Courtesy: The Tennessean
During her first two years in the Tennessee State University band, Deprea Crane lived off campus — on the other side of Nashville — a two-hour city bus ride away.
She couldn’t afford otherwise.
So on the mornings of flag corp pre-drills, she would get up at 3 a.m. to catch a pair of buses from beyond the airport to school.
And after late-night practice, she would again endure the long bus ride that would put her home around 1 a.m.
But she never missed a rehearsal. And she never fretted the sleeplessness.
Band, to her, is one of the best things in life.
“I just love doing it,” Crane gushes, her caramel-colored eyes brightening. “I love performing.”
‘Exciting and humbling’
The annual live showcase was created to celebrate and support the excellence of college marching bands at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“The Honda Battle of the Bands is basically a showcase to allow people to see the top eight black college bands in the country,” says Dr. Reginald McDonald, TSU’s band director. “There’s no placement in regards to first, second or third. By being selected you’ve won.”
Each year, eight bands are selected from across the country to perform. The high-stepping, drum-thundering theatrics and music become a show-stopping event for thousands of spectators.
At one point during its performance, the Aristocrat of Bands spelled out “OPRAH” — who received a degree in Mass Communication from TSU and has provided scholarships for students at her alma mater.
“Everyone in the building, please give it up for Tennessee State University alum Miss Oprah Winfrey,” the announcer said over the band. “O, are you running for president in 2020?”
Being chosen for the Honda Battle of the Bands means rigorous practice schedules that must be juggled with class and homework demands.
But the reward, for many of the marching Aristocrats, goes beyond the field on which they play.
Every school participating in the Honda Battle of the Bands receives a $20,000 grant. At TSU, which will mark its eighth appearance at the event, that money goes to further support its music education program.
“Several kids in the band are currently here at TSU because of that commitment,” says McDonald. “It’s refreshing and exciting and humbling to me as a band director.”
For Crane, it’s personal.
Making music a visual experience
Crane is paying her own way through college.
A Nashville native, the business information systems major is a member of the Honors College. She holds a 3.6 grade point average and has made the dean’s list each semester.
She will graduate this spring, a year early.
And every bit of her schooling has been funded through state and school scholarships.
That includes support from the Battle of the Bands grant. In fact, this year she is able to live on campus because of that aid.
But her schedule is still grueling.
Last semester she had three night classes. This semester she has more. That means taking a shuttle to TSU’s downtown campus and then hopping back on that same bus to the main campus — and then sprinting to band practice.
When she rushes in just after 7 p.m., her book bag slung over her shoulder, she’s already missed an hour. She quickly has to catch up on changes in choreography, learning new moves and new positioning.
But as she swings the silver pole of her big blue flag, artfully weaving it behind her back and tossing it in circles above her head, she doesn’t stress. She smiles.
This is her happy place.
And the whips and ripples from the blue cloth she flings are her favorite type of band accompaniment.
“We show visually what the music is saying,” she says. “In a band, you have to be very attuned with what you hear, but for us, we are able to show it.”
The White House, Atlanta and more
These students get a lot to show for it.
In 2016, the band performed on the White House lawn at a reception honoring the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were there that day, as were music icon Quincy Jones, former basketball star Kobe Bryant and actor Samuel L. Jackson, to name a few.
“Being a part of this band has opened up so many avenues for me,” Crane says. “And has opened up my eyes to so many things.
“We went to the White House. That’s not something you can just say that you did because you went to college. That’s an experience because you were a part of a prestigious unit, a band.
“We all do this together, we all work hard together, that way we can all benefit together.”
It’s all about unity
And every appearance at the Honda Battle of the Bands means performing with the top programs among HBCU bands in America.
“Any time you have something of that caliber it brings out your best,” McDonald says.
For Crane, the showcase — which is more like a talent show than a competition — is about unity.
“You get to connect with other people that enjoy something as much as you do,” she says. “To come to college and choose to do band, you have to have a lot of dedication and really love something like this to be a part of it.
“To find people who are like-minded, that is absolutely wonderful.”
And worth every bus ride.
Department of Media Relations
Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209
About Tennessee State University
With more than 8,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 bachelor’s degree programs, 25 master’s degree programs and seven doctoral degrees. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.