Greg Thomas wins hearts, trophies at Albemarle High School

From where he stands on the Albemarle High School football stadium bleachers, band director Greg Thomas has a good view of about 80 teenage musicians. Gathered in a haphazard semicircle on the track below, the Marching Patriots have just completed their final run-through of “Pursuing Red,” a show they first clumsily attempted at the beginning of August, when temperatures soared into the mid-90s and Band Camp ran daily from noon to 10pm.

(Photo by Ash Daniel)

The sweltering summer heat is history. Ten-hour days gave way long ago to 20-hour workweeks. “Pursuing Red,” now a well-oiled machine, will be performed for the last time tonight at the Virginia State Championships near Richmond.

Before sending his students off to scarf down bagels, crank up Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You,” and dress for the competition, Thomas has something to say: “You never learn anything—anything—until you try to teach it to someone. As bossy as I am, I am constantly surprised by how wrong I am about everything…how much I enjoy learning from you. How much I learn about marching band, about people, about all kinds of things.”

Since it’s the last time the band’s seniors will be together on their home field, Thomas singles out each of them to share what he’s gleaned during their time together. Patience, loyalty, leadership, determination, kindness, artistry, being your own person, and smiling through adversity are on the list, as is shoe design, cake-baking, and “a throw-it-out-there-and-try-anything kind of attitude from one of the quietest guys I know.”

“It’s been an awesome ride. Thank you,” Thomas says in closing. “Now say, ‘You’re welcome.’”

“You’re welcome,” they dutifully respond, some wiping away tears. And then they quickly remind Thomas of a few nuggets he’s passed along to them: how to clean up the band room; the importance of being on time; to dress appropriately; and, finally, a willingness to do anything for free food.

Big band theory
On most mornings, I have a better chance of scoring a date to the SPCA Critter Ball with Justin Timberlake than I do of getting my teenager out the door on time. “Wait!” she’ll shriek, as I put the car in reverse. Then she hops out, runs back inside, up the stairs, and into her bedroom to hunt for her tennis shoes. Or maybe she’s neglected to brush her teeth. Or feed the fish. Once we’re finally en route, she groans and sighs and rolls her big brown eyes because, having left 10 minutes later than planned, we’re stuck behind a school bus that repeatedly stops to pick up passengers on the long and winding Earlysville Road.

Greg Thomas warms up the Marching Patriots before they take the field to perform their half-time show at the final Albemarle High School home football game of the season. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

From the end of August through November, however, that same 15-year-old can be found impatiently waiting in the car when I walk out the front door at 7 a.m. She, like every member of the “100 percent volunteer marching band” at Albemarle High School, has read, and takes seriously, the fine print in the written agreement Thomas presented to her on her first day of Band Camp. My daughter understands that “being late to, or cutting rehearsals is a slap in the face to the band and to our musical ambitions.”

The marching band, like all the other teams at AHS, is highly ambitious. But unlike the football or soccer squads, every member of this team is required to play every minute of every competition. They’re all on the field 100 percent of the time. No substitutions. No time-outs. If someone is late or missing, not only will it potentially derail the show, it can also discombobulate the sousaphone player next to you.

When my daughter read that her “attendance at rehearsals is the single most vital part of our preparation, grade and success,” she knew the guy who wrote it meant business. That’s where the unit starts, with that shared sense of responsibility.

Early on a recent overcast and chilly Thursday morning, bleary-eyed band members hoisted nine 3′ tall, hand-painted drums onto a wooden trailer hitched to a red and blue ATV with a lead-footed snare-drummer at the wheel. A large rolling cart was carefully piled with bass drums, cymbals and a tom-tom. Marimbas, xylophones, chimes, congas, and a kettledrum were rolled out of the band room door, past a football stadium and tennis courts, up a hill and into a parking lot. Dozens of musicians, carrying at least one instrument each, followed closely behind.

Eight hours later, they did it all again.

As they made their way up the same hill for their second rehearsal of the day, a freshman on drumline told a couple of flag-carrying members of the color guard, “I won’t know what to do with myself next week” when marching band ends. “I’ll get a lot more sleep,” he said. “But I’ll have to start riding the bus again.”

All the chatter ceased, and the band fell quickly into formation, when Elaine Golden, one of three drum majors, raised her arms and shouted, “Marching band warm-up!” She counted to eight, directing the band through a series of scales as they marked time.

