Naugatuck band marches to perfection

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No one could touch the Hounds this season; the Greyhound marching band, that is. The band trounced every team they marched against, rounding out a perfect 8-0 season with a championship at the Musical Arts Conference at the Kennedy Stadium in Bridgeport on Nov. 13.

In a sport where victory hangs on the turn of a heel, Naugatuck is the best in New England.

Judges measure not only the precise steps and musical aptitude, but how well the music and marching work together. The musicians are judged on how well they play, how musically they play and how well they express the music, said Robert Kogut, Naugatuck High School band director.

“If we’re not as good in one area, we always tend to make up for it in another area,” said Monica Niebrzydowski, the band president and clarinet section leader.

Going into the championships, Niebrzydowski said she was confident, but didn’t expect to do as well as she did.

“We know we were going to do good. We knew we were going to place higher and exceed our last score, but we definitely exceeded our expectations,” Niebrzydowski said.

She said as a senior, her last performance was emotional.

“When I came off that field I had tears in my eyes because I knew it was the last time I was going to be able to do that,” she said.

The band members put all their energy in to their last performance, Niebrzydowski said.

“We stepped off that field knowing that we put our entire heart into that performance and it’s really a phenomenal feeling when you get off that field,” Niebrzydowski said.

Hard work pays off

The Naugatuck High School band didn’t get to be New England champs without a little sweat and tears.

The band started out the season with band camp, where they practiced 12 hours each day for a week to learn the fundamentals.

“They literally come in knowing absolutely nothing,” Niebrzydowski said.

She and the band staff had to bring the freshman and 8th graders up to speed. Yes, 8th graders — the high school band has about 5-6 of them Niebrzydowski said.

“We treat them exactly the same way as we treat everyone else,” Niebrzydowski said.

The 56-member band practiced for four hours every Tuesday and Thursday and nine hours on Saturdays. Plus, there are the Friday night football games.

Then it’s time for the big day – competition.

“Competitions are definitely something that the whole band looks forward to,” Nibrzydowski said.

On the day of a show, the band practices for three hours before competing.

“That’s the time that everyone gets in the zone,” Niebrzydowski said.

They’d load up the bus and plow through the 14 hour day, yet no one complained said Kogut.

“They just kept plugging away,” he said.

Success starts with attitude

Kogut said the key to their success was enthusiasm. A new staff of ex-students brought energy and a fresh eye to whip the band in shape. Kogut said that it was great to see how excited his new staff got when the students would step up and really get a piece.

Team cohesion played another important role in their victory, according to Kogut. Even the young kids felt accepted, he said.

“Everyone is seriously like a family,” Niewbrzydowski said.

Before band camp, Niebrzydowski invited everyone over to her house for a band-a-palooza pool party.

“It was definitely a big bonding time for everyone,” Niebrzydowski said.

Later in the year, they had a bowling party, with 40 band members attending.

“There were no little clicks; everybody bought in to the program,” Kogut said.

Kogut said the team focused on self-improvement rather than winning.

“Our goal is to beat Naugatuck…We can’t control the judges. We can’t control the other bands. All we can do is control our own performance,” he said.

At the beginning of the season, the band had scores in the 70s (out of 100). At the championships, they earned 89.95, according to Niebrzydowski.

Kogut said the band was an exceptional group of kids who kept a positive attitude, led by an excellent group of student leaders.

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I cann’t remember when we had a better group of kids,” Kogut said.

Drummers improve in a big way

The percussion section stepped it up this year to win 2nd in the championship competition, with a score of 95 out of 100. Stamford just barely slipped past them with a 10th of a point.

The drum line started out with a former sax player, trumpet player, a few freshman, and an eighth-grader.

“If you’d seen them in August, you would never realize that they were competent,” Niebrzydowski said.

The band staff started out teaching them the basics, Niebrzydowski said.

“They didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into. Week after week, they started getting a little bit better,” Niebrzydowski said.

In the last two weeks, the staff pushed them to their limit.

“We all witnessed them starting from absolutely nothing and really coming together. It was really great to see that,” Niebrzydowski said.

Luckily, since they’re all young, they’ll be back next year.

“In the beginning of July, they couldn’t walk and talk in step, much less play. By the end of the season they really became a drum line,” Kogut said.

Kogut said it was rewarding to see his band improve. The color guard won the championships, with over 50% of its members starting their first year.

“It was really exiting as a teacher to see the growth over the year,” said Kogut.

Parents dress sharp

Not only were students dedicated to what they are doing, but the staff and parents as well, said Kogut.

Parents organized a championship breakfast, where they dressed up in tuxedo shirts and bow ties and served the students a feast. They posted hundreds of pictures on walls from the whole season.

“We get to really reflect on all the work we put in to the season and that work is going to pay off the following night,” said Niebrzydowski.

Donations sought

After the band had to cancel its annual competition due to lack of interest from other bands, parents worked hard to do house to house donations, said Kogut. After canvassing half the town, the band was able to make $6,000, about the same as what they usually raise from the annual competition.

Niebrzydowski said the march-a-thon was a great opportunity to make the band known around the town for those who didn’t know about it.

“People really seemed to respond to us with a great attitude,” she said. “I didn’t think that many people knew about us or actually cared.”

However, the band is still a little short on change this year, do to state-wide budget cuts.

Kogut said Board of Education has been very supportive, paying for new uniforms and much-needed new drums, which were last replaced before a trip to France 15 years ago.

Kogut said before the drums were replaced, “We held ours together with duck tape.”

Kogut said that the annual budget of $20,000 covers all the band’s activities, including the band truck, cleaning uniforms, subsidies for students who can’t afford the $75 activity fee.

‘Great musical experience’

This year, the band performed a selection from the musical Les Miserables, including Look Down, I Dreamed a Dream, Master of the House, Own my Own, and Do you Hear the People Sing.

Kogut said he last did the show 12 years ago and felt there was still more he could get out of it.

“There’s so much music in Les Miserables, we just barely touched on all the good stuff,” said Kogut.

He had the right group to do it this year.

“Even being small, we could still get a great musical experience out of it,” said Kogut.

Plus, the kids absolutely loved it.

“Usually by the end of the marching season, everyone is tired of the music, but not this year,” said Kogut.

He said the students still listen to it on their iPods and sing it in the halls.

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