Sport of the Arts: Indoor Groups to Represent MHS at National Competition

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Arie Yamasaki

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Big and bold performances are in the making with a particular competition on the horizon for Mililani High School’s winter guard, drumline, and winds. Winter Guard International, often abbreviated to WGI, is a large event which features competing color guard, percussion, and winds groups, as the WGI organization is recognized as the governing body for these activities. All three groups derive from the marching band sport, each expanding on the group’s individual skills and focusing on intricacy in the different pieces of equipment they use. This year’s WGI is to be held in Dayton, Ohio, although competitions have taken place outside the United States in the past.

Both scholastic groups — performing units from the same school — and independent groups participate in the event in two divisions. These divisions are then further separated into three classes: “A-Class” with beginning programs and performers, “Open Class” with intermediate performers, and “World Class” with the most advanced of performers. With last year’s event being held only virtually, anticipation is ramping up toward the chance to perform.

“We’ve heard so many stories from the alumni and from other friends who have gone and it’s always just this super incredible experience. Like you get to go out of the island, you’re competing against people from across the nation, and it’s this super big event that you should be proud of,” said senior Asya Burcham, drumline’s front ensemble captain.

The event will span over the month of April 2022. The color guard performs from April 7 to 9, drumline throughout April 21 to 23, and winds throughout April 23 to 24. From the moment they land, all three groups run through rehearsals to ensure they’re performing to the best of their abilities. Despite the students’ tight schedule throughout the trip, being in a place so far from home presents its opportunities.

“I personally got to experience a bunch of new things and learn a whole set of new skills while there. It was also incredible watching all of the ‘world class’ guards compete and seeing the difference in skill and movement they have. It was quite eye-opening and inspiring to be there,” said winterguard weapons captain and senior Aiden Miarecki.

For many upperclassmen, this year’s participation in WGI holds substantial gravity. The same opportunity was granted to the 2020 performers and many had their sights set on being able to compete in the prestigious event. All three groups had undergone tribulating and demanding practices all in the hopes of putting on a good show. However, the COVID-19 pandemic had reached the shores of the United States during the 2019 to 2020 school year, leading to the cancellation of WGI 2020.

“When that season got shut down, it was pretty disappointing. I could also sense the feeling of disappointment especially from our directors and our upperclassmen because that was their final production that they were never able to finish,” said senior Jalen Lum who plays the soprano saxophone in the winds group.

Many of the groups, such as drumline and winds, are reusing and elevating their shows that were to be used in 2020. This year’s seniors, who had only been sophomores when the event was canceled, are presented another chance to perform on a bigger scale outside of Hawai​​‘i. With this, focus is set on running through routines and developing shows to outshine other competitors traveling from all over the world.

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With practices on Tuesday and Thursday from 6:00 to 8:30 p.m. and from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Sundays, preparation is underway for winterguard. Color guard performances at WGI include the usage of flags, sabers, mock rifles, and other equipment. These shows highly emphasize interpretive movement such as dance and the acrobatic waving and throwing of flags and rifles.

“I’m really looking forward to having that big moment on the tarp, finishing the show and being proud of the numerous months of hard work we’ve all put into it,” said Miarecki.

On weekdays, winterguard hold their practices in the cafeteria. However, as a result, adaptations have to be made to accommodate factors such as low ceilings that don’t allow for high tosses of props to be made. On these days, the group mainly focuses on learning and experimenting with their routine. With Sunday’s practices being held in the gym, they take advantage of the ability to practice high throws and observe how the group as a whole moves around the mat from a judge’s viewpoint.

The group has had to work together to overcome challenges presented this year leading up to WGI. One of the lead choreographers had left for an opportunity to participate in Pride of Cincinnati, an independent color guard group on the mainland. Despite this, the winterguard team has been able to pick themselves up from the unexpected situation. With time and practice, the team has worked on polishing their movements for the show. Now, their sights are set on improving on the last act. They’ve received large amounts of support from people such as Derek Ka’apana, the band director, guard consultant, and flag choreographer who’s been experimenting with new ideas when it comes to performance.

“I think it helps that we have a lot of extroverted little ones who have helped bridge the gap between us and honestly brought us seniors and juniors closer to the younger generation, something my year never really had,” said Miarecki, “It really helps bolster the mood during practices and the chemistry between the team makes it so things go smoothly.”

With the awkward gap year due to COVID-19, this year for winterguard has focused on getting the underclassmen to where they need to be in terms of technical skill. With MHS’s winter guard being able to reach semi-finals the last time they participated in WGI, there are high standards that all members work to strive toward. Therefore, the group has their eyes set on doubling down on practices as well as experimenting with new concepts.

“Every night after practice, we take a group picture in front of the chorus room mirror, to the point where it’s kind of a ritual or tradition. One of the rookies has actually become one of my best friends, so I’m really happy with the people this year,” said Miarecki.

The drumline has also   been setting up preparations to compete in Winter Guard International. With practices on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday from 5:00 to 8:30 p.m., those in drumline have also been undergoing rigorous practice in order to participate in the event. There are two main sections in drumline: the battery and the front ensemble. The battery consists of the marching percussion section, which is usually composed of snare drums, bass drums, and tenors. The front ensemble makes up the members of drumline that are stationary, including xylophones, vibraphones, marimbas, chimes, cymbals, and other auxiliary instruments. These groups work together to put on a theatrical, musical performance.

“I found a love for performing, and with that love for performing, I realized, it’s one thing to perform in front of your crowd, in front of the high school people you know, relatives, people you know in your hometown, and you kind of want more, after that,” said senior Raya Okazaki, who plays the drums and auxiliary. During the field season, Okazaki led as a drum major, gaining leadership experience and learning how to overcome pressure, which are skills useful in the WGI competition.