Saxophonist Brian Brown stands at attention while waiting for the signal to strike up the national anthem. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

“Forward! Backward! Halt!” yelled Golden when Thomas, a lanky, bespectacled 53-year-old, pulled up on a red bicycle. He dismounted, climbed into the basket of a scissor lift and pushed the “up” button. Twenty feet above the band, he picked up a microphone, and said, “For the next two hours, we’re going to work our butts off. Let’s take it from the top…”

The top to which Thomas referred was the beginning of “Nachos,” the band’s nickname for “Tapestry of Nations and Chaos,” the first of four songs that comprise this year’s show, a byzantine production of stop-and-goes, jam-outs, corners and curves on which the group’s been working its collective butt off during hundreds of rehearsals over three-and-a-half months.

“You’ve already decrescendoed at the beginning of the decrescendo,” Thomas scolded the trumpet section. “It takes 10 beats to get to where you were at beat two. If you want to get better, this is where it lives, in these details. Don’t drop that phrase so early. Musically, the difference between a score of 94, and where we want to get, is very difficult. Don’t give up; you can do it.”

Worst to first
Winning, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, is good. But winning as often as Albemarle High’s Marching Patriots do is worth its weight in gold (and silver)—as evidenced by row after row of trophies, displayed on nearly every flat surface in the band room. Several best-in-show awards have been added to the shelves this year, and the band has earned a coveted “Superior” rating and re-claimed the Jefferson Classic championship trophy, a bust of Thomas Jefferson, which immediately went missing. But that’s another story. And Thomas isn’t in it for the hardware anyway.

“I’ve been on the winning side, and I’ve been on the losing side,” he said one Friday afternoon while washing dishes at a sink in his cramped office, one wall of which is inexplicably papered with a trail of food photos cut from Lean Cuisine boxes. “Competition is artificial, it’s not the point.”

Freshman drummer Konnor Roeloffs marches on. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

Collaboration, he added, is what really matters, and “after four years, I want these kids to look back and think this was a place where they were nurtured and grew and learned about themselves and achieved what they thought they couldn’t achieve.”

In 1993, when Thomas arrived at AHS after eight years as the band director at Walton Middle School, things were pretty sparse in the achievement department. “A disaster. Horrible,” is how James Tobin, a senior at Albemarle High that year, described it. “We were on our third band director in three years, and we were bad. Greg was hired a few weeks before school started, and there was no show plan in place. There was no real pride in place, either. Greg started with nothing.”

According to Tobin, now a music teacher who played in the Virginia Tech marching band, the AHS band didn’t amount to much that first year.

When asked about building the program from nothing, Thomas, a Virginia Commonwealth University grad who plays most instruments, including trombone with Big Ray and the Kool Kats, smiled, and said, “I don’t think of myself as having a really good work ethic. But I was doing something I really liked, something I found joyful. The kids knew then and they know now that I care about them. And if the kids trust you, you can get them to do anything.”

Maddie Pericak, a senior and baritone section leader, explained that dynamic from a student’s perspective: “We’re taught from the beginning that we’re the ones who have to strive to be better. It’s not our directors who will make us better, it’s up to us. It’s empowering,” she added. “You won’t find anything like it anywhere else.”

Mentoring new marchers who are invariably overwhelmed by the impossible-seeming task of learning more than 100 pages of difficult music and complicated drill, is another responsibility of the band’s veteran members. “It’s the older kids’ job to be nice to the younger kids and share their skills,” Thomas said. “I constantly remind them that when they were beginning marchers, they had their own monumental struggles. They all know leadership isn’t just relegated to the official leader.”

Trumpet section leader Emily Kuhn found herself responsible for more newbies than usual at the start of this year’s Band Camp. She admitted that, while initially somewhat daunted, she came out of the experience stronger and wiser. “If you can play an instrument while walking or running,” and keeping 18 trumpeters pointed in the right direction, both physically and musically, “sitting down and playing seems pretty easy,” Kuhn said.

Sitting down is something Greg Thomas, perpetually in-motion, rarely does. In addition to instructing the Marching Patriots, Thomas conducts four other Albemarle High bands and teaches a guitar class. A father of three, Thomas is married to a teacher and the son of the one-time head of VCU’s music department. He learned to play the trumpet before he learned to talk. But when he left home for college he was certain of one thing: “I wasn’t going to be in music or go into teaching. I was going to carve out my own thing. Obviously, I failed,” he said happily, adding that it didn’t take long for him to figure out that playing and teaching music “was fun. Every second.”

