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High School Band Night 2017 High School Band Night 2017

The Beat Goes On With High School Band Night

How the Marching Aztecs pull off a halftime show with 1,500 teenage partners—and what it means to the kids.
By Jeff Ristine

“We're about providing entertainment.”

Dylan Keohane remembers it as “an absolutely surreal experience.”

September 2013: Keohane was playing cymbals for the West Hills High School Blue and Black Brigade. Not at their home field in Santee, but alongside San Diego State University’s Marching Aztecs for High School Band Night. More than 32,000 fans were watching and listening as the schools transformed the usual halftime show into an end-zone-to-end-zone spectacular.

The big crowd “energized me and helped me perform to the best of my abilities that night,” said Keohane. “From that point forward, I knew I wanted to be a Marching Aztec as soon as I graduated high school.”

And he is. Now an SDSU junior, Keohane will again take the field Saturday night, Sept. 21, at SDCCU Stadium as captain of the drumline, as a 64-year-old tradition continues. In this year’s edition, more than 1,500 band and color guard members from more than two dozen schools will perform at the SDSU/Utah State game after rehearsing together for just two hours.

Some of the visiting performers may have first picked up an instrument or flag barely a month ago. For all of them, the chance to play at SDCCU Stadium is quite a step up from their usual Friday night lights.

With more than 170 marching band and color guard members, The Spirit of Great Oak from Temecula will be one of the largest units.

“I want them to see that the hard work college students put in starts at the high school level,” said band director Jerry Burdick-Rutz. For some, it will be their first-ever exposure to a college experience.

Campus spirit

The Spirit of Great Oak is traveling 60 miles for the show, which features schools from four counties. “I think the value goes up the farther away you are,” said Burdick-Rutz. At a distance, he said, some kids “don’t know really what San Diego State offers in terms of college spirit and athletics.”

Marching Aztecs’ director Bryan Ransom said the event—usually held before the end of September—represents something of a respite for the high school bands before they take their own field shows into tournament season, where any flat note, misstep or dropped flag can ding their score. “We don’t compete at all,” Ransom said. “We’re about providing entertainment.”

In addition, Ransom said, “It’s a great recruiting opportunity for us. Unless these kids have gone to a college football game, they don’t know how unique an experience it is as a band.”

“It’s a different atmosphere and it’s a different kind of mindset.”

It’s also a plus for the SDSU Athletics Department, with hundreds of additional tickets sold to parents drawn by the 20-minute halftime show.

The playlist has three entries. There’s always a recent pop hit—this time it’s Imagine Dragons’ “Natural”—typically something with solid, four-beat rhythms that won’t be too difficult for a 60 yard-long drum line to pick up. After that comes the SDSU Alma Mater and the Aztecs’ fight song.

Ransom, whose lengthy production credits during 32 years at SDSU include shows at multiple Super Bowl, MLB All-Star, and San Diego Chargers games, said he wants the experience to be “just a fun day for them.”

Practice and performance

He sends music to each participating school’s director about a month ahead of game day. There’s two hours of rehearsal on the stadium’s practice field, first as one big, compressed pack and then in separate sections to solidify the tempo and dynamics. The bands then reassemble as a group to run through the music one more time and to learn the plan for entering and exiting the turf.

Ransom said he likes to keep each school together as a group in their matching uniforms—a visual plus—even though it might sound better to organize them up by instrument. That’s Ransom on the big ladder at the 50; the band members for each school will be watching their drum majors while the drum majors watch Ransom. Color guards fill the front sidelines and end zones.

In addition to about 300 pizzas served up for dinner, each year the Marching Aztecs return the favor with a visit to one of the region’s field tournaments, performing during the normally dead, score-tabulating time before the awards ceremony. This year, they are scheduled for Nov. 2 at Mira Mesa High School.

High schools participating in the 2019 Band Night at SDCCU Stadium (with locations outside San Diego County noted): Canyon Springs (Moreno Valley), Central Union (El Centro), Christian (El Centro), Chula Vista, Classical Academy, Dana Hills (Dana Point), Del Norte, Desert Mirage (Thermal), Eastlake, El Cajon Valley, Granite Hills, Great Oak (Temecula), Grossmont, Hoover, Lincoln, Mira Mesa, Montgomery, Morse, Mount Miguel, Oceanside, Ramona, Santana, Serra, Southwest (El Centro), Valley Center

High School Band Night, Then and Now
A 64-year tradition continues on Saturday, Sept. 21, in the halftime show of the Aztecs/Utah State game. (Photos: Chuk Gawlik)