O'Fallon Progress

O’Fallon Marching Panthers take the stage during Orange Bowl

O'Fallon High School Marching Panthers perform at Orange Bowl

Provided footage of the O'Fallon Township High School Marching Panthers during their pregame performance at the Orange Bowl, in Miami, Florida. The OTHS marching band also performed during the halftime show alongside American funk pop and dance-ro
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Provided footage of the O'Fallon Township High School Marching Panthers during their pregame performance at the Orange Bowl, in Miami, Florida. The OTHS marching band also performed during the halftime show alongside American funk pop and dance-ro

Ringing in the new year by hitting the high notes down south, the O’Fallon Township High School marching band was selected as the best high school marching band in the nation to perform during the pregame and halftime show at the Orange Bowl college football event in Miami, but that wasn’t the only highlight for the group.

During the halftime show, the nearly 200 students in the OTHS group shared the field with DNCE, a pop music band quarterbacked by teen heartthrob Joe Jonas, formerly of the Jonas Brothers. They also were featured performers in the Macy’s Holiday Parade at Universal Studios Florida before heading back home.

According to 2012 OTHS graduate Leah Haskett, an OTHS band staff member and alumna, the marching band had to apply to be in the pool of high school bands to be the single chosen group to perform at the event. She graduated from Oklahoma State University in May 2016 before returning to her old stomping ground in her new role.

“In the past the event selects multiple high school bands to perform, but now they only choose one, so it was a huge deal that we were chosen out of all the bands in the country. Through Grand National Bands of America we are ranked 20th to 22nd in the nation this year, so it’s pretty high caliber,” said Haskett, who participated in more than one Orange Bowl performance playing clarinet as a high school and college student.

Participating in the Orange Bowl and the Macy’s Holiday Parade was a great way to close the OTHS marching band season performances for the 2016-17 school year, Haskett said.

“Watching the students have such an awesome time was so evident,” Haskett said.

This isn’t the first Orange Bowl event the OTHS marching band has participated in over its 50 years, and it most likely won’t be the last, according to OTHS Band Director Melissa Gustafson-Hinds.

“The event was fabulous. We chartered a flight there, and then took a bus to Miami, Fla., so it involved a lot of travel, but it was a momentous experience for a lot of the band students,” Gustafson-Hinds said.

The event was fabulous. We chartered a flight there and then took a bus to Miami, Fla., so it involved a lot of travel, but it was a momentous experience for a lot of the band students.

Melissa Gustafson-Hinds, OTHS band director

A large majority of the students had never performed at a college bowl game, or a college game in general, Haskett said.

“So that was really big for them, playing for that kind of crowd in that kind of atmosphere. And so getting to watch them do that was really exciting and rewarding after all of the hard work they’ve put in because their schedule is ridiculous because in the fall they practice basically every day for multiple hours, and put in a lot of time and effort this season; so it was kind of like a payoff at the end to get to go on this trip and do all these awesome things,” Haskett said.

Nerves, jitters and thrills weren’t the only side effects Haskett witnessed among many of the female band members — outright hysterical fanfare about pop star Joe Jonas’ presence was another.

“And, there were students who told me like a ton of times that Joe Jonas touched their hands, and he winked at another student too. We didn’t hear the end of that; they were all just so excited to be there,” Haskett said.

Through their eyes

Stewart Drolet, “band dad” who traveled to the event said his daughter Caitlyn, 16, who plays the tenor saxophone, said she “was nervous about messing up, but her excitement distracted her from it all.”

Caitlyn wasn’t the only student to experience a whirlwind of emotions last weekend.

OTHS marching band clarinet player Bianca Castillo, a senior, said the trip was not only the epitome of excitement for her senior year, but also “one of the best experiences of my life.”

“It was really nice to be a part of something bigger,” Bianca said. “Also, as freshmen, we start marching band with parade season, and with the Macy’s parade we were able to end our high school band days with a parade too.”

According to Caitlyn, the most exciting part of the whole trip was getting to participate in the halftime show with DNCE.

“(I) also enjoyed the semi-formal beach dance in, and of course, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando,” Caitlyn said.

Bianca echoed feelings of disbelief and elation about being on the field with Jonas during the halftime performance.

“It was such a different atmosphere than what we’ve been exposed to before, and Joe Jonas was really close,” Bianca said.

Marching band senior Lillian Schmidt, who plays the flute, said if she had to encapsulate the experience in one word, it would be “chaotic.”

“It was a great way to end my whole high school band career,” Lillian said. “There were so many people there, and I thought I was going to be trampled by one of the football players. They were like super tall, and there were cameramen everywhere ... there was so much going on all in such a short period of time.”

Used to performing during high school football games, Lillian said the difference in the size of audience was “unlike anything we are used to.”

“At the Orange Bowl we really had to take it up a notch and blast it out, and we could see people’s jaws drop in awe, like they weren’t expecting that from a high school band to have such a collegiate level of performance and skill,” Lillian said.

But at the Orange Bowl we really had to take it up a notch and blast it out. And, we could see people’s jaws drop, in awe, like they weren’t expecting that from a high school band to have such a collegiate level of performance and skill.

Lillian Schmidt, OTHS marching band senior

Reminiscing about the Macy’s Holiday Parade, Lillian agreed with Bianca, who said the parade was “less intense than the Orange Bowl,” but equal in value to them as musicians.

“I love marching because I get to see everyone’s reaction in the moment, where as you usually don’t get to see that especially when conducting (because) you’re away from the audience, and then you get to see them up close,” Lillian said.

OTHS junior and oboe player Claire Wilcox said being a part of the Orange Bowl performance was “very different than anything I’ve ever done because I never performed on a field in a show until now because before I was a drum major I was in pit.

“This was a lot wilder compared to our more toned-down performances, so that was cool. And the overall experience gave me different insight of what it will be like conducting them when they’re on the field and the different atmosphere, especially when everything around you is so crazy and you have to focus on the task at hand ...” Claire said.

It was such a different atmosphere than what we’ve been exposed to before, and Joe Jonas was really close — I touched him and he has such soft, nice skin.

Bianca Castillo, OTHS marching band senior

Both Claire and another junior Liam Dixon, who plays the French horn, said they will carry the memories from the experience with them.

“It was definitely the best experience I had so far in my band career. I hope to be a section leader next year, and help my section be the best it can be,” Liam said.

Claire said, while the OTHS band staff herding the students during the trip was limited, the students benefited because “we all had individual administrative jobs to attend to, so that forced us to be really organized and responsible so I think that was a great leadership opportunity for everyone.”

Behind the scenes

Among the 187 students and six staff members, Haskett said, there were 10 “band dads” who helped haul band equipment, and acted as parent chaperones during the trip.

“I really appreciated all the hard work by the parent volunteers who drove the equipment to Miami so it would be ready to go, and the chaperones, Dr. G and staff, who kept the kids on time and safe,” Drolet said.

Haskett said Drolet was instrumental in documenting the band’s performance for the department with his photography and video skills.

“I was really excited to see all the hard work the kids put into practice and the hectic schedule. They seemed to take it all in stride, performed professionally, and took the various shows seriously,” Drolet said.

I was really excited to see all the hard work the kids put into practice and the hectic schedule. They seemed to take it all in stride, performed professionally, and took the various shows seriously.

Stewart Drolet, OTHS band dad

Haskett said the group not only put in hundreds of hours of practice time preparing for marching band performances like the Orange Bowl, but also worked hard fundraising for the trip with multiple events throughout the fall.

“We have a lot of fundraising opportunities throughout the year for them to work off the cost because it was fairly expensive,” Haskett said.

Although, to the band’s advantage much of the trip’s travel, meals and activities were included in the cost of the trip, which was in the ballpark of about $2,000 per student, she said.

The group relies heavily on the November Craft Fair, according to Haskett.

“Many vendors will come and, literally, fill the halls of the school and people come and buy things from them, and that’s our biggest annual fundraiser. We always make a lot of money from that, and it helps pay for things as well,” she said.

Robyn L. Kirsch: 618-239-2690, @BND_RobynKirsch

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