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The Big Red Machine

The Vicksburg High marching band marching through the downtown streets.
The Vicksburg High marching band marching through the downtown streets.

By Leeanne Seaver

Take the bookworm, the jock, the cheerleader, the shy kid, the brainiac— approximately 190 of them, in other words one of every four students at Vicksburg High School—and you’ve got the component parts of its award-winning band program. Ben Rosier, director and music-machinist extraordinaire, puts them together with intense quality control and a whole lot of style. The result is an extremely high performance vehicle: the Big Red Machine (BRM).

Add the school administration, the families and local businesses—mix in hundreds more from the community at large—and you’ve got the support it takes to make the BRM go. The Vicksburg community and its school band programs have been a winning combination for generations now.

How It Works

“This community embraces the bands, whether it’s coming out and walking the track during evening marching band rehearsals or attending our jazz dinner dance. Folks have always been eager and open to share their time and funds to help make our program successful,” says Rosier. “That support is bolstered by a school administration that has actively stepped up to support the arts when programs are on the chopping block.”

Unrivaled community support extends well beyond financial contributions. The volunteer hours to fix uniforms, chaperone trips and band camp, provide water and snacks, and help transport instruments to games and contests, are incalculable. Parents are a huge part of that, but even band alums are likely to help out in many ways. VHS band alum Craig Rolfe, now a practicing attorney, has been such an omnipresent supporter that Rosier finally handed him the microphone and asked him to be the official announcer of the BRM. Once you’re in the BRM family, you always belong and you’re always needed.

The Big Red Machine (a 1970s era nickname that stuck) has maintained a stellar competition record for decades. Except for one traumatizing year of two 2’s and a 3 (references to it are generally avoided), the BRM enjoys pristine first place rankings and a stellar reputation statewide. Its success is the product of high standards set by a long line of strong directors starting with William Root back in the ‘50s. Ben Rosier says “I have never put a reasonable high expectation in front of a group of students that they haven’t reached.”

Training for performance and competition begins at least a month before school starts with band camp in early August. The six am reveille calls campers for a morning run and core training workout to get them in shape for the marching season. “It’s like boot camp,” says junior Richy Livingston, “except everybody’s nice. We all take care of each other.”

Looking after one another is part of band culture at VHS. Upper classmen assume leadership roles. They bring the newbies under their wings, a practice that’s always been a part of the BRM.

According to Jim Shaw, who directed the band from 1966 to 1976, “The seniors took over. They knew they were in charge of seeing that those underclassmen understood what they were a part of.”

Rosier agrees, “It’s incredible to watch the upperclassmen take charge of their band and help the underclassmen understand what we stand for and the things that we will never allow.”

Proof That It Works

The Big Red Machine has a consistent showing in the top ten of every senior class. The graduation rate for band students is high as 95 to 100 percent. Two thirds of them go on to college. Rosier smiles and adds, “They do tend to come back.” He enjoys regular visits from alums who drop by to reminisce about good times.

Jim Shaw has had the same experience, “I cross paths with students quite often. They tell me what they learned in band has helped them all their adult lives. Some of them weren’t great musicians but they were great band members—able to be part of a winning organization, to put forth the effort that allowed it to be successful.” Shaw remembers one student in particular, “He just didn’t play well, and hated try outs. One time he even fell off the chair he was so nervous. But he was an excellent band member, always inspiring the other kids to give their best effort.

He went on to become a superintendent of schools in New York. He’s stayed in touch, and remarks to me often that he learned how to put in his maximum effort from his days with the BRM.”

VHS principal Keevin O’Neill sums it up this way, “Not only are they great performers, they’re great kids with a lot of drive. They’re academically strong, and wherever they go, they take pride in representing our school in the highest light.

They’re never satisfied. They push themselves to get better, but they’re also having a lot of fun and experiencing profound human connections. Those students are learning in band what it takes to succeed in life.”

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