First published in The Record, September 21, 2017
At an Overlooked High School, one of the nation's best marching bands
The fire started in the kitchen at 7 a.m. on Aug. 13. It burned up nearly everything — the sofa, all of Julie Vazquez’s clothes, even the fancy case that held her flute. After the fire, Vazquez’s parents returned to the apartment and retrieved the flute, undamaged and shiny.
Three days later, Vazquez attended practice with the Passaic High School marching band. This was the band’s final all-day practice before the start of the fall competition season. Officially the temperature in Passaic reached 84 degrees on this Saturday in September, but the sun bouncing off the turf at Boverini Stadium made it hotter.
Vazquez didn’t want to talk about the heat. She didn’t want to talk about the fire. She didn’t want to talk much at all. She believes this group of 125 kids from this working-class city can win the state championship for the second year in a row. They might even have a shot at the national championship, which will be decided on Nov. 11 at MetLife Stadium.
Forget the heat and the fire. Julie Vazquez came to work.
“I don’t want anyone to worry about me,” said Vazquez, 17. “I just want to stay focused. I know this is going to be a good year.”
The Passaic High School marching band is one of the best in the country. Last year at the national championship, it finished third.
Maybe you didn’t know this. Passaic is a city with 70,000 people and a long-ago history as an industrial power. These days, however, it receives attention mostly when a resident does something wrong.
Two of its mayors pleaded guilty over the last decade to corruption charges. Last month an intoxicated Passaic man allegedly bit a Clifton police officer on the hand while resisting arrest.
“When people hear of Passaic it’s usually because of an accident or a shooting,” said Chris Rusca, the band’s director. “They don’t necessarily think of a great marching band.”
Unlike marching bands in affluent towns, Rusca said, most of the students do not own their own instruments. None receive private music lessons, and only one parent has time to volunteer.
“We’ve been the underdogs,” Rusca said.
To succeed, the band relies on a schedule of grueling all-day practices. The sessions start at 10:30 a.m. and end at 6 p.m. In between, Rusca takes the seven-and-a-half-minute show and divides it into segments, each about five seconds long. Then he drills the band on every segment, over and over.
First the students learn the music.
Then they learn the steps.
Eventually, they learn to persevere.
They see Julie Vazquez, three days after losing her home in a fire, marching perfectly and playing as loudly as she can. They see Nereida Delgado, 14, a freshman clarinetist who joined the band two weeks ago, working through lunch to memorize her steps.
They see Rose Holder — a lifelong asthmatic and captain of the color guard, the emotional heart of the band — stop between drills to place both hands on her knees and fight for breath.
“We don’t have the best instruments or the best sets,” said Holder, 17. “But we have hard work. And we have heart.”
Struggling and striving
Nereida Delgado did not know what she was doing, so she tried to make herself as small as she could. She held her clarinet with her elbows pressed against her torso, her black baseball cap low over her eyes, her lips pressed tightly shut.
Her steps were small, too. This created problems because, at the top levels of competition, marching bands never walk in straight lines. They swoop and pivot, carving the field into overlapping circles and triangles, each member knowing when to march in place or sprint away.
Delgado hadn’t yet memorized the whole routine. So she took five hesitant steps forward, then stopped short. Brittany Lopez, the next clarinetist in line, rammed Delgado from behind.
“Woodwinds!” said Rusca, who sat in the bleachers and addressed the band through a microphone. “You need to take full, long strides.”
Delgado kept her face blank.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “But it’s OK. We’re all making mistakes and learning.”
Lunch came at noon. Delgado kept practicing.
“Look at her. She’s striving,” said Arleth Cespedes, 17, a senior at Passaic High School and the band’s lead drum major. “Everybody else is sitting down, eating lunch or resting. But she’s up, working on her steps.”
‘They’re not wimps; they’re from Passaic’
Rose Holder’s rifle is a thin piece of wood wrapped in white electrical tape. She spun it clockwise behind her body, then tossed it 10 feet in the air.
As it fell, the rifle bounced off her hand and landed on the turf. Holder reached for it, but couldn’t catch her breath. She opened her fanny pack and retrieved a gray asthma inhaler.
“It’s OK," Holder, 17, said of her asthma. “It’s not that bad.”
Then she took five quick puffs. The recommended dose is two.
“Yeah, I guess that is kind of bad,” she said.
Holder is not a natural athlete, yet hers is the most athletic position on the field. As the color guard captain, she leads 17 people as they spin flags, toss rifles and leap across the field in unison.
“Her asthma makes it harder,” Rusca said.
Holder also is the one who keeps everyone else on their toes. After nearly six hours of practice, a few color guard members straggled on their way back to the starting position.
“Hurry up!” Holder said. “They’re waiting on us! Keep up the energy! We’re moving too slow!”
An hour later, Rusca called a break. All but one of the band’s 125 members ran to the sideline for water. Holder collapsed to the turf and lay there, spread eagle. When the students returned, Holder wobbled to her feet.
Then the music started. Holder smiled, spun her flag in perfect time, and sprinted away.
“They’re not wimps,” said Joanne Majdanski, 21, a 2014 Passaic graduate who coaches the color guard. “They’re from Passaic. They’ll be fine.”
A few yards away, Nereida Delgado started to fade into the background.
“You guys are doing a really good job,” woodwind coach Alex Marroquin said to Delgado and Lopez. “I keep forgetting about you. That’s a compliment.”
Meanwhile, Julie Vazquez kept marching. She has perfect form, Rusca said, always keeping her flute raised and her eyes locked on the bandstand.
At 6 p.m. the music stopped. Vazquez allowed her shoulders to droop. Walking off the field, she carried her flute in her hand. She didn’t seem to miss her case.
Fancy equipment doesn’t win championships. That’s what hours of practice in the sun is for.
“Today was exhausting but good. I can come here and forget what’s going on at home,” she said. “We do this every weekend.”