. Both Dean and his students stress the amount of dedication, discipline, and time that goes into each season’s show. Junior piccolo player Jordan Kaluza says the physical and mental endurance required of the band members is one of the most challenging aspects.
“Being able to put up with people around you for so long and being able to tolerate the directors is probably (the most difficult),” he says.
Sarah Felts — a junior who plays baritone — agrees the physical aspect is trying, as well as having to memorize music and drill for a three-song show. “It takes it out of you,” she says.
“You go into it not realizing how long and how much of your entire life you’re going to put into it,” says Rudisill. “It’s your summer. You go in freshman year and for the next four years, you don’t have a full summer like everyone else.”
Yet despite the difficult nature of the program, year after year those students who do not graduate return to Castle’s practice rooms and field for another season. Dean credits that dedication to the changing nature of marching band. Every season, the group performs a brand new show and offers a different experience for the students. Also the desire to improve drives his students, he says.
“The fact that we are not content and we’re always striving, always placing bigger and loftier goals in front of the students helps them not to feel complacent,” says Dean. “We’re very, very fortunate with the results in competitions, but we always want to strive to be better in our performances.
“And the students here really believe that it’s not about the trophy, it’s about our individual performances. It’s a never-ending quest when you think about it that way.”
Looking at the band’s itinerary for the 2015 season might scare even the most dedicated adults. June and July are filled with full-day practices Monday through Friday. After school begins, the schedule shifts. Guard and percussion lines meet after school on Mondays, the wind instruments on Tuesdays. Wednesdays and Thursdays are reserved for full ensemble practices, with Friday occasionally being added depending on the home football game schedule. When September starts, Saturday competitions begin.
“It’s like a full time job,” says Paige Howard, a senior Color Guard member. “But it’s a great program to be in.”
Being the only Class A band in Southern Indiana has its pros and cons. While the rewards are plentiful, the challenges can be as well. Dean points out the sheer budget the program must have to transport 230 students to Indianapolis and back four to five times a year can be daunting.
“The other part of it is we don’t see a lot of our competitors. They are mostly based around Indianapolis and up north,” he says. “It makes it quite difficult to judge where we are at or gauge our level of readiness until it’s the very end (of the season).”
However, Castle always rises to the challenge, the director says. The band lives by the mantra “being the best version of ourselves we can be,” which Dean says allows instructors to take into account students are at different levels.
“Our focus is on individual growth — setting very high goals and working consistently and diligently toward achieving those goals,” he says. “One of the best things about marching band, I think, is it is such a long-term project.”
Though Dean, Eifler, and the Castle instructors understand each individual student has a story, they strive to create an environment where all the students feel close and a part of one unit.
“Our students would probably tell you one of the most fun things is going on the trips. That’s where they really bond together as a common group,” says Dean. “Those social bonds are formed off the field and certainly help on the field as well.
“Bands in Indianapolis, they go to the contest, they go home, and they’re done. Our advantage is we spend a lot of time together and become closer, I think.”
The sense of being a part of family is prevalent in the Castle Marching Knights culture. From the students to the band boosters, Dean and his band members say the success of the program relies on support from those in the organization and in the community.
“I enjoy knowing that someone is there for you when you need your back covered,” says junior Kaylynne Glass who plays alto saxophone. “They make your day.”
Groves says she loves coming to practice and knowing she’s with her family. “You know they are always there for you,” she says.
“What I love most about it is that it gives you a place to belong,” says Howard. “These are the first people you meet at the school and already you have people you know. They’ll smile at you, ask how your day is going. It’s nice to have a group of people you belong with.”
Families of the students contribute just as much time and energy to the Castle band as the members do. Parents organize trips, take care of uniforms, help set up the props of the show, and complete various other tasks that help the large band continue to function.
“I started out as a Freshman Dad volunteering in the Pit Crew, loading and unloading the semi truck and other trailers,” says Todd Glass, vice president of Castle Band Boosters, Inc., a not-for-profit organization formed to support the band program and help raise needed funds the school corporation is unable to provide. His daughter is Kaylynne Glass. “I got to know well how much work goes into each event with so many kids in the program.”
To run a band the size of Castle’s in 2015, Glass says the boosters must raise more than $300,000. To accomplish this, the boosters gather corporate sponsorships, hold a major car wash, host the annual “Band on the Run 5K,” put together the Castle Band Invitational, and other fundraisers.
“Every parent understands they need to be active in the boosters and we have a tremendous amount of participation,” he says.
“The best thing about our parent group is that they let myself and Mr. Eifler focus on teaching the students,” says Dean. “We’re not focused on did the buses get ordered, did the uniforms come in … We could not do what we do without them.”
Glass says the work and effort is worth it, not only to see the band compete and succeed, but to see the students learn and grow throughout the season.
“These kids work as hard as any athletic squad, day in and day out, under the hot sun or being drenched in ice cold rain, perfecting their skills and reaching for a higher level of perfection,” he says. “As a parent, I love the fact our kids can learn these lessons while competing at such a high level of performance.
“In the end, these kids accomplish great things and they know it,” says Glass.
The Marching Knights also couldn’t compete at the level they do if it were not for the support of Castle High School Principal Doug Gresham and assistant principals Richard Lance and Ryan Frazier, and Warrick County School Corp. Superintendent Brad Schneider, adds Dean.
“Our community values this activity,” he says. “Our principals and superintendent of the school corporation mirror that … making the arts a priority. It’s not that way everywhere.”
“I love everything about the band and (that) has helped me come to love the school,” says Rudisill. “The fact that Castle cares so much about our band … that’s awesome. Our school system cares about us.”
“We feel very blessed,” says Dean. “It’s a special thing here at Castle. It’s a special place to teach.”
All of this — the dedication and passion from the students, the instruction from Dean, Eifler, and others, and the support of parents and the community — helps Castle continue to be one of the top bands in the state. For the 2015 season, Dean says the Marching Knights plan to wow audiences with their production, “Archangel.” An original production with “very up-tempo, up beat” music, the show will feature three movements based on the attributes of three Archangels: Gabriel, the messenger; Raphael, the healer; and Michael, the defender.
“People might recognize some of the songs that they hear,” says Dean. “It’s a very audience friendly show.”
The Knights’ first competition performance will be Sept. 12 at the Evansville Central Invitational. Castle will host its own invitational at the high school on Sept. 26. Thirteen high schools will be represented at the event, with Castle performing in exhibition at approximately 2 p.m. The event is open to everyone and will feature concessions, vendors, and more.