Oct. 17—WHITEWATER — On the day after the loss of their beloved longtime assistant director John Schroeder, Milton High School's 111-member marching band placed third with an emotional performance at the Wisconsin School Music Association's annual Marching Band Championships on Saturday.
According to a message posted by the Milton High School Band Facebook group, Schroeder collapsed at band practice Thursday night with an unknown medical condition and was unable to be revived after being taken to the hospital. Prior to Saturday's event, the band was given the option to forgo the competition in light of their assistant director's recent death.
For the members of the band, however, that was not an option. Kyla Swanson, a senior who plays tenor drum on the drum line, said the tragedy only strengthened the group's resolve.
"We knew we were going to perform, even after John passed, because we knew this is what he would have wanted," she said.
Fresh off the heels of a successful showing at the Sauk Prairie Marching Band Invitational on Wednesday, Oct. 13, MHS musicians rallied behind the devastating news and gave an inspiring performance at the state championship in Whitewater that earned them 77.175 points out of a possible 100.
As the band took to the field, members—all donning black and white ribbons on their uniforms—took a knee in solidarity and observed a brief pause before the opening number. First on the three-song set was the quintessential "Bohemian Rhapsody" by the rock band Queen, followed by Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence." Concluding the show was a radiant display by the color guard during a rendition of Coldplay's "Paradise."
Aided by the effects of a smoke machine, KayLea Jacobson, a sophomore playing the vibraphone, helped set the mood.
Jacobson said she felt centered during the set, despite the harrowing news.
"We were very present and put a lot of emotion into it," she said. Along with her bandmates, Jacobson wanted this to be her very best show.
Hayden Wrolstad, a senior trumpet player, said Schroeder would have been "elated" by the outcome.
"His impact isn't big enough for words and I owe a lot, as the person I am today, to him," Wrolstad said. "(From) coming in as a freshman as this annoying squeaky little kid that couldn't stand still to what I am now, I owe it almost pretty much all to him."
Band director Nathan Czech, who joined Milton's marching band program in June, commended the student musicians for their composure and resiliency in preparation for the competition.
"They've really come together," Czech said, adding that members of Milton's community were "incredibly supportive" as well. "They take incredible pride in what they do."
According to Czech, the band's execution of its set, which Schroeder helped curate, would have made the former director proud—especially the ballad "Sound of Silence." He said the song had "a really powerful movement" in their repertoire.
"I think it's even gotten stronger in light of just the emotional roller coaster," Czech said the band experienced over the previous few days.
"In comparison to last night's rehearsal, this was a great show," he said. "I think John would have felt really great about this show."
Meredith Lea Jacobson, KayLea's mother, choked up while describing the courage it took for the students to decide to perform. She, too, felt Schroeder would have wanted the band to compete in his absence. As the band's color guard instructor and a close friend of Schroeder's for more than 26 years, Jacobson testified to her friend's devotion to the marching band.
"He would have told them to get out and do their job, and that's exactly what they did," Jacobson said.
Schroeder's son Alex, fighting back tears, said, "They played with passion and that was one of his biggest things."
Although Saturday's third-place result was not the highest ranking earned by Milton's marching band—they placed second in 2019—Jacobson said it was their most emotional performance.
She said Schroeder was always more concerned with how passionate the performances were than any marks they received.
"He didn't care what the judges said. All he wanted to do was feel the music," she said, adding, "The marching band community lost a great man."
Current and former band members reflected on Schroeder's inspiring nature and how his passion imparted a love of music upon them they will carry on indefinitely.
"John (made) a huge impact in my life and he's the one who got me started in drum line and loving drums and learning how to play them. He was a huge impact in my musical career," Swanson said.
While Schroeder was not able to take in the competition and cheer on his band, his spirit and the impact he impressed upon others was apparent. Opposing fans from other high schools gave standing ovations. During Czech's post-performance speech in the parking lot, there was not a dry eye in the crowd.
Schroeder will be remembered for having "the biggest heart" and his passion for working with the students knew no bounds, Czech said.