Well, maybe not every second, which was clear back at the AHS parking lot rehearsal, where he chastised some of his percussionists for their lack of enthusiasm. “You look like your birthday party just got canceled…by your parents,” he said, before acknowledging that it had been a very long day. “I know you can give me 30 more minutes of energized performance.”
So they did, beginning with the baritone horn solo that opens “Baba Yetu,” Christopher Tin’s irresistibly joyful Grammy Award-winning composition, and the third number in the show. The solo became a duet, and four senior trumpeters and a piccolo player joined the baritones up front. With their instruments at their sides, and the marching band for back-up, the seven-some belted out Baba Yetu’s Swahili lyrics: “Baba yetu, yetu uliye/Mbinguni yetu, yetu, amina/Baba yetu, yetu, uliye/Jina lako litukuzwe…”

As the singers resumed their marching, an observer’s eye traveled to members of the award-winning drumline, who raised large, padded mallets. In perfect unison, they came down on the nine student-painted drums. Soon, they were throwing their entire bodies into it, and, mallets flying, they kept the African beat by playing not only on their own drums, but also the ones next to them.

Gregory Lewis, a former percussionist with the Marching Patriots who’s now at the University of Virginia, pointed out that “so many activities emphasize leadership, but marching band [also] teaches how to follow, how to take criticism from directors, section leaders and judges and turn it into something productive.” An engineering student, Lewis plays the MalleKATs in the Cavalier Marching Band, and credits Thomas—“one of those teachers who genuinely wants his students to succeed, not only in his classes, but in [everything]; in life in general”—with showing him “how to win graciously and lose with respect,” and “to make sure that you love what you end up doing.”

The show must go on
Though one more “Pursuing Red” performance remained, Thomas and Craig Jennings, chorus director at Burley Middle School and the marching band’s assistant director and visual coordinator for the past 14 years, were already discussing next year’s show. “We pick the coolest music we can find,” Thomas said. “The craziest stuff. Craig will write a ridiculous drill, and then we’ll try to marry the music to it. The kids will knock themselves out to surmount the challenge.” They start in August, he said, by “biting off small chunks. A little bit of drill with a little bit of music. Then we repeat it a couple hundred times, kind of like building a skyscraper. Tiny step by tiny step, with lots of moving parts.”

Because it’s so physically demanding, Thomas said marching band “is distinct from other musical things. Since they’re laying out an enormous amount of energy and time, the kids who make a commitment to it take a real leap of faith in their instructors. So our plan better work—and I don’t mean trophies; I mean it better come together and be something they can be proud of.”

In addition to Thomas and Jennings, three other instructors keep the band in step: percussion arrangers Andrew LaPrade and Will Muncaster, and color guard choreographer Chris Sirard. Then there’s Donna Robertson. A 1981 AHS graduate and professional instrument repair technician, Robertson is never far from two heavy cases that, in addition to a wide array of parts and tools, hold a mouthpiece for every instrument. According to Thomas, she was waiting in the band room on his first day at Albemarle High. “I’m here to help,” he recalls her telling him. “For how long?” he asked, expecting her to say a day or maybe, if he was lucky, the entire week. “As long as you stay,” she responded.
Nearly 20 years in, and neither of them have any intention of leaving anytime soon.

It’s well past midnight, and, after returning from Richmond with more trophies to add to their collection, the exhausted musicians of the AHS band are waiting to be officially dismissed from the band room. They’ve turned in their 20-year-old, tattered and yellowed-from-too-much-wear uniforms (a fundraiser is currently underway to raise money for 100 new uniforms at a cost of about $500 each). Lydia Bock, a sophomore flugelhorn player, is near tears and slumped against Tim Wersinger, a senior trumpeter. When asked a couple days later about her mood, Bock’s eyes welled up again. She struggled to explain her feelings, and finally blurted out: “It’s that we work so hard, and then it all just ends.”

Until next August. When temperatures will more than likely hit the mid-90s. And Greg Thomas will certainly grab his microphone, and, from the basket of his scissor lift high above the band, tell the Marching Patriots to “take it from the top.”

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