Marching band programs are like a family.
Directors, students, parents, alumni and even the community share bonds with the program in varying degrees. Like any family, there are good times and bad, successes and disappointments, but the family endures. One of the most consistently strong music programs in Indiana resides in the small town of Russiaville near Kokomo. The Marching Panthers of Western High School have the type of winning record that fans love to discuss and debate.
Over the last 35 years, Western has won 15 ISSMA state titles. The Pride of Paoli Marching Band also boasts 15 wins. Could 2016 be the year that Western sets a new record for the most ISSMA wins? Possibly. But, if you ask Western's band directors and staff if they are excited about the possibility…not really, no.
Director Brian Caldwell explains, "That really isn't something that we concern ourselves with." The real priorities are "…the students becoming great people, the program continuing to move forward and our students having the time of their lives!"
Strengthening the music program and the band family come first at Western.
The foundation of Western's success began over 40 years ago when Larry Neuhauser took the director position in 1973. Assistant Director Karen Whitford joined him in 1975 and together their drive and passion were the key components in the growth and success of the band. Karen's husband Keith joined the faculty in 1978 as a brass tech and became a part-time certified director in 1990.
The proof of the success of Neuhauser and Whitford can be seen right out of the gate with numerous ISSMA finals wins in the 80's and early 90's. There was a definite style to Western's shows at the time.
Assistant Director Keith Whitford said, "Those shows were strongly influenced by drum corps such as the 1980 Cavaliers. The students, parents and community loved that style."
That performance style served Western well up to the mid 90's.
"Western's win in 1996 was, largely, the result of the dedicated leadership of a talented and determined senior class. It all came from the kids. This was the last time Western would win a championship with the "in your face" style and risk-taking that had served us well in the 80's," said Whitford.
Western would soon face some very difficult changes.
Keith Whitford recalls the first challenges, "After the extraordinary class of '97 graduated, we were officially in a rebuilding mode. At the same time, several challenges weighed down the program: changes in graduation requirements made it impossible for many students to be scheduled into band."
And, as hinted earlier, Western's performance style was becoming somewhat dated.
"The activity was evolving into a more refined art form requiring a much more sophisticated level of artistry," said Whitford.
Challenges of that sort were certainly not unusual, but, those difficulties were soon eclipsed. As the program was working to reinvent itself, one of its pillars brought tragic news. Assistant Director Karen Whitford was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. As students and parents dealt with that shock, Director Larry Neuhauser announced his retirement the following spring.
Keith Whitford explained the sense of loss to the program. "These two individuals had defined the Western band program for over 25 years. While I functioned mostly as a tech, my roll didn't afford me the opportunity to become as close to the kids as Larry and Karen were. Through no fault of their own, the rug was being pulled out from under the students knowing they would no longer have the encouragement and support of two of the most influential adults in their lives."
Karen lost her battle in July 1999. Keith Whitford took on the role of director. It fell to him to deliver another shocking announcement that fall. Just five months into his retirement, Larry Neuhauser died unexpectedly in October.
Whitford recalls, "We were competing at Carmel that afternoon and had planned to compete a doubleheader that day. While the parents were informed, cell phones were not widely used in 1999 and we were able to keep the news away from the students until we could get them back to the school where administrators, ministers and counselors would be on hand. We cancelled our second competition that day. Making that announcement in the band room that evening was the most difficult thing I've had to do in my life. I had just lost my wife, Karen, in July and now my best friend, Larry, was gone."
Current Western director, Brian Caldwell, worked with Paige's Music and called on Western during this time.
"Truth be told, the students, staff and parents endured a tragic year," he said.
The once triumphant Western now faced years of rebuilding. The band family was in mourning.
Keith Whitford discussed the difficulties he faced over the next few years.
"I'm convinced that it takes experience to be able to sustain motivation and develop trust from students. My experience was pale to that of Larry and in the next four years, we went through two assistant directors who were wonderful people, but had just come out of college. We were spread thinner because, in order to be able to have the school help pay for extra staff for marching band, we sacrificed a director position going from three to just two. Administering the program and trying to cover the appropriate materials became the primary focus during these years."
Slowly, some positive changes began to reveal what would become the foundation of that rebuilding.
"Participation in solo and ensemble increased and the concert band began competing, and receiving Gold ratings, in Group I. Most importantly, the students themselves had become the primary focus of the program. The student leadership training program, which was started in 1995, was resumed and formalized. Also, we realized that we needed to embrace the more innovative designs of the 21st century and leave the ‘80s behind," said Whitford.
Four years passed with difficulty when Western reached out to Brian Caldwell. Caldwell had been the band director at Tri-Central High School before transitioning to Paige's Music in 1997. He agreed to re-enter the teaching profession and took over the directorship at Western in 2004. It took several more years of hard work to rebuild the program on the new foundation Keith Whitford had begun. But what emerged from that difficult time is possibly stronger because of it. Families that share triumphs and tragedies can also draw strength from each other. While seniors graduated and freshmen entered, the vitality and tradition of the program begun by Larry Neuhauser and Karen & Keith Whitford remains and continues forward.
Western now has a saying, 'Tradition Never Graduates.'
Dan Healton joined the staff as a woodwind specialist in 2005 and became an assistant director in 2014. Just as the program thrived under Neuhauser and the Whitfords in the 80's, it has again under Caldwell, Whitford and Healton over the last decade. In fact, over the last nine years, Western has seven ISSMA wins, two second-place finishes and another National BOA Championship.
So, will Western win again in 2016 and break that all-time record? Time will tell. One thing is certain. Whatever happens, Western will face it together as family.