This Saturday, September 22, at 7 p.m., spectators will fill the stands at the high school stadium for the Blue Devil Marching Band’s largest fundraiser of the year—the Festival of Bands. For the 24th year in a row, the Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils will host some of the finest marching bands in the Pittsburgh area including Brashear, Chartiers Valley, Jeanette, Peters Township and Upper St. Clair, for an evening of friendly, non-competitive performances that will showcase each of their carefully-polished halftime shows.
When the Blue Devils take to the field, however, the audience is in for two surprises—one more obvious than the other. First, the band will perform a themed medley of music from The Incredibles, which is the first time in recent memory that they will present a jazz-inspired show. The Blue Devils had the time to learn about jazz technique this year due to the second surprise—a season of more productive rehearsals, thanks to new drilling technology available to all members of the band on the music department iPads.
“We estimate that we learn drill (band movement) twice as fast as we did before. It has shaved hours off of drill time. Plus, we are using a language that the kids love and it makes it more engaging,” says Jason Cheskawich, the high school band director.
The initiative began shortly after the assistant band director, Rick Minnotte, approached Cheskawich with the idea. Minnotte’s daughter and son-in-law attended the University of Oklahoma, where their marching band, “The Pride of Oklahoma,” has been using iPad drill technology since 2015. The idea was originally popularized, however, by the Ohio State University Marching Band, whose early use of the iPad technology led to them being featured in a 2014 commercial for the iPad Air.
“The school district has been collecting older-generation iPads from teachers and funneling them in our direction for three years—It’s older tech that we are happy to have … We are at the point now where the vast majority of kids have a school-owned iPad when they learn drill,” says Cheskawich.
The marching band includes about 120 musicians and 30 auxiliary, and they typically rehearse twice a week throughout the football season. They mostly use the iPads during band camp, which is held annually for two weeks in August, but students are encouraged to sign out the devices for practicing at home or in groups outside of the regularly-scheduled rehearsals.
Each iPad uses a program called Pyware to animate the drills. First, the drill writer saves the drill files in a certain format that the software can read. Then, when the students use them during rehearsal, Pyware assigns each band member an individual coordinate, move or set, and as they move with the iPads, the program animates the drill so that they can see the overall picture or isolate their own spot to see how they should travel from one point to another.
“As far as high school goes, I don’t know of anyone else who is doing this,” says Cheskawich. “I would say it is unusual.”
Cheskawich emphasized that the use of the iPads is less about competition than it is about student enrichment and opening up time to work on technique. “Our band festival is just for fun. It’s good for the bands to watch each other perform, and it’s nice to play for an audience that’s just there to see the bands,” says Cheskawich. “Still, we will be going to the Norwin Band Festival (a juried festival) in a few weeks, just to get that evaluation.”
Enrichment initiatives such as the marching band iPads are made possible through the various band fundraisers that take place over the year, especially the Festival of Bands. “So much of what we do over the course of the season is dependent on a successful festival,” says Cheskawich. “We bring in as many bands as we can. We always have a good lineup. What could be better than seeing a marching band show toward the end of September? It’s a nice night out.”