2011 Director’s Feature-Mendon Unity High School
Filed under: — Dan Balash @ 7:00 am

This is the first in the 2011 series of Illinois Marching Online’s director’s features.  There are bands from all ends of the state that will be featured this year-from bands that don’t compete, bands that are competing for the first time, to bands that compete on the National stage, and have done well.  Today, starting off will be Lauren Aspel from Mendon Unity High School.  Mendon is a town of about 900 residents, near Quincy, Illinois.  Mendon has a 2011 enrollment of 192 students.

Illinois Marching Online: What is your prior directing experience?

Lauren Aspel: Unity was and is my first job after graduating from Bradley University in December 2008. I have been on the marching band staff for Illinois Valley Central for five seasons, and worked with Metamora Township High School while I was their student teacher in the fall of 2008. Dan Dietrich, Matt Chapman, Dr. Wally Parks, and Chris Render really have helped shape the way I see and teach marching band. I couldn’t ask for better mentors! When I got hired at Unity in Fall 2009, I had no idea what I was walking into. I stepped into a program that was on a very bad downward spiral and waiting for someone to pick it back up. My first year was a struggle, and with low numbers we were just a pep band for football games. I took my students to marching band competitions that year and they decided that it was something they wanted to be a part of to help restore pride in our band. Last year we moved and marched a halftime show, and went to Hannibal Band Day. The band got a standing ovation from the crowd and they were hooked! The program has grown, the attitudes are changing, and the community is supporting us- it’s all that I could ask for right now.


IMO: What is your 2011 show, and what are the musical selections?

LA: Our show this year has had a name change- it is now being called “Out Of Your Element.” It is based around the earth elements and features “Fanfare for the Third Planet”, “Into the Light”, “Enter Sandman”, and “Through the Fire and Flames”.

IMO: How do you arrive at your shows and musical selections?

LA: That is a good question! I usually start thinking of ideas during Christmas Break. This year was a struggle at first to figure out a show because I have to balance community appeal to competitive marching appeal. Community support is something I strive for in my program. Like I said earlier, I stepped into this program as it was falling apart, and the community was worried that the band program would dissolve. So finding a show that they will understand and enjoy is my top priority. However, since we are going competitive, I also have to think about what would appeal to judges. Last year I did all pop music in the show; it not only got the community’s attention, but the kids got hooked on marching band. This year, after meeting with some of my staff in January, we came up with our show. We thought it was a good mix of more traditional music versus pop to appeal to the crowd and judges. After I had our music picked, I moved onto color schemes and guard equipment. And above all, I have to make sure I am not spending a tremendous amount of money on equipment and supplies because I do not have a large budget.

IMO: What are some things visually/musically to look for in your show?

LA: Overall, listen to the percussion parts. My percussion tech, Conner Kerrigan, did a fantastic job working with my percussionists. The 3rd movement starts with an original percussion break written by Conner that sets-up “Enter Sandman.”  Look for my percussionists to be centered between the 40 and 45 yard lines on the left side of the field. In “Fanfare,” listen for the opening to have the woodwinds and brass interchange melody lines and the middle “robot” section. Look for a lot of intertwining shapes in the first half of the movement and a lot of box shapes in the “robot” section. The 2nd movement, listen for the Alto Sax solo and look for the “wave” and the color guard’s equipment- they have rain-sticks for the majority of the piece. The 3rd movement again features the percussion and watch for the band body movement section. I’ll leave the final movement as a surprise. Oh and be prepared for my Sousaphones…they are the heartbeat of the band right now!

IMO: What is the instrumentation/guard breakdown for 2011? Is marching band volunteer or mandatory?

LA: I have 26 winds, 4 percussionists, and 8 guard members. My first year we had maybe 15-18 band members and this year (my third year) we are up to around 35. Since I am the only band director in the district, I can see the growth of the program. My younger two bands are large, which means potentially down the line the high school band will grow every year. My marching band is mandatory- we spend all fall focusing on just marching band and transition to concert band in November.


IMO:What is your rehearsal schedule like for the season? Is band camp on campus, or do you go away?

LA: We had band camp back in late July for a week on campus. It was M-F from 8:30-6:00 everyday. This year I kicked camp off with a band picnic the Sunday before to have some band, staff, and band parent “bonding.” It also allowed me to prep my students for the week ahead. During camp we spent the morning til 12:00 working on basics and maybe some drill. Having a large chunk of time devoted to basics was done because this is our first year going to competitions. After lunch (provided by out boosters), we spent the afternoon out of the heat working on music in sectionals and full band rehearsals. About 4:00 we would head back outside and work on drill until the end of the day. We also had about 5-6 additional band camp days after that week to keep progressing. During the school year we meet every day during regular band hour. In addition, to help facilitate our color guard, we practice Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 6:30 AM. The color guard also has a sectional on Wednesday mornings at that time. We have to have morning practice due to athletics after school. The students don’t always like that, but they know those practices help in the grand scheme of things. The only issue we struggle with here at Unity is trying to get kids to practice because our district is so large in area, and because most of my students are in a sport and band. The coaches here are understanding, and we try to work everything out in the student’s best interest.

IMO: What does your 2011 competition schedule look like?

LA: In September we are heading to Morton, and then in October (in order) we are headed to Metamora, Quincy, Hannibal, Lincoln-Way, and WIU.


IMO: This is your first year of competition, and your second year of marching with drill. What have those achievements been like to attain?

LA: Last year the community was shocked that our band could even play and move. I didn’t fully grasp the impact the band had until Hannibal last year. When they got a standing ovation, I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that was my band! That was when I knew we had to start branching out and going to competitions. The marching still isn’t perfect, but I know a lot of that is because my students are just easing in to this realm of marching band world, and we really are a young band program. Am I expecting miracles, no, but I do have very high expectations for them. They all know this. Some days are better than others, but I know what this band is capable of and I am proud of them no matter what. I am just hoping that we have a season they can be proud of and build upon. To me right now it is not about trophies or beating another band, it is about experience and growth. That is why our new band motto is “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”

IMO: Who is on your staff?

LA: Since my budget isn’t the greatest, I had to be resourceful when it came to finding help. One of my friends from college graciously donated his time helping me write drill and music, and helped me find some other people who were willing to help even if they were not getting paid a lot. During band camp I was able to have 2 marching/visual techs, my percussion tech, and 2 color guard techs in addition to myself. However, during the school year it is me and my color guard coach Lexi Mayberry who are at practice everyday. I do have my drum major from last year who comes to help during the week when she does not have class, but a lot of the music and drill cleaning is all on me. It is a lot to take on, considering I teach every band and 3 sections of general music in our district, but somehow I am able to get through it.

IMO: How big is the preferred size for your band? Why?

LA: Our total enrollment in the high school is right around 250 students max. My band is currently 33 total registered for the year. (That is not counting 5 guard members) So it is roughly 15% of the school. Ideally I would like to see the band be at least 40% of the school population. That would have my band being about 100 people. I think that at the 100 member mark there is more I can do visually. The sound and balanced instrumentation would just depend on the students in the band, but ideally those two areas would be enhanced as well. Do I think that can happen? Yes, but it will take a few years. I will be happy with having the band grow to at least 50-60 members in the next 5 years. I think that is an attainable goal.


IMO: What are some of your favorite memories from the bands you have directed?

LA: While I have some great memories from helping both IVC and Metamora, those aren’t truly my programs I am just fortunate enough to have worked within them. At Unity there have been some pretty big milestones we’ve reached. Our boosters raised over $30,000 in just over 4 months to purchase not only an equipment trailer, but also new marching band uniforms this year. My students are ecstatic to show off their new look and so am I! Last fall at Hannibal with the standing ovation still gives me chills. I can’t forget about the biggest one of all…when we won a Grammy Signature School Enterprise Award last May. We were one of 36 schools in the nation to receive that award. And were the only school in Illinois to get the Enterprise award. It was a huge deal for our school and community. We were in the papers and on the news. We had a HUGE concert presentation with the whole district. We received $5,500 from the Grammy Foundation and received a Grammy Award Plaque that is hanging in our main school entrance. The money went to purchasing brass Sousaphones, replacing our ancient fiberglass ones. It was a surreal day that I still can’t believe happened. As a matter of fact I had no idea we received the award until the foundation called looking for my acceptance paperwork. It is something I will never ever forget and I hope my students don’t either. I also am starting to just appreciate the “family” my program is becoming. I have students who just graduated coming back now and saying how much they miss my program. (It makes me proud that some of them are continuing to play at their respective colleges!) I love that my band parents all support what their children are doing, and trust me to lead them in this direction.


IMO: What are you most excited for this year?

LA: I am excited for my students to feel the rush at competition. It is something I loved when I marched in high school. I am looking forward to showing off our uniforms, trailer, and new instruments. However, I am most looking forward to attending the Lincoln-Way Competition. Most of my band staff are graduates of Lincoln-Way East and North, so for them it is showing off what they worked on now that they are alumni. I am a graduate of Lockport Township, so this competition is in my family’s backyard. I have a lot of family and friends who are coming to see my band. It isn’t convenient to drive 4 hours to see my band every weekend, so this is the first opportunity for them to see it. The idea of going there is still nerve-wracking for me, but it is an experience I want my students to have. If I stayed around by our school to compete, my students would never get to see some of the bands that are performing at Lincoln-Way. And in the end I am most excited to see how much our show can grow by the end of the season being our first time in competition.


Illinois Marching Online thanks Lauren Aspel for her time and candor answering our questions, and wishes Unity High School the best of luck in their first year of competition!



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