Lauri Bank was reasonably certain her Joliet American Legion Band would take first place – again – at the 2023 American Legion Band Competition on Sunday.
But the Joliet resident was still thrilled when it happened.
“I thought in the back of my mind that if we don’t win, some other band must be very, very good,” Bank said. “It just gave you chills when we played the songs at the end. We practiced a lot of hours, and I think it really paid off.”
The band plays patriotic marches, show tunes, classical selections, band transcripts and contemporary pieces. It also performs an annual Christmas show at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet, where the admission is a nonperishable food donation for local food pantries.
Mike Fiske of Joliet, music director for the band, said this year’s competition, held in Charlotte, North Carolina, was slightly disappointing because only one other American Legion band competed.
“We would rather had a higher level of competition,” Fiske said.
“It just gave you chills when we played the songs at the end. We practiced a lot of hours and I think it really paid off.”— Lauri Bank