ARCOLA — After a full year of Kevin Boyle’s leadership, the Pride of the Purple Riders are marching to a new rhythm.
Last year, the band had 11 members. This year, it has 26, plus seven in color guard.
“These students have blown me away,” Boyle, the band director, said. “We showed up to band camp and the kids finished their entire show, musically and visually.”
The Pride of the Purple Riders will take the field at halftime today in Memorial Stadium alongside 25 other high school marching bands and the Marching Illini.
It’ll be a busy morning of practice, but it all builds up into a group performance in front of thousands of fans — an opportunity that doesn’t come to high school students too often, especially for small bands like Arcola’s.
Boyle said the judges at the recent Sage City Invitational in Monticello were impressed that a small school could put out the level of performance the band did at that competition.
The Purple Riders brought home a second-place trophy for their division, but Boyle has known since the beginning of the season that it was going to be a good one.
Band camp was so successful that Boyle and the design team actually changed the show, making the final act more complex with a medley of Fall Out Boy’s “Light ‘Em Up” and Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive.”
This year’s competition show, titled “Radioactive,” also includes Radiohead’s “Creep” and focuses on themes of overcoming challenges like depression and anxiety that Boyle has noticed more frequently in his students.
“The show takes you through rising up and becoming self-empowered instead of getting down on themselves,” he said.
Boyle said this is “just the beginning” of his plan to make the band better and better each year.
Students can feel the progress already.
“I do think this season has gone a lot better than last year, and we all know we can do great things together, we just have to have the mindset of working together,” freshman clarinetist Emmalee Reel said.
This is Reel’s second year in marching band, since the Pride of the Purple Riders includes eighth-graders.
She credits a lot of the improvement to the higher membership and to more leadership from within the group.
“It’s about having the right mindset and being locked in at all times,” Reel said. “I don’t believe one person can make everything magically together; it’s about being a team.”
Increased student leadership was no mistake: Boyle planned it from the start.
He started working at Arcola, teaching music to fifth through 12th grades, last August.
That didn’t leave a lot of time to make changes before competition season wrapped up in October, but Boyle started giving the kids leadership roles as early as last November.
“I basically told the kids, ‘Yes I am the director, yes I am the person who’s in charge, but at the end of the day, it’s not my band,’” Boyle said. “One of my goals is to let these kids enjoy what they’re playing instead of making all the decisions on my own.”
So he chose leaders, all the way from drum majors — the students who conduct the rest of the band — to section heads for each type of instrument.
Julissa Galaviz, junior saxophonist, percussionist and beginner guitarist, is one of the drum majors who will lead the Pride of the Purple Riders at Band Day.
She said she’s a little nervous about the huge audience, but the experience will be worth it.
“We have fun, but we also like to get things done,” Galavis said. “This year, we’ve been putting in way more hard work than last year.”
Some of that hard work has been a result of the bigger band, Boyle said, because it can take a bit longer to learn music with over twice as many musicians.
He isn’t complaining, though — with only a few band members set to graduate at the end of the year, he’s looking forward to training the group.
The vast majority of Arcola’s fifth- and sixth-grade classes are also in band, so further growth for the Pride of the Purple Riders seems likely.
“We’re in a neat situation here where I get to see these kids from fifth grade all the way until they’re seniors in high school if they decide to stay in all those years,” Boyle said. “No other teacher in the school sees the kids for that many years.”
Boyle credits supportive school administration and parents for the ability to bring back the color guard — which meant a new coach, uniforms, flags and poles — and get the bigger band to competitions with a new trailer.
He’s taken the chance to make adjustments, like having percussionists stay in “pit” on the front line rather than march.
That means they can each handle multiple instruments, including bigger ones like a marimba that can’t move around the field.
Since Mattoon native Christopher Keniley works with Arcola to write both music and drill, Boyle is able to balance challenging music and marching and make the show exactly what the band needs.
This year, the students have surpassed expectations, so he plans to keep challenging them.
He said he already has an idea for next year’s show, but the kids will have to wait until spring to hear what it will be.
In the meantime, more competitions and performances at the Grand Ole Opry and Graceland.
Those trips are one of the things Galaviz loves most about being in band.
“My favorite part of band is being around people who love music,” she said. “I go to band and feel free, a place to be myself.”