The mainland had offered more challenges with new competitors in WGI that came from high schools, circuits, and independent groups. MHS’s own drumline would be at the forefront against 250 other percussion groups.

“I think I’m looking forward to the feeling of having that large of an audience as well as seeing how far our show can come because, we’re really still in such early stages and I wanna see what we’re really able to put out there for everybody,” said Burcham.

As of now, the performance is in the midst of conceptualization. The show will be built off of three movements. The first portion is to symbolize the idea of “going up” with the music in this section rising in intensity. The second portion of the show is to symbolize “going down” with descending chords and runs that will demand the attention of marimbas and vibraphones in the front ensemble. The third movement is the idea of “all around,” and is still being thought about in terms of execution as the drumline works together to plan it out.

“We’re a really strong group and our drum director says this a lot but, ‘people that are friends and they play together.’ It can be any instrument but in this case it’s drums and stuff, they’re going to play better together compared to if you’re with strangers,” said junior Taizo Bernal, who plays the bass drum. “Even if you’re really good, you tend to play better with the people that you know.”

During the period at which COVID-19 was at its height, those in drumline were left to march alone in their rooms behind a screen. There was a lack of connection between members in drumline, and with the return of in-person activities, there’s a renewed sense of comfort upon being able to become familiar with old friends and new. Communication has become much smoother, with bandmates even being granted the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company outside of school as well. The social environment has sparked excitement among the members as enthusiasm builds between one another with the topic of roommates on the trip as well as uniforms.

“It helps you work together better because you all know that you pretty much have the ultimate goal of going to WGI and performing to our best ability, and that just adds so much drive to it, knowing that you have all these other people who want the same thing you do,” said Burcham.

Drumline practices are steered by the efforts of the upperclassmen and captains. Besides sectionals, where each group is able to work and prioritize their pieces of music, the drumline gets together to run warmups, then later jumps into practicing their music. With constant repetitions,the drumline captains are able to guide themselves and their peers in recognizing where a piece may have gone adrift and how to correct it. With the staff not directly pointing outthe answers, it encourages students to determine their own areas of weakness and work together without relying on outside help.

The third group gearing up in order to perform is winds, who are reputable for their placement in World where the most advanced players go to compete. Practice for winds are on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. as well as Sunday from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. Winds in WGI have the same expectations as color guard and drumline: to put on a marching performance. Yet, this time students in the wind section will be participating. The winds consist of brass instruments, which include horns, trumpets, and tubas, as well as woodwind instruments, which are the flutes, clarinets, and oboes. However, the competition in WGI winds is not limited to solely wind instruments as well. “I think one of our goals is to be able to complete this production, sort of like exceeding our expectations from what we initially had during quarantine, because what we’re picking up from is extremely different,” said Lum, “We’re in a place right now where we’re trying to catch up to where we once were, the skill level we were at before.”

The challenges at which winds are expected to reach is at a higher level. In 2019,  Mililani High School’s winds group had reached 3rd place in WGI out of 40 other of the top wind groups in the nation. Yet, due to these high achievements, there’s a large pressure and desire to strive for the top once more and even beyond that. However, there are challenges to be faced along the way.

“The music and especially with the body movement is especially hard since I don’t come from that background of jazz dance, I guess you would call it. It’s nice learning some new stuff,” said senior Colby Suzuki, who plays the alto saxophone.

While on Thursdays, the wind group practices the musical component of their performance, Tuesday requires the practice of the routine’s choreography. Although the work demands musical focus in being able to sufficiently play an instrument, the performances in Winter Guard International are meant to incorporate movement and dance. With this element, the practice may be unfamiliar to some, presenting a new obstacle to overcome. However, this obstacle isn’t faced alone but with the collaboration of other members on the team.

“I feel like the most exciting part with WGI is being able to hang out with my friends one last time. Especially in this kind of production whereas in the field season it’s all over, but this is the last time I’ll ever be able to hang out with them in this kind of setting,” said Suzuki.

The show in which the group is putting together is titled “About You,” which derives from a slam poetry piece by Adam Roa titled “You Are Who You’ve Been Looking For” and was featured in a TedTalk. The piece places focus on embracing self-worth and the relationships between people. Throughout their performance, the wind group fully embodies these concepts.

“If I have the opportunity to make new friends, I definitely want to do that. I’m going to be going to college on the mainland in the next few years, and it’d be really cool to see some people that perform there,” said Okazaki.

With long practices throughout the afternoon, all three groups require the dedication and commitment from the student performers. There are sacrifices that are necessary to make in terms of making time for practices and rehearsals. In order to fund for the large and expensive competition, students are to take time out of their weekends to work the concession stands at University of Hawai’i’s athletic games. For students that have other responsibilities to manage such as other ensembles or schoolwork, this presents itself as a challenge.

“WGI is a big deal, costs a lot of money, costs a lot of time, you have to sacrifice a lot of things, and it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for us highschool students in this state, so I’m very, very grateful,” said Bernal.

For the seniors, WGI 2022 marks their final performance on center stage with the peers they’ve practiced and bonded with, some over the course of 4 or 5 years. With high hopes on the horizon, all three teams work toward perfecting their show through their hard work at rehearsal and tireless nights of practicing, in addition to balancing school and other activities.  Being granted this large opportunity to compete, the teams are striving to give it all they have to offer.

“There is the added pressure coming from a little island out on the sea, like we should be  making a big impression on those in the mainland,” said Miarecki. “But I’m very proud to be part of this guard because we are the only ones to have gone in the first place.”