A look at WCU’s student-run band competitionLocal bands routine performers at Tournament of Champions
For many years, the bands at Tuscola and Pisgah High schools have been venturing to the Western Carolina University campus to compete in the annual Tournament of Champions (TOC) marching band contest.
What many people don’t know about the tournament is that it is almost entirely student-run by WCU band members every fall.
Chelsea Owens is just one of hundreds of Pride of the Mountains marching band members who gave up three days of their fall break holiday to run the 13th annual Tournament of Champions — an annual competition that showcases elite marching bands from throughout the Southeast and Eastern Seaboard.
“I was one of those marching kids who saw Pride of the Mountains perform at TOC multiple times, and was always blown away by their performances," said Owens, a senior flute player. "It was definitely a contributing factor for why I am here at WCU today.”
This year during the Oct. 12 tournament, Owens was a courier, which meant she handled ticket booth funds from 7 a.m. until WCU performed its band show at 9:30 p.m. Despite such long hours, Owens said being a part of TOC was always worth the hours.
"Each year, I talk to at least one student who tells me they are so excited to one day come to Western Carolina University and be a part of this band program," Owens said. "TOC gives high school band members a goal to strive for. It may be hard work for everyone, but even if we inspire just one student, it is worth every minute of it."
Jesse Lloyd, a senior who is the Baritone section leader this year, has worked in the press box during TOC for the past four years.
"Having a role up there means that I work directly with the judges, running score sheets, getting them anything they need, answering any questions and helping with any other jobs that need to be taken care of," he said.
Lloyd said it meant a lot to him to be involved with the competition, adding that it was chance to share a passion for marching band with younger band students.
"Its an early start at 8:30 in the morning and a late night after it's all done, but being a part of what happens throughout the day, especially seeing kids faces light up when they win, definitely makes it worth it," Lloyd said.
Lloyd added that being a part of TOC has helped prepare him for a career as a band director.
"I've learned some do's and don'ts from the judging side and also how to plan major events like this for my program," Lloyd said. "Overall, it's provided me with an experience that was really once in a lifetime."
Matt Henley, assistant band director of Pride of the Mountains, said this year had been one of the largest turnouts ever, with 25 bands competing.
“The more exciting part for me was that we had six states represented," Henley said. "The other thing that was really neat was the caliber of the bands in general. There was no clear-cut winner coming through the door. Many bands could have won it that day.”
Dobyns-Bennett High School from Kingsport, Tennessee, was crowned the 2013 Grand Champion for receiving the highest score during the competition.
Henley said one thing that set TOC apart from other festivals was the way students were held accountable to run the event.
“It’s dramatically different in that we have to be completely self sufficient," Henley said. “I always admire our students because they give up their last three days of fall break to come back and do this. For them to be that excited to do this and being engaged in learning — that’s a really big deal.”
Tuscola and Pisgah High schools participated in the tournament once again this year. Both bands competed against each other and eight other bands in the Class A Division.
Tuscola has competed at every TOC since the contest began. This year, the band claimed sixth place in the division.
Tuscola Band director Tim Wise said he thought his band could have done better during the competition.
“Unfortunately, we did not have one of our better performances,” Wise said. “When you work as hard as these students did, you want them to go out at each show and perform their best but it does not always work out that way.”
This year’s Tuscola band show is called "In the Bleak Midwinter.” Wise described it as a musical journey through the winter season starting with the last leaves of autumn, traveling through the holiday season, experiencing a blinding winter snowstorm, and ending at the beginning of spring.
“We have also traveled to compete in Bands of America events all across the country so we enjoy the large stage,” Wise said. “In order to compete with the best you have to rehearse and perform with your 'A' game every day.”
The Pisgah High School Band of Bears also performed in TOC this year, claiming seventh-place in the Class A Division. Pisgah band director Adam Stewart said he was pleased with his band’s performance.
“The students had been working extremely hard to prepare for the event,” Stewart said. “We have had rehearsals two to three times per week since the beginning of August. One of the biggest challenges that come with competing at the Tournament of Champions is the competition. The tournament has built a strong reputation over the past years and has attracted some of the strongest band programs from around the Southeast.”
Stewart, who is a WCU graduate and former Pride of the Mountains band member, said TOC was a great learning experience for his students.
“One of the great things about going to the tournament is getting the opportunity to watch the other groups,” Steward said. “It gives the staff and students a great chance to see what other groups are doing and allows us to get ideas for our future shows.”
Pisgah’s marching band this year is called “Papertown,” which is a show about the town of Canton.
“With this show, we wanted to try and tell a little bit of the story of Canton to people who may or may not be familiar with the area,” Stewart said. “The town and students have really put their energy into this show and it has turned into a great product.”