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High expectations

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

I witnessed authentic leadership in a 16 year-old high school marching band percussionist. At a state-wide competition, her band was staged in a parking lot overlooking the football field waiting for their time to perform. She and a small number of other musicians were watching a competing band on the field while they waited. Around her were about 30 of her bandmates, many of whom were chatting, laughing, and wandering aimlessly as a way to cope with the stress of competition -- then it happened.

“OK, everybody,” she said in a conversational tone more to herself than to anyone in particular. They all stopped and looked at her as she continued to study the band on the field. “We’re on in five minutes. Focus on being amazing.”

The chatting and laughing ceased, and the wandering transformed into small groups of instrumentalists standing together and visualizing their upcoming performance. The stakes were high, the pressure was on, and they knew it.

The Commonwealth of Virginia was adjudicating marching bands for Honor Band distinction. Uniquely, in the history of this event, only the Lake Braddock Secondary School marching band had been awarded this distinction every year since it was first awarded. This would be their thirtieth, and the only thing that remained was for this group of students, like their predecessors, to earn it.

Their band director was a quiet and focused man. He knew what was important and held every band member to high standards of conduct and performance. His practice sessions were a master class in leadership and encouragement. He insisted his senior students demonstrate what right looks like, and he demanded the younger students learn from them. His high expectations were universally accepted as achievable.

He knew where every one of his 230 musicians should be on the field at any point in a performance, and could call out a single instrumentalist for playing a wrong note. Each show was a complex tapestry of movement, formations, and sometimes orchestral music from a collection of teen musicians and their color guard. Early in the fall, the freshmen stood out as confused and uncertain. When competition season approached, it was difficult to tell who the freshmen were because the entire band had elevated itself to performing like a seasoned corps.

This night, as the band lined up and the cadence carried them to the field, the announcer’s voice came over the field, “Ladies and gentlemen, now approaching the competition field, the Lake…”. I couldn’t hear the rest of his announcement as an appreciative audience took to its feet and erupted in thunderous applause and cheering. They knew what was at stake, and they knew what they were about to see.

Fourteen minutes of precision maneuvering, flawless musicianship, and hard-earned confidence resulted in more applause and cheering, and even some tears. With their heads held high, the band marched toward their buses to put their instruments away and release some nervous energy. On the quarter-mile journey they passed several bands that had already performed. Each of them paid the Lake Braddock band the highest honor of stepping aside and cheering the still marching line of their peers. After they stowed their instruments, the students silently moved back to the competition field to hear the results of the scoring.

Much to their joy and relief, and to the surprise of nobody there, the Lake Braddock Secondary School marching band was awarded the “Superior” rating necessary to be designated a Virginia Honor Band. For 30 straight years, the only band in the Commonwealth with that record of excellence.

The outcome was never assured. It took the focused efforts of every member of the team to achieve the distinction, and it took leadership at every level. High expectations give encouragement, they give permission to be bold, and they give purpose to hard work. They allow a 16 year-old to quietly lead her peers to greatness.