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A high school band opts for collision over precision

Busy extracurricular schedules force a marching band to adopt improvisation, scramble-style.

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When the Elk Grove High School band took the football field at halftime one recent evening, something unexpected happened: The crowd of hundreds went wild – over the band.

Director Brian White was ecstatic. Just months before, he'd been ready to cancel marching band, discouraged by low turnout in a student body crunched for time. But the crowd's cheers confirmed his own conversion to "scramble band."

"They were yelling and screaming when we came off the field," he says. "Usually, that doesn't happen."

The instruments are the same as always: tubas, trombones, and drums. But in scramble bands, skipping, handsprings, and even collisions replace precision goose steps. The music draws on Black Sabbath, Jimmy Buffett, and heavy-metal romps from Quiet Riot. Brocaded jackets and plumed hats give way to striped rugby jerseys and visors worn any which way.

Popularized by a handful of Ivy League colleges, scramble bands are one part Al Hirt, one part Blue Man Group. And they're a stressed-out teenager's dream: While most high school bands opened the school year with complex, precisely stepped routines that took sweaty hours to memorize, Elk Grove's musicians leapt from formation to formation with wild abandon.

The switch is slowly spreading, as schools try to engage time-strapped students, putting more value on trying new things than on the quest for awards and trophies.

But Mr. White, in his third year at the suburban Chicago school, wasn't trying to make a statement about over-scheduling. He was simply responding after a mere 38 of the school's 136 musicians signed up for marching band. He'd discovered scramble bands last spring, when a student – who had no time for marching – directed him to a scramble-band website. When White suggested the idea to his musicians, membership soared from 38 to 65.

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