Cleveland Charter High School’s Marching Band Earns Accolades

High note.

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    Chelsee Lowe
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    A highlight of the 2023 season: the Cleveland Charter High School marching band auditioned for and was selected to perform in the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Disneyland last December.

You might say the success of Cleveland Charter High School’s marching band was against all odds. Students  at the Reseda campus formed the marching band club eight years ago. It was the humblest of beginnings. Despite having limited resources and no teacher on staff to guide them, a handful of students started meeting. Some had never even played an instrument. But they were determined to work hard, learn and build something great.

That passion, paired with steady efforts from parents, diligent fundraising and some support from the LA Unified School District, has helped the band go from underdogs to champions. Now with more than 80 musicians, a band director and an assistant band director, the band won first place at the 2023 Los Angeles Unified School District’s Band and Drill Team Championship. Not only did they win their division, but their score was the highest of any band, regardless of size, in the competition. The Cleveland band also earned first place in their division in all five Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association (SCSBOA) tournaments they competed in this past season—pretty impressive given that the association encompasses 11 counties in SoCal and includes 1,000 public and private schools.

What makes the band’s accomplishments even more astounding is that Cleveland is a no-cut band—meaning they allow students with no experience to participate.

Percussionist Jake Thomas, class of 2026, joined the band with minimal experience himself freshman year. “I didn’t know how to read sheet music, I couldn’t play a snare drum, I couldn’t play a bass drum,” Jake says. “But I joined with an open mindset and was taught everything. And my bandmates propelled me to learn more.”

“They are not only learning music, but discipline and leadership skills too.”

While welcoming students of all musical abilities may put the band at a competitive disadvantage (some school bands hold auditions to select members), the students make up for it by devoting vast amounts of time to practice. During the fall term, which is peak season, the marching band is on the field for an hour every day before school starts—and then continues right on through first period. They practice for multiple hours after school on select days and spend more than 100 hours on the field in summer, even in broiling temperatures.

“They are not only learning music, but discipline and leadership skills too,” says Lisa Thomas, Jake’s mom and vice president of Cleveland’s band boosters. “And many do all of this while taking a full course load of AP classes.”

Band member and senior Allie Sherman—who plays clarinet, bass clarinet and saxophone—held the leadership role of head drum major last year. She says the lessons she’s learned from being in the band extend beyond music.

“I’ve learned how to work toward a goal, and I’ve seen that hard work pays off,” Allie says. “I know how to plan, how to manage my time, how to work with other people—even people I might not want to work with—to accomplish something great. And I’ll take those skills with me after graduation.”

Lisa, her fellow boosters and band director Cameron Yassaman work year-round to raise money for expenses, which are extensive. Funds are needed for musical instruments, sticks and mallets, a percussion coach, a color guard coach, sound equipment, costumes, and more. The boosters even created their own annual fundraising event: the All-Valley Band Tournament, held at Pierce College in Woodland Hills. Last year thousands of spectators came to watch 23 Southern California high school bands perform at the competition.

A marching band performance is more elaborate than you might think. It is not the kind of “pep band” stuff you see at sporting events. Nor is it a single song played while marching in formation on a football field. These performances entail costumes and props and pageantry. A recent one drew inspiration from the Beatles and the Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and featured large painted canvases as backdrops.

Shows like that one are indisputable highs for the students. But the rewards extend beyond the performances.

“If I’m ever having a bad day, or a rough time with something, I default to the band room,” Jake says. “There will always be people there to help. It’s a really, really supportive community—I’d say it’s a home.”

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