Book Review: American Band

American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland by Kristen Lane

Heels Together!
Toes Apart!
Stomach in!
Chest Out!
Shoulders Back!
Chin! Pride!

That was the chant that I learned in high school marching band. We would chant it with our director after every competition and every halftime show. Marching band is truly a way of life, both for the students and their families. Students march in unbearably hot weather in the summer to prepare and finish the season in terribly cold weather. Their families put in time serving as “band moms and dads” preparing sets, uniforms, drinks, and helping with first aid. Students who never thought they could lead step up and take over. I loved every minute of marching band. It was something I inherited from my mom (we are both clarinet players). While my high school band was quite small and never excelled in competition, my mom’s high school marching band in Alexandria, Virginia was of championship quality.

This heritage in my family (my mom and I were both in band and my grandma served both as a band mom and even as a band grandma) spiked my interest in American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland by Kristen Laine. This book, published in 2007, deals with a championship caliber marching band in Concord, Indiana. The town is a small one and is perhaps best known as being the former home of the Conn instrument builders. While small, it boasts a school that is entirely devoted to its instrumental music programs (marching, concert, jazz, and pep). This is fascinating to me because in many small towns life revolves around sports (think Varsity Blues) including my hometown.

The book examines all aspects of the marching band including its “feeder system” of elementary and junior high bands. It also examines the directing staff including the head director, a legend in Indiana music circles. The marching band cuts no one (except in cases of misconduct or just plain poor performance) and marches approximately 250. The book begins with “freshman camp” in the summer and then covers the main full band camp and examines their move from competition to competition, where they win every virtually every single tournament leading up to the state championship. American Band also focuses on individual members of the band which gives a glimpse into the life of small town students.

Perhaps the most fascinating and most relevant to a seminarian reader is the examination and commentary on religion in a small town. Concord is near Goshen, Indiana, and is thus home to a heavy Mennonite population, of various levels of observance, including some quite large mega-churches. The community also includes Catholics and Lutherans (although I’m unsure of what specific denomination). The dominant church in the book is the local megachurch with strong baptist leanings. The theology seems quite typical… “pray-harder,” “find God’s will for your life,” etc etc. The sad and frightening truth of this is the damage that this theology does to students. There was no Gospel, only Jesus being used as an example. You see how students are left to their own “fear and wrestlings” and not pointed to Jesus. We even see a girl who wears a star-of-David, not because she is a Jew, but because she is convinced that she wants to work to bring about the kingdom of God on Earth and convert all the Jews (noble goal, but consider this in the light of Left Behind theology where you must work to bring about the return of Christ).

If you are interested in any or all of the following: small town life, American evangelicalism, music, marching bands, or leadership this book is for you.


3 Responses

  1. I’m pleased to see that my book is getting into the hands of people like Sam. My initial concept was to write about a musical/educational subculture, marching band. But when I moved back to Indiana after having been on the East and West coasts for 30 years, I discovered that I could not adequately write about the lives of the students in the band without writing about their religious faith. Although I did not share many religious, cultural, or political views with the pastors at the dominant “mega-church,” I did fid myself inspired by the efforts of these teenagers whose lives I was following to locate their yearnings toward meaning and purpose — and toward some form of greatness — in their faith. Their questions and struggles restarted my own inner and outer dialogue with faith and spirituality, and I remain inspired by their examples. (And I must also say that the mega-church in question has gone through its own period of soul-searching and has made changes to some of the areas I found most objectionable — unrelated to the book’s publication.)

    Before American Band came out, I spoke with my publisher about how to present its religious themes in the book’s marketing materials. The book has received some wonderful national press, but much of it has stayed well within the realm of music, Middle America, and coming of age, with end-of-review teasers about religion. I can’t say that my book is a definitive guide to an emerging evangelism — and it doesn’t try to be that — but I do believe that it’s a compelling portrait of a new generation of evangelical Christians. I appreciate hearing from people who know this topic more deeply than I do.

    Kristen Laine

    • No one seems to be recognizing — or railing against — the blatant misrepresentation of facts, specifically regarding the town of ELKHART, Indiana (there is no “Concord, Indiana”), the community of Dunlap (where Concord schools is rooted) or worse, the skewed and biased portrayal of the highly decorated and deeply beloved director who preceded the “legend” director who led Concord to its multiple State championship wins.

      I am a Concord High School graduate and was a proud member of the Marching Minuteman Band for 4 years. I received my formative musical experience from age 10 onward from the music program at Concord, as did thousands of others. I now hold multiple degrees, as well as a music credential in the State of Indiana.

      Laine’s book contains many, many errors and is biased in its reporting on the town, the community, the school, and the former Director of Music who preceded the subject of her book and laid the foundation for Concord’s success.

      Laine refers to herself as a journalist, and yet, at the point when I got to 10 glaring errors in her research, I stopped counting. I have expressed my concerns to Laine herself, and she fails to respond. She could have easily portrayed the struggles and successes of the kids at Concord without misrepresenting a brilliant and beloved educator who was, due to his death in 1985, unavailable for comment. Shame on her!!!

  2. SWEET. You can take the nerdy girl out of band, but you can’t take the band nerd out of the nerdy girl. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Never would have guessed you for a clarinet, though. You strike me as a trombone dude.

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