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Student Musicians Hone their Skills at Marching Band Competitions

Deer Lakes Marching Band

The Friday Night Lights in western PA feature more than talented high school football stars. Dedicated fans also can catch a glimpse of some amazing performances by local marching bands at halftime. Band enthusiasts look forward to the spectacular displays of musical talent mixed with theatrical components and tight choreography.

Marching bands are hardly a new thing. Their origins trace back to the medieval era when musicians were tasked with maintaining morale for soldiers. Modern-day marching bands evolved from these military bands, which have existed for more than a century. For local high school musicians, the marching band is one more opportunity to perform and hone their musical skills.

Some local marching bands take the love of their craft one step further by competing against other marching bands throughout the year. Joining the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Marching Band Association (PIMBA) is the best way to identify local competitions. PIMBA launched in 1996 with 17 founding member bands, and its sole purpose is to provide a philosophical and organizational structure for marching band field competitive events in southwestern Pennsylvania.

To accomplish this, the organization promotes participation in marching band field events; promotes the art form of competitive marching band based on fundamental principles of music education, and promotes cooperation and respect among all bands, directors, staff, student members, parents, parent organizations, judges, and all others affiliated with the organization.

The 2022 regular season schedule is already posted for members, and competing bands hope to advance to the PIMBA Championships on October 22 at Norwin High School in North Huntingdon.

Chris Snyder, Deer Lakes Marching Band director and PIMBA president, said his marching band competes in four or five shows each season. They also perform in noncompetitive festivals and other events.

“Our primary participation is in PIMBA. We have also participated in Bands of America and U.S. Bands programs, which are more regional and national circuits,” he explained.

Snyder said that Deer Lakes tries to schedule as many competitions as they can to give students plenty of opportunities to perform. “It’s not necessarily about scores or competing, it’s more the chance for students to perform,” he said. “We look at the football schedule, homecoming dates, SAT schedules and other various potential conflicts to help us decide when we’re available, and then we fill our weekends with as many shows as we can.”

Nick Barthen, marching band director at Moon Area High School, said that he shares Snyder’s goal of providing as many opportunities for his band to perform as possible each season. “It’s not about winning or the recognition,” he said. “It’s just another venue. It’s just kids making music on the field and another opportunity for people to enjoy our kids throughout their high school marching band careers.”

Just because they don’t prioritize winning doesn’t mean that it’s any less stressful to prepare for competition. It takes a lot of time and effort from the band directors and the band members to pull it off. Without this commitment, competition season can be a waste of time.

Barthen said along with himself, Moon’s two assistant band directors, music writer, and program coordinator start the planning process in November for the following competition season. During the following weeks and months, the team narrows their options before picking a final theme. Competition themes can be based on anything: colors, words, even musical artists. Then they take this concept and shape a performance around it.

PIMBA competitions do not require a specific theme or genre, Snyder said. “Bands will plan, design and come up with their own theme annually. That’s the really great thing about PIMBA. You are critiqued and judged based on what you do, not on everyone else.

“It’s really about the education,” he added. “Everyone is just trying to improve from week to week throughout the season.”

Snyder said that Deer Lakes starts its planning in January each year, with staff members meeting to discuss design and music choices. “Sometimes, I will compose or arrange our music myself, which adds quite a bit of time toward the preparation,” he said. “Then, there is drill writing and choreography for the auxiliary, which takes substantial time.”

Deer Lakes holds two weeks of band camp at the start of August to put most of the show together. Twice-weekly rehearsals continue during the school year. “On days of competitions, we usually rehearse for a few hours in the morning to prep for the day, then break for lunch, load up the trailers with equipment, and head out to our performance venue,” Snyder said.

Moon holds a three-day music camp in June when marching band members receive the music for that year’s theme. Starting July 19, the band meets three days a week for band camp. “We treat football season like another opportunity to practice, perform, entertain, and become more confident in our skills,” said Barthen. “The more we perform, the more we change and add things, depending on how everything flows.”

While both Deer Lakes and Moon do well at competitions, that’s not their main priority. Both Barthen and Snyder said the feedback from judges is a valuable learning tool for student musicians and marching band directors.

“They give us feedback on changes we could make for future competitions as part of their commentary on our performances,” said Barthen. “As educators, you always want to get better at your craft. We might be neglecting things that need to be fixed.”

As a bonus, student musicians in the band can hear critiques from someone outside their own organizations.

Marching band enthusiasts ready for the start of the season can check out the 2022 PIMBA competition schedule at

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