FORT MILL --
Editor’s note: This is the next installment of an occasional series leading up to the Fort Mill Band reunion Sept. 15.
If the only constant in life is change, the Fort Mill High School Marching Band got an up close and personal life lesson in the early 1990s.
Band director Bob Cotter left the band in 1992 and Scott Lambert, a director from Virginia, took the reins. Lambert led the band to two state championships in two years before resigning the position early in the 1994 competition season.
With Lambert gone, the school’s administration turned to Martin Dickey, the middle school band director, to take over.
The transition from Lambert to Dickey was stressful for students, Dickey said, especially seniors who were facing their third director in four years.
“It could have been devastating on the program,” Dickey said.
Dickey prevented the unease and uncertainty from becoming a negative experience for the students. He spent a lot of time talking to students and getting to know them better.
“I told them, ‘This is the situation we’re in, and we have to live with it,’ Dickey said. “And they rallied. We had a great season. We just focused on the positive and making the situation the best we could.”
That year was the first in five years that the band didn’t win the State title. Something was “off” about that competition, said Wil Plyler, the band’s drum major in 1994. Typically, the band would be among the last bands to perform at the State competition. Those last spots were coveted because they were late in the evening and performed under the lights of the football stadium.
The drama and excitement of the stadium lights gave nighttime performances more energy than a mid-afternoon performance.
That year, the band was assigned a midday performance time. The performance lacked the energy that a nighttime show would have.
“It was a major let down. Everyone wanted to perform under the lights. It was a magical moment. We thrived off the crowd’s energy,” Plyler said. “No one wants to perform in the afternoon.”
The band finished in second place. There was disappointment, but Dickey reminded students that you can’t win ‘em all.
“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It’s how you play the game. Did you do your best? If you have that philosophy, everything else will follow,” Dickey said.
Dickey’s leadership and sage advice helped soothe the sting of the loss, Plyler said. The band gathered together after the loss and Dickey told the students how sorry he was that the competition hadn’t gone their way.
Plyler got the impression that Dickey, although trying to stay positive, “was never letting that happen again.”
The band won the State competition for the next five years in a row.
Dickey directed the Fort Mill Marching Band for 12 years and led the group to eight state championships. During his tenure, he led the band through the transition from Class 3A to 4A, organized three trips for the band to perform at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and directed them in the 1995 Tournament of Roses Parade.
Drum majors Plyler and Josh Bouldin traveled to California for the Rose Bowl Parade with Dickey in advance of the rest of the band. Dressed in full uniform, they attended parade meetings with other directors and drum majors at California Institute of Technology and had the chance to see where the floats were being created. They met the parade’s Grand Marshall, Chi Chi Rodriguez.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Plyler said, and just one of many he had with the marching band.
“To this day I can look back on that and cherish it. These types of programs put kids in positions they would never get to see,” Plyler said.
Dickey also took the band to four Bands of America Grand National competitions. BOA competitions were a completely different experience from the local competitions the band had grown accustomed to, Bouldin said.
BOA competitions bring competitive marching bands together from around the country.
“You go to Bands of America and you’ve only heard stories about these bands. They walk out on the field with 300 kids and the field is just covered. You can only take a wild guess as to how well you’re going to do against them. It’s a completely different stage to compete on,” Bouldin said.
Behind the scenes, Dickey knew that in order for the band to be competitive at the BOA competitions, its musical performance would have to improve.
The goal was to develop the students as musicians, he said, and “the marching follows.”
“You have to have a concert band that happens to march. And then they have to march really well,” Dickey said.
When rehearsing, Bouldin remembers that Dickey would make the band members sing their parts. Feeling silly at first, but trusting Dickey’s guidance, they did as they wee told.
“It was subtle, but had a tremendous impact. It helped us with intonation and balance. It would all just click. When you hear one another better, you play together better. That something he could draw out of us,” Bouldin said.
Dickey’s skill as a concert band director is one of the reasons for his many marching band successes, said former director Bob Cotter. Under Dickey’s direction, the Fort Mill band expanded from two concert bands to three. The bands performed college-level compositions and earned superior marks at concert band festivals.
“The concert band was kicking butt and taking names, and that concert band drives the success of the marching band,” Cotter said.
Like the directors before him, Dickey was always keeping an eye on national band trends. The marching band had spent several years doing “theme” shows, using popular music and props to tell a story. Then, the trend changed towards more cerebral shows that used complex music and themes.
The trick was to take the complex music, match it with the marching drill, and keep the audience interested.
The 2003 show was just the right combination. Called “A Beautiful Mind,” the show brought the band’s music and marching together into a state title-capturing performance.
The show illustrated the dichotomy between the left and right brain. The 50 yard line on the football field represented the dividing line between the two hemispheres. The band’s drill, the shapes it makes on field, as well as the music and the color guard flags would change as the band crossed the line.
On the left side of the field, representing the analytical left brain, the band created straight lines and the color guard carried black and white flags. On the right side of the field, the artistic right brain was represented with colorful flags and marching drill that created curvilinear shapes.
“A Beautiful Mind” kicked off another three-year streak of state title wins.
In 2007 Dickey left the Fort Mill High School Marching Band to direct the band program at Fort Mill’s second high school, Nation Ford High School, which has established its own tradition of excellence.
“My goal was to see Fort Mill go from one successful band to two successful bands, and one day, to three,” Dickey said.