BRANDON — Two photos hang in the office of Brandon High School band director Melanie Driscoll. One shows the Eagle band posing in front of the U.S. Capitol after the 1967 squad performed at the Cherry Blossom Festival, and the second shows the group playing at the 1999 Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C.
Clearly, Driscoll, now in her sixth year, understands and respects the long and storied history of the Brandon band, which harks back to 1938 when the school hired Sarah Tyler as the school's first music teacher and local resident Helen Mulrennan Young played the clarinet. She also plans to re-create a third version of that photo in April after this year's band visits the World War II Memorial in Washington.
Driscoll, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music education from the University of Florida and was a graduate assistant to the Gators marching band, recently received a bit of schooling on Brandon lore from Ken Norton, who played tuba in Brandon's band from 1967-1970.
"I get history lessons from Ken Norton," Driscoll said. "He said, 'You're not playing the right fight song' and I said, 'When I got here, it was what we used.' He helped me find the right one."
The old school fight song is On, Wisconsin, borrowed from the University of Wisconsin. The Eagles plan to incorporate that song into their performance when they help celebrate the school's 100-year anniversary March 1 at McLane Stadium. Norton, Alonso High School's band director since the school opened in 2001, said band directors sometimes adapt fight songs they want. Norton is retiring this year after 39 ½ years of teaching music at Hillsborough County schools including Bayshore Christian, Plant City, Van Buren, Robinson and Alonso.
"The form I had for band as a student at Brandon, I still have today," he said, "Discipline, camaraderie, dedication and loyalty. No kids are more loyal to Brandon High School than the ones in the band."
Whether you played under the tutelage of T. Edison James, Brandon's director from 1956-1970 when Norton was one of approximately 150 marching band members or are part of the current squad of approximately 90, including the color guard, Norton and Driscoll agree the Eagles band is a family. The Eagles had a stellar streak of earning consecutive superior ratings in competitions from 1956-1982, into the years when Lonnie Keen directed the band and Linda Groh led the symphony orchestra.
Driscoll says the modern-day team faces new challenges that didn't exist as much back when Brandon was one of the largest schools in the state. Every year she has been at Brandon, Driscoll says she has mentored band members who battle personal struggles and she says the band is their saving grace.
"That's what keeps them coming to school," she said. "It's the kids' only method of expression. This is their safe haven. You never really know what's going on at home with the kids."
Some of her music students have excelled, earning spots on the all-county band this year after participating in blind auditions where the judges could hear but not see them. Seniors David Fernandez (alto saxophone), Xavier Lewis (clarinet), Michelle Melnik (oboe) and Isaac Manley (percussion) along with sophomore Noah Cummins (bassoon) and freshman Maya Bethea (tenor saxophone) made the band.
Through the years, the Brandon marching band has wowed a variety of audiences, from NFL fans in Tampa Stadium (years before the Buccaneers) to President Gerald Ford, who honored the band with a commendation after he visited Tampa. In 1969, Norton and his band mates followed the Eagles through their best football season ever, a state runner-up finish. In the process the band played in three of the largest stadiums in Florida -— Tampa Stadium, Miami's Orange Bowl and Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee.
Driscoll's band joins forces with the Bloomingdale High School band every Fourth of July for the Brandon parade and was a founding act for the past two years at Snow on 7th, Ybor City's holiday parade.
"It's changed a lot from when this was the main school in the area," Driscoll said about the brand of the Brandon band. "But my kids are the best, well behaved; they care, listen and work hard."
Driscoll wants to add one more historical footnote to the Brandon band story, by inviting alumni band members back for one more jam session. If you ever played an instrument for the Eagles, you can be part of the 100-year celebration by visiting brandoneaglesband.com.
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]