FORT MILL TOWNSHIP --
Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a summer-long series.
The Fort Mill High School Marching Band, under the direction of John Pruitt, marched onto the competition field in Akron, Ohio, last year, facing 35-mile-per-hour winds and chilly 40-degree weather. The wind knocked students off balance and tossed the plumes on their hats into the air, but the band kept their eyes on the prize.
They wanted to take home the first Regional Bands of America title in Fort Mill band history.
“The students were noticeably aggressive,” Pruitt said. “They weren’t making any excuses. We weren’t going to be an ‘also ran.’”
After battling the elements in the preliminary competition the band was awarded first place in its class and a spot in the final competition that evening.
In the final competition, the band again brought out its take-no-prisoners attitude.
“The crowd responded,” Pruitt said. “Even before we knew we had won, we knew it was the performance of a lifetime.”
The band won first place in the final competition as well as first place awards for Outstanding Visual Performance and Outstanding General Effect. It was the first time in Fort Mill band history that the band had taken first place in a regional Bands of America competition.
Sara Ann Hutto, a junior at the time, will never forget how she felt after winning the Regional Championship title.
“It was perfect. I had all my friends around me and I remember walking off the field thinking, ‘Wow, did that really happen?’” Hutto said.
After accepting their trophy, the band was invited back onto the field to perform The Horse, the traditional Fort Mill fight song. With emotions running high and tears in many of the students’ eyes, the band performed in a stadium full of proud Fort Mill parents and fans.
“I thought, ‘This is the moment we’ve been waiting for,’” Hutto said.
That competition stands out to Pruitt more than any in his five years at Fort Mill High School. Pruitt took over direction of the band in 2007 when director Martin Dickey left to direct the new Nation Ford High School band.
Before directing the Fort Mill band, Pruitt was the director at Cheraw High School for 11 years. He also previously served in the U.S. Navy.
Under Pruitt’s leadership the band won the 2009 Class 4A state championship as well as the 2011 Bands of America regional championship in Akron, a first in the band’s 19 year history of competing in Bands of America championships.
For the Fort Mill band, who have garnered 22 state championships in the last 36 years, Bands of America competitions have become the next stage the band hopes to conquer.
Bands of America competitions draw talented bands from around the country to compete in regional championships and an annual national championship.
The shift in focus from local competitions to competing in the Bands of America competitions hasn’t affected the band’s main intent – to entertain the audience, said Pruitt.
While shows in the national competition arena frequently become high brow and more intellectual in theme, Pruitt has taken care not to get too carried away by creating shows that the audience can’t connect to.
“Sometimes we remind each other that it is just marching band. I still want the audience to be engaged and enjoy the performance,” Pruitt said. “I don’t believe you have to create a show that will play to a Bands of America judge but will not to a football audience. A good performance will be enjoyed by all audiences.”
The band’s shows recently have included a lot of physical work on the students’ part, including tai chi moves at the beginning of the 2009 show, ‘China - Beyond the Great Wall.’ Simple dance moves, once something that was purely color guard’s domain, are sometimes incorporated into the band’s drill.
Like directors before him, Pruitt also sees importance in creating a highly skilled concert band.
Focusing on concert band isn’t just a way to improve the students’ musicianship so that they can win more competitions as a marching band, he added. The concert band season helps reach the real end goal of the band program, Pruitt said, which is to create better student musicians.
He pushes students to compete in music competitions outside of the marching band program. The persistence has paid off, with students succeeding in music programs around the country, including two students selected to play at Carnegie Hall, students selected for the Honor Band of America, as well as dozens of students selected each year for Region and All State concert bands.
“We work from the first day of band camp to the last day of school to create student musicians first,” Pruitt said. “The day after the state competition, we pull out bassoons and concert instruments and we prepare for All State auditions.”
But there’s an even loftier goal that Pruitt has set for himself. Beyond the music, marching drill, competitions and concerts, Pruitt is trying to make connections with his students that help them become better people.
He focuses on the band’s “Core Values,” a set of values that include peace, maturity, and selflessness. He teaches the core values to students and works with his senior band members to help them pass the core values on to incoming freshmen.
“If you’re not trying to better human beings, you’re trying to exploit them,” Pruitt said. “You could grind them down to bring more accolades to the program, but it really should be about building up the individual. I want to see them leave here and become good citizens.”
Sometimes Pruitt will be talking with students and get sidetracked, said Hutto, now a senior in the band. He’ll be leading a discussion about something band related and somehow the conversation will turn into proper nutrition or meaningful books he’s read.
“He likes to say, ‘Where are the thinkers in the room?’ He likes to get philosophical on us,” Hutto said.
It’s part of how Pruitt shows that he cares about more than where the students’ feet are on the field, or whether they have mastered all of their scales. And if the band’s attrition rate is any indication, Pruitt’s connection to his students creates a bond that continues throughout their four years of high school.
Band members rarely drop out of the band, he said. Most begin as freshman and see it through the full four years.
Once a band member, always a band member.
“That makes my job immensely rewarding and satisfying,” Pruitt said.