At many middle schools, students have the option of enrolling in band classes to play music. But very few have their own marching bands. Northern Middle School in Greensboro is an exception to that rule. The band has made quite a name for itself in parades and concerts across the state. In fact it's so good that it has been invited to play at college football's Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida on New Year's Day.
Students in Northern Middle's marching band practice nearly every night for two hours after school. It's already dark outside and band director Brendan Davis is perched on a stool facing a sea of students grasping their instruments. Davis wants to make sure every single part sounds just right:
"Trumpets, play right there at that middle part, da da da da, let's play right there. One two, one two ready and...music."
But the song the band is practicing isn't what you might expect it to play.
"Let's run over that California Girls again for the drummers, cause we need to make sure they got that part, All right, California Girls only, horns up, one two, one two ready and..."
Katy Perry's California Girls is just one of many popular tunes in Northern Middle's repertoire. That's because this school follows the high-step style of many African-American marching bands- characterized by popular music and eye-catching dance routines. But the overwhelming majority of the kids in this 79-member band are white- and Davis says that definitely makes them stand out:
"I've seen African-American high step bands, I've seen you know majority Caucasian high step bands, but to see a middle school majority Caucasian, you know, I have a few Asians, with the rest being African-American, it's- it's a shocker. It's not what you would normally expect."
Musicians in high-step bands play their music by ear, unlike those in so-called corps bands who often use sheet music even as they march. And high-step bands feature prominent drum lines with complicated, intense rhythms that some say are too difficult for middle schoolers to grasp. But 13-year-olds Nathan Rackers and Nicklaus Courmon say that's not true:
"I think that the people who decided not to have middle school marching bands just didn't know what their students could do./A lot of people probably don't expect a lot from a middle school marching band so they set the bar extremely low. But we eventually exceed those expectations and you know we just blow them away."
Band director Brendan Davis, who's African-American, says he loves taking the group to perform for black audiences:
"That's my favorite part, the reaction from the crowd, you know, even when they dance, when the kids dance, they're like is this real? You know, I mean, bottom line, this is real."
Davis is a college student who's only 21, but he's been involved with marching bands for years. He helped start a drumline and a marching band when he was in middle school in High Point. Jane Van Middlesworth was his band teacher there. She now oversees Northern Middle's entire band program:
"We've been working together since he was fourteen so he's like my son and we read each other's minds and we have no problem figuring out how to do things. And so it's this combination of two opposites that can come together and work together to create a really unique program."
Van Middlesworth teaches classical band during the day, and Davis comes in for marching band practice at night. Van Middlesworth says students in the marching band get ear training that you can't get anywhere else:
"I believe that we develop the well-rounded musician that can do it all. And all of these children- it's amazing how it crosses over, that what they learn after school they bring into the classroom, and they're much, much better musicians and they're so excited about it."
Many students stay after practice to work on their parts. Tonight, trumpet player Nathan Rackers is working on a Justin Bieber song. He and his friend Nicklaus Courmon say they're thrilled to go to the Gator Bowl:
"I think that these songs that we're getting are probably a lot different than what other marching bands will be playing. At the competition that we'll be performing at there'll be people in the stands watching us, so if we play things...that they can like dance to, the crowd will boost our chances."
Bands compete before the Gator Bowl starts in a musical show and a parade. The winner gets a coveted half-time spot that will be broadcast on national television. Students have raised thirty thousand dollars selling frozen cookie dough, gift cards, t-shirts and car washes to pay their way to the event. They say they're determined not to let their fans in North Carolina down.