Wilson High School has an unexpected standout team this year: its band

Most Long Beach sports fans may only see high school marching bands at football and basketball games, but the dedicated musicians are also in the midst of their own season. And this year, Long Beach has an unexpected standout.

Although they haven’t previously been known for thriving in the competition season, the Wilson High marching band looks primed to buck that trend and bring home some hardware this year.

Wilson is competing in the California State Band Championships, which is a member organization of the Southwest Music Education Association. It was started in 2007 to try and unify the state’s many marching bands competitions. They judge on musical, visual and drumline performances after separating the schools by the size of the group competing. That means the Long Beach Unified School District has schools in multiple divisions.

Last week, Wilson finished second in Division 2A at the regional competition hosted by University High in Irvine. The Bruins’ three-moment piece titled Artworks had the top score for music performance and percussion section.

“When I started with the Wilson band it was the lower-level group in competitions compared to other Long Beach bands,” Wilson drum major Justin Vassanta said. “The culture was a lot of drama rather than striving for musical excellence and performance. Over the past few years we’ve developed a lot.”

The next regional is Nov. 6, the semifinals are Nov. 13 and the state finals are scheduled for Nov. 20. Each band’s score in each round determines their seeding for the next round.

Eric Messerschmidt has been the band director at Wilson since 2002 and knows he has a special group this year who have overcome a lot of adversity.

“I can’t say enough about my seniors this year,” Messerschmidt said. “They’ve really brought energy that has been excellent. This is the strongest student leadership I’ve ever had. They have great musicianship and a great passion to lead the group and see them excel.”

That starts with Vassanta who started his freshman year as a member of the clarinet section and worked his way up to being the drum major as a senior.

“He’s basically co-teaching with me because he’s that good of a musician,” Messerschmidt said of Vassanta.

“Being in the band taught me what it means to actually have real joy,” Vassanta said. “The people in the band trust me and I can see how they put in a lot of work and dedication. To see that help them build good characteristics is what really brings me joy.”

As the assistant drum major during his junior year, Vassanta had to deal with changing the Wilson band culture over Zoom meetings during the COVID-19 shutdowns. He wanted to give his classmates something different to work on so he put together a video where everyone played their instrument alone and he mixed it all together.

“We still had stuff to practice and perform during the online year, which I think was also really helpful to just kind of get everybody together and help us come back strong like we did,” Vassanta said.

“It was very difficult,” Messerschmidt said of COVID. “You really can’t do what we do online. A lot of kids can’t play their trumpet in their family’s apartment. It was tough and a real challenge.”

When Vassanta took over as drum major during summer band camp he was able to roll his positive momentum over while adjusting expectations and overall organization to schedules and curriculum to teach music.

“Starting fresh (after COVID), we were able to start with the culture of being more mature and performing better,” Vassanta said. “That mindset is really what made practice. We put more effort into everything. There’s been a huge improvement in terms of our performance and that’s especially surprising considering COVID and that most groups got worse over this past year.”

“Their excitement about them being back after being away has been huge,” Messerschmidt said of Vassanta and other leaders like drum captain Hudson Rose. “Having them keeping an eye on everyone to get back to where we were in 2019. Not only are we back, we’re probably a little bit better and that’s gratifying.”

Rose, who can play multiple instruments, said the instruction part of his job is his favorite aspect.

“What I want to do is teach or do music composition and I get to do all of that with the drumline,” Rose said. “We start from level zero to the best players. Seeing them grow not only as drummers but people, too, makes it all worth it to spend the countless hours of practice.”

When Wilson’s drumline took the top spot in Division 2A, Rose thought it was because of their attention to detail.

“We have a certain way we practice and we stick to it,” Rose said. “It’s very precise in everything we do. Everything from how high we lift the sticks off the drum to even the expressions on our faces. We get into the nitty-gritty with small details. We’re also really close as a group, which helps further the connections between us and helps us play together. We’re all best friends and like a second family. That’s all contributed to us getting that really amazing award.”

Vassanta added that the entire band feels that connectivity that’s only stronger after COVID.

“Music has brought so much to me and everyone in the marching band who struggled in school,” Vassanta said. “But (band) made me feel at home. We’d rather be there than anywhere else. That made me stay. I wasn’t going to keep playing if it wasn’t for that.”

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