CEDAR FALLS – As hundreds of instrument-toting high school students prepared to practice with the Panther Marching Band Saturday morning, Ryan Lukkarinen needed a minute just to take it all in.
But the Muscatine High School sophomore percussionist, standing in front of a xylophone on the sidelines of the UNI-Dome, was more focused on the setting than the impending performance.
Lukkarinen was particularly marveling at the opportunity to play at an indoor football stadium. “This is surprisingly soft turf,” he said.
In terms of the performance, “I’m just trying to make sure I’m prepared so my director doesn’t yell at me,” he added. “I’m honestly not scared in the least bit.”
A few minutes earlier, Panther Marching Band director Justin Mertz tried to set the students’ minds at ease as he explained plans for the practice and halftime performance during the University of Northern Iowa and University of South Dakota matchup. He told students, who represented 69 high schools across the state, to make sure they introduce themselves to someone from another band.
“One of the reasons we do this whole day is so you can meet other musicians,” said Mertz. The event originated about 30 years ago, but later died out. It was revived five years ago and has been held annually ever since.
He also pointed out that they are the largest group to perform in the event's history.
“This is a record-setting year for Panther Band Day,” said Mertz. “There are 800 of you here.”
Combined with UNI’s marching band, a total of 1,100 people were on the field – nearly quadruple the normal number of performers. That provided plenty of opportunity for the students to get to know their peers from other schools.
“You meet a lot of cool people,” said Jacklynn Tekippe, a sophomore tenor sax player from Western Dubuque High School who had attended band day in the past.
“Plus the alumni from your school,” added Zach Steger, a junior baritone sax player from the same school.
Individuals, groups of students or whole bands could register to be part of the halftime show. Sheet music or videos, in the case of color guard members, were sent out digitally as soon as they registered. They performed “Bye, Bye, Bye” by In Sync, “I Don’t Care” by Fallout Boy and the “Panther Fight Song.”
The UNI students also did a short show, complete with marching, before the high school students joined them on the field. The combined band stood in place for its performance.
Isabella Patino, a freshman trumpet player from Muscatine, said her band had been coming to school early to practice the music. She saw a “good opportunity” in the chance to perform with college students.
“It’s a good look at what playing an instrument could be in the future,” said classmate Lauren Simmering.
Jackson Van Lancker, a junior trombone player from Clinton High School, added, “It really shows you what marching band is when you get up to a higher level of college.” While not looking to make a career out of music, he wants to continue playing after high school and is thinking about coming to UNI.
That’s all music to Mertz’s ears.
“Part of it is recruitment,” he said, of the purpose for the band day. “But what the big part of it is, we want students to see that their musical life could continue after high school.”
Apparently, he’d be glad to add any of the students to UNI's marching band.
“I’d like you all to say here forever,” Mertz said after students played through one of songs. “Can we do that?”
With so many players, the final note of each song reverberated throughout the building during practice. “I can’t tell you how good it feels when this whole building vibrates,” the director said at another point.
Madilyn Gray, a freshman clarinet player from Clinton, liked the experience.
“It felt good with all those people playing,” she said during a break in the practice.
Still, it was “challenging playing so spread out,” noted Morgan Bork, a sophomore clarinet player from the same school. About 100 students are part of their school’s band.
Another challenge was getting out of bed extra early. The girls had to be at school by 5:40 a.m. so the band could arrive at the UNI-Dome by 9 a.m.
“Did not want to get up,” said Gray. But she said it was worth it to perform at the game. “I think it will be cool.”