On Being in the Prep Band

Prep Concert Band 1967

I was never much interested in athletics and never joined a sports team, but in high school I eagerly joined the band. I did not know how to play a band instrument, but I had taken piano lessons in grade school and the band director offered lessons to prospective band members. So I opted for the trombone and spent most of my freshman year taking lessons after school. By sophomore year, I was proficient enough to join the band. At my high school, St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City NJ, band was totally extracurricular and was not graded. That was fine with me and I enjoyed staying after school for band rehearsals and most of my closest high school friends were also in the band: Joe Buzzerio played tuba, Robert Giovenco the trumpet, Richard Michalowski the baritone horn, and Robert Ruggieri the clarinet.

In the fall semester the band was especially a marching band and we performed at pep rallies, assemblies, and at all the home football games at the old Roosevelt Stadium (since demolished) at Newark Bay in Jersey City, as well as some away games.

We wore maroon jackets, maroon and white striped ties, white shoes and straw hats. (Can you guess that our school colors were maroon and white?) One of these games, against Dickinson High School, was traditionally played on Thanksgiving morning. We usually did a short half-time show on the field but we mostly played from the stands. I probably would not have attended many, if any, football games if I hadn’t been in the band, but I certainly had a great time at the games because of the band. One of the most exciting incidents was the time a fan from an opposing team stole the hat of the tuba player. This may have happened because our tuba player always used a metal tuba with pride and would ridicule tuba players from other schools who used “cheap fiberglass tubas.”

Playing in the band came with a special perk: Members actually earned letter sweaters for their participation. Our letters had harps instead of sports symbols but we wore our sweaters proudly to school, especially because our dress code allowed us to wear letter sweaters instead of suit jackets to school. Sophmores and Juniors wore maroon sweaters. Seniors wore white ones, with one stripe for each year of band. I got my maroon sweater (with one stripe) at the end of my sophmore year and my white sweater (with two stripes) at the end of junior year. I still have both sweaters, which I proudly wore to my 50th high school reunion three years ago.

We also marched in a number of parades in Hudson County. In addition to the St. Patrick’s Day in March, we also marched in the Holy Name Parade all the way from Prep at Grand and Warren in downtown Jersey City all the way to Lincoln Park — quite a trek. These parades were often a challenge because the mounted police usually led the parade and the horses left behind piles which we had to avoid while marching.

We were also a concert band and gave two concerts a year, one at Christmas and another in the spring. At least once before the spring concert we did a dress rehearsal at the Jesuit Novitiate, St Andrews-on-Hudson. (The Jesuits sold this property in 1969, the year after we graduated, and it is now the Culinary Institute of America!)

At one memorable Christmas concert (in 1966) we played the Hallelujah Chorus in which the trumpet section got a few bars ahead of the rest of the band and the result was quite cacaphonous. Needless to say, our band director, Mr Martel, was not happy after that concert and we got a lot of ribbing from our classmates who were not band members.

We played that Hallelujah Chorus much more successfully at the spring concert (held in Synder High School Auditorium) in April 1967. Also on that program were, among other pieces, “In a Persian Market” by Albert Ketelbey (I particularly liked the trombone part in that piece), “Hava Nagila”, selections from Rodgers and Hammerstien’s “The Sound of Music”, “Si Trocadero” by Harold Walters, Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus (Overture).”

In the 1968 concert the program included selections from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” “Londonderry Air,” “Come Back to Sorrento,” “Dixieland: Front and Center!”, and highlights from “Fiddler on the Roof” by Jerry Bock.

Our band director, Mr. John Martel, was a great guy. He was actually quite patient with us. I liked him so much that I continued to take paid lessons from him at his home in Bayonne even after I joined the band. On one of those occasions, my poor, unsuspecting father came in to pick me up only to be persuaded by Mr Martel to buy a used trombone for me. I still have that horn, which has gotten a lot of use over the years. Both my daughter Marie and son Richard used that trombone in their high school bands.

In our senior year, Mr Martel had a major heart attack. Under such circumstances that could have spelled the end of band for the rest of the year, but we were a determined group. Joe the tuba player took on a lot of the organizational responsibilities and our Jesuit scholastic advisor, Nick Connolly, who was not really a musician, agreed to conduct our rehearsals. In the end Mr. Martel recovered in time for us to have a fairly decent spring concert that year.

The band also played at commencement. This created a quandry for seniors in the band who had to choose between playing with the band and marching in with the graduating class. In our graduating class (’68) all but one of the seniors in the band chose to play with the band. That is what a tightly-knit group we were.

I taught Classics for 40+ years and am now Capron Professor Emeritus of Classics at Monmouth College in Illinois. Read more about me at www.tomsienkewicz.com.