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The Beating Heart of This Southern Illinois Community Is Its High School Band

by Kristy Alpert

Performers on a football field. They are wearing black dresses and have bright yellow umbrellas and flags as props.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the O'Fallon Township High School Band
The color guard of the O'Fallon Township High School band at the Bands of America Competition.

Along with the band director’s fearless advocacy, the community started a nonprofit, which helped explore grants and sought creative ways to save the music. 

On any given Friday night in the Township of O’Fallon, the loudest cheers do not come after a touchdown or a field goal. The real roaring begins the moment the final note of the halftime performance reverberates through the stadium. 

In this Illinois suburb, music is the main event; specifically, the town’s beloved high school marching band. Across the town, band fan gear is sold in toddler sizes, lawns proudly proclaim that a “Marching Panther Lives Here,” and weekly marching practices often have cheering sections. 

“I believe the band is the identity of the town,” explains Beth Mueller, a former O’Fallon band member (1988-1992) and current band parent. “It goes beyond just an activity that kids participate in; our band really plays an active role in the community and our community has a lot of pride and passion for the band program.”

A large group of young adults standing on a tall set of stairs. They are all wearing navy blue and white marching band uniforms. There is signage in front of them that read 'O'Fallon'
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the O’Fallon Township High School Band
The O’Fallon Township High School band participated in the recent Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

The town’s passion was put to the test during the 2013-2014 school year, when district wide budget cuts threatened to silence the music program. Parents showed up in astounding numbers at town hall meetings saying cutting the music program would be “taking away their foundation.” During a time when band programs were being cut throughout the Midwest, the O’Fallon community refused to let theirs go. 

Along with the band director’s fearless advocacy, the community started a nonprofit called Lifelong Music in O’Fallon Schools, which helped explore grants and sought creative ways to save the music. 

“The community rallied around, and so did our school district, and we were able to kind of run it [the band program] through the Parks and Rec … until we were able to bounce back the following year with funding,” recalls Melissa Gustafson-Hinds, performing arts department chair and director of bands for the O’Fallon Township High School. “It was a one-year scare that we got through, and I would be really surprised if anything like that happened again.” 

Thanks to the organization and the band booster club, the band’s budget has never been stronger, and neither has the community’s support, cheering the band on as they bring back numerous national awards—including the coveted John Philips Sousa Sudler Shield award—and as they participate in some of the country’s most prestigious national events, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade.

“We’re always looking for ways to highlight our students, because they are so great, but we also try to be humble within our community. … we do try to find ways to showcase their talents and to reward them so the community and the nation know that we have something special,” says Gustafson-Hinds. 

They provide opportunities for the musicians to volunteer around town, like offering free community performances and creating leadership groups to support annual events for the town’s veterans and local charities. “I think it’s important for our students to learn the importance of giving back,” she adds. 

And in O’Fallon, Illinois, that strength is derived from altruism, both from the many talented young musicians and from the community that supports them.