Putting the Band Back Together – KWHS Marching Band prepares for the field - A group of people playing frisbee in a park - Florida Keys

Folks who live in the neighborhood surrounding Key West High School have probably gotten used to a horn-blasting, drum-thumping rendition of “Burnin’ Love” accompanying their morning coffee. KWHS’ band camp just concluded on Aug. 9, as the 100-strong musical force prepares for the upcoming season. Friday, Aug. 16, the band will take the field for the first time for a preseason football game, but the first “real” game is on Friday, Aug. 30. While football season is enough to get excited about, it’s also an extra-special moment for the band.

“We just ordered brand new uniforms for the first time in 18 years,” said Band Director Gary Hernandez, “and they should be in some time this week. So we should be in them by the first game. That’s a huge thing—bands don’t get uniforms often.” 

While the band crosses their fingers that the new uniforms will arrive on schedule, they also steel themselves for marching and playing in their new duds in the extreme heat. The temperature hovered around 90 last week, one of the biggest challenges of the grueling practice schedule the band undertakes for the two weeks of camp. Hernandez is starting his 11th year of directing the KWHS band, so he’s experienced when it comes to coping with the conditions. 

The band kicks off in the morning at 8:30 with marching in full force on the field. After lunch, they spend the early afternoon hours indoors in the air conditioning doing music rehearsal, often in smaller instrumental sections. 

“We focus on hydration and a healthy diet — lots of students are used to skipping breakfast, and it’s very much an athletic activity,” Hernandez said. “We require them to bring a water bottle — thermoses at least a half-gallon — and we have a student officer that helps keep them full.” 

Band camp and the ensuing season is certainly hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun. Hernandez calls team-building “a huge part of what we do.” In the first week, the band does ice-breaker type activities and establishes section unity. At the end of the first week, there’s a band lock-in at the school. Volunteer parent Pamela Oropeza, who has two kids in band, helps out at such events and has great photos and videos of son Hunter, a senior saxophone player, doing “Grease” skits at the lock-in. In the second week, there are dress-up days, like “hippies” or “twins.”

“The love of the band is so cool. … It’s an incredible group, and it’s wonderful to see a lot of support in the community for the arts,” said Oropeza. 

At the culmination of the second week, the band performs for their parents and families, and there’s a big barbeque on the field. 

“By then,” said Hernandez, “They know 10% of the school, and they’ve been there for 80 hours.” So the band members — especially the freshman — go into the year with the advantage of familiar faces, and the considerable feat of making it through band camp already accomplished. 

As a music town, Key West can be proud of the diversity of instruments on the field: “We have flute, clarinet, sax, trumpet, mellophone, trombone, tuba and then percussion: snare drums, bass, cymbals and tenors … a vibraphone, a marimba.”  The band also includes the color guard, whose performance is incorporated with the band, flags waving (truly, all participants earn the half-credit for physical education that is allotted). It’s a stunning spectacle, and the community has an opportunity to join in during football season. 

While the best way to take part is to come to the games and cheer on the musicians and athletes from the bleachers, the band also welcomes help with funding. 

“We receive funding from the school district that covers the quite steep transportation,” said Hernandez. The band requires three buses for travel, and each bus is $700 to $1,000 per overnight trip. However, the district does not cover hotels, which run $5,000 to $6,000 per night for the approximately 100 students, so that’s the big expense. The band has to raise about $50,000 to make it happen. 

Even bigger news than the uniforms? “We plan to go to Italy over spring break, and the last time we did was right before the [2008] recession, and we’ll be releasing info about it the next week.” The cost would be $3,800 a student.  

To donate to the band, head to the KWHS website (keysschools.com/kwhs) and click on the link for “Performing Arts.” If folks need any more convincing to help send these talented young musicians on an international trip of a lifetime, check out the first game. I guarantee that the audience “Can’t Help Falling in Love…” with the KWHS marching band.

Friday, August 30
7 p.m.
Key West High School Conchs vs.
Dade Christian
KWHS Marching Band will perform at halftime

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