Weehawken High School’s Marching Band took a risk this year. For the first time ever, they incorporated vocals, both spoken and sung, into their competition performances.
Drum major and senior Hank Finnin stood before the band and the seven judges in Sewell, N.J. and opened the field show with a narration that segued into color guard Aicha Ndiaye’s rendition of the song “Circle of Light” from “The Lion King.”
The risk paid off.
The band took third place – the highest award Weehawken has achieved in 20 years – at the U.S. Scholastic Band Association’s NJ State Championships in October with a score of 90.65. They were up against 60 other groups in their division.
Their unprecedented victory came shortly after they took first place at the USSBA’s Yamaha Cup, held at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, where they competed against schools from the tri-state area.
“I go to practice and I leave all my problems behind.” – Genji Nimura
Band Director Mike Lichtenfeld, Assistant Band Director Nicole Hegarty, and Color Guard Instructor Michele Giorgio are extremely proud of their students’ hard work and dedication, not only for their competitive achievements this season, but for their personal achievements as well.
“All of them work very hard and truly understand that they’re not in competition with other schools as much as they are in competition with themselves,” Lichtenfeld said. “We try to make each performance better than our last as we strive for our own personal best.”
It takes a village to make a band
The band rehearses three days a week, with a Friday dress-rehearsal to prepare for Saturday and Sunday competitions. They use the baseball field behind the Weehawken Pathmark, although marching bands perform on football fields.
Weehawken Board of Education President Richard Barsa has the Department of Public Works line the outfield to simulate a football field every Friday, “so we know where to go,” Section Flag Captain Veronica Garcia said.
Then there are the transportation costs, the uniforms, and props like the red and black safari flag Veronica waved during her dance solo for their chosen performance theme “2-Jungles,” which included music from the Disney shows “The Lion King” and “Tarzan.”
And speaking of Disney, the band will travel to Disney World during spring break. It’s been a band legacy started by Principal Peter Oliveri 14 years ago, and they have been invited to perform every two years ever since.
“Papa Spin [better known by adults as Assistant Principal Steven Spinosa] has to spend 24 hours in a bus with us,” Low Brass Section Leader Jonathan Anasa snickered. Spinosa has accompanied the band on every Disney trip.
Fortunately, the band also functions as a self-perpetuating fundraising machine. In addition to their heavy competition and rehearsal schedule, they play, and are paid for, many parades around the state, including in Hoboken and Keansburg, and perhaps most notably (and “creepily,” according to several band members), the Seaside Heights Clownfest Parade.
It takes a band to make a village
One of the most remarkable things about the Weehawken Marching Band, Lichtenfeld and many of his students said, is the way its members support each other and have become a second family to each other.
“It’s not just about the competition,” senior Diane Berisha remarked. She is the captain of the saber-wielding division of the band’s color guard and has been brandishing wrapped swords that stand almost as tall as she does for nearly seven years. “Yes, we have to be really determined and dedicated, but we’re also one big happy family.”
“Word,” Veronica seconded.
Assistant trumpet section leader and junior Genji Nimura hopes to take over as full section leader next year, and has been playing since eighth grade. At first, he wasn’t sure about marching band, but he looks forward to it now. “I go to practice and I leave all my problems behind,” he said.
At first, Hank sat back and listened to his fellow band members chat enthusiastically about their experiences, but in true family style, after praising him for how well he leads the band as drum major, they pushed him forward to speak.
Hank said he joined as a saxophone player when he was a freshman, “and the whole thing snowballed a bit farther than I imagined,” he said. As drum major, he functions as student director for the band.
What he loves is the way the band unites students of all ages and talents.
“It’s much less of a stratified organization, as big as it is,” he said. “We function more like a whole, unified organism.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org