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Memory #2 - My First Band of Gold Practice, by Joe Donahey

posted Jul 22, 2012, 6:39 AM by Largo Gold   [ updated Jul 22, 2012, 6:41 AM ]

Sometime after receiving Mr. Cotter’s invitation to drop by the band room someday, I did just that. On a day in the fall of 1973 I was on my way through Largo on the way back to my law office in Clearwater when I remembered. I pulled into the parking lot, found the band room and walked up to the door. I heard music; I listened for a moment, realized that a practice was in progress and let myself in. I just leaned against the wall, against the instrument shelves, listened and watched. You should know that over the years it had been my custom to speak to middle school and high school classes on a fairly regular basis. Immediately I was struck by a difference. When he stopped the music and addressed some performance problem there was virtually no chatter. Students were sitting up in their chairs; they were paying attention and seemed to be singularly focused on the task at hand. My first of many lessons had just begun. I did not immediately understand the significance of this unusual classroom behavior that would become clearer to me over a period of time.

After a short time, Mr. Cotter noticed my presence and stepped off the podium. Turning the baton over to a student (whom I later learned was a drum major candidate) and invited me into his office. We exchanged a few pleasantries and he informed me that there would be an outdoor field show practice in a little while. I hung around, watched and listened for the rest of the afternoon. At the end of the school day, I was back in Mr. Cotter’s office when a bell rang and the band room outside the office became a beehive of activity. We continued to talk and I could not help but notice that although there was a flurry of activity, it somehow seemed to be organized; at least there did not seem to be any confusion. These were young high school kids who all seemed to know what was expected of them and what they were about. A couple of times students came to the door, knocked, stuck their heads in to ask a short question, got a brief response and went on about their task, whatever it was. After a very few minutes, the band room was almost empty. Mr. Cotter got up and said, “Well, it’s time for practice. If you have time, come along and watch”. He walked and I followed.

It’s strange the things you remember, the things that are impressive, but I remember one thing that struck me almost immediately. As we walked toward the football stadium, me for the first time, kids all around us, no one was tooting on an instrument or pounding on a drum. The silence was unexpected and conveyed an important message to me. This is the way it would have been in the corps I had been a member of for so many years and told me there was sound discipline and good rules in this outfit. We walked into the stadium, around and up the concrete stairs on the north end of the west stand and my impression was immediately reinforced. Down there on the field in front of us was this throng of young people going about their business, putting personal things down on the sidelines, getting their equipment and instruments together and taking their position on the field. This was accomplished with a minimum of chatter, no wasted time and no horseplay. I continued to be impressed.

I sat in the stands and watched the entire practice in rapt attention, with great surprise and considerable pleasure - pleasure in seeing a well organized practice, with real purpose and goals and an entire group of people apparently intent on accomplishing them. Some of the naive might have asked me why was that such a surprise? The answer begins with a question: How many practices of other bands or other groups, whatever their activity, have you attended? I have attended many. It should be remembered those were the early seventies. We had just spent a decade learning that you could not discipline modern day kids, you had to give them space, time for self-expression even at the expense of the group if that was necessary; after all, you could not muffle their self expression. How pleased I was to observe that this new-found philosophy had reached the field below me and the people assembled there.

I watched and I listened, I listened and watched… It became clear that this group was operating on a different level. They were already several levels above anything I had seen in years in high school band and had every intention of getting much better. The dedication, the commitment, the focus, the attention to detail, the hunger for excellence was evident everywhere. I did not yet know or fully understand how it had all come about, but I knew right away that at least it was to some extent a reflection of the Pennsylvania drum corps background that Mr. Cotter and I shared. I was intrigued. The hook was set. If there was any contribution I could make to this organization, I wanted to make it. That was a feeling that I attempted to conceal initially, so I could feel Mr. Cotter out after practice and determine if there was any chance. In retrospect, I suspect I did a poor job of concealing my enthusiasm. We went back to the band room after practice and talked for a while; he invited me back. He gave me a rehearsal schedule and outlined for me what the coming schedule included. That’s all it took. I believe I was at the very next evening practice, up into the stands with my yellow pad, and I did not miss many after that, except when my criminal trial practice interfered, but that’s the stuff of the next memory.

God Bless You All, don’t be hesitant to share your memories and the quilt will grow.

Joe “Old Yellow Pad” Donahey