Minnesota’s ‘Music Man’ created a high school championship where the bands are front and center

Brent Turner isn’t afraid to toot his trumpet about the benefits of being in a marching band.

It teaches discipline and teamwork. It can ground a kid and provide a social network. It combines mental and physical challenges.

“I just think there’s amazing opportunities for youth when they become involved in marching arts,” said Turner, a marching band uniform salesman and event promoter. “It’s a whole-brain activity.”

The Apple Valley man likes to beat the drum so much about marching bands that he sounds like a Minnesota version of Prof. Harold Hill of “The Music Man” fame — except he’s spent most of his life buying rather than selling.

He was the drum major at his high school, then the trumpet section leader with the University of Minnesota Marching Band. He’s judged and coached marching bands and designed cutting-edge formations. He met his future wife in marching band. His dad was in a marching band. And his sons, well, you probably guessed that they were in marching bands, too.

“Marching band has been wrapped up into everything I’m doing,” he said.

But Turner, 51, has done more than immerse himself in marching music. He created the state’s de facto high school marching band championship, allowing thousands of Minnesota student musicians to be the star of the show, not the halftime cue to hit the bathroom and get in line for nachos.

The Youth in Music Band Championship (youthinmusic.org), being held Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium, is the season finale for many high school bands in the state, the climax performance that bands practice months to perfect.

“This is the one we work all season for. This is our end-all, be-all,” said Sam Springer, director of Andover High School’s marching band.

Springer was playing clarinet in the Irondale marching band when Turner organized the first Youth in Music championship in 2005 at the Metrodome. That year, Irondale placed first of the nine bands competing. This year 35 bands will be at the competition, drawing about 10,000 spectators.

“It was a big deal then,” Springer said. “It’s a big deal now.”

Playing in a big venue

Before Youth in Music, Minnesota didn’t have the sort of a championship for high school marching bands that existed in other states.

“We definitely needed it. We were needing it for years,” said Steve Olsen, a retired school band director who worked at Eden Prairie and Rosemount high schools. “We just thought it was never going to happen.”

In 2003, Turner started working on the idea. At the time, he was teaching family and consumer science at Eden Prairie High School and working with marching bands on the side. He knew that the competition would have to go big to be successful.

“Everybody wanted the bands to be showcased in a large venue,” he said.

So he and three partners raised the money to put a deposit to hold the first event in the biggest indoor arena in the state: the Metrodome.

“He had the guts to take the risk to put up the money to have this event, not knowing if he was going to come out ahead financially,” Olsen said.

And for a while, he didn’t. About 2,500 people came to watch the first competition. For several years, only about a dozen bands competed.

“The first couple of years were pretty rough,” said Turner. “After all was said and done, we paid a band competition judge more than we got paid to run the event.”

That’s despite recruiting about 20 family members — his wife, kids, mom, dad, brothers, sisters, aunts and cousins — to help run the event, which involves hiring out-of-town judges and coordinating dozens of school buses and semitrailer loads of band instruments, equipment and props.

Over time, though, the number of competitors and paying fans grew. Now the event draws bands from Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

For some of the more competitive high school bands, the event is a springboard to even bigger competitions. For smaller bands that can’t afford to travel out of state, the competition is the one chance to play in a pro football stadium.

“This is like the biggest audience that everyone is going to play for,” Olsen said. “For every kid that performs, to perform in a venue like U.S. Bank Stadium is a thrill.”

Bands on bicycles

In 2008, Turner decided to leave his teaching job to work full-time selling uniforms and band accessories, instructing drum corps, giving band clinics and running and judging competitions.

It was a dream deferred. Turner had considered becoming a band teacher when he was younger. But he found that he didn’t have the patience to spend long, lonely hours practicing to get a music degree. Besides, his dad told him he’d never make a living in marching bands and urged him to go to business school.

Instead, Turner got a degree to become a child protection worker, then got a teaching degree. But he never put down his trumpet, continuing to play in community bands, jazz bands, at church services and marching in parades with alumni bands. And he was always working with youth marching bands on the side, designing formations and providing instruction.

When Olsen was the band director at Eden Prairie High School, he hired Turner to design the formations for competitions. Turner came up with boundary-pushing ideas that were influenced by the more artistic, faster-paced drum corps style of marching. It was a radical contrast to the conservative Big Ten-style, high-step marching that high school bands had been using.

“It gave us a competitive edge,” Olsen said.

Turner once devised a circus-themed show with 50-foot-long jump ropes. Another was inspired by the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam, ” in which band members wore Army fatigues.

“We were one of the first to ride bicycles on the field,” Turner said. “It was actually quite controversial.”

Broadway on the 50-yard line

Performances at a Youth in Music championship are unlikely to feature Sousa marches or stationary “park and bark” performances. Instead, there are dancing musicians and constantly moving color guards, solos on a violin or bagpipes and increasingly elaborate scenery, costume changes and props that range from seesaws to Shinto shrines.

Such a musical and visual spectacle might tell an emotion-laden story — the destruction of Pompeii, the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, a vampire romance — all in 15 minutes, including the time needed to get the performers, scenery and props on and off the field.

“These shows are theatrical, they’re very artistic,” said Bojan Hoover, one of the directors of the Rosemount High School Band. “It’s like going to a Broadway show.”

The competition crowns champions in four size divisions as well as giving awards for best drum major and best individual performer. But unlike at most sporting events, the competitors cheer for one another. That’s because they’re all striving for the same thing: to create art and to get better.

“It’s never about winning,” said Olsen, “it’s about excellence.”

According to Olsen, Turner has “has done more for the marching arts in Minnesota than anyone else ever.”

For his part, Turner said Youth in Music is a way for him to celebrate something he loves.

“It had a really positive effect on myself, and I know it can have a real positive effect on youth these days,” he said.

Exactly what Prof. Harold Hill would say.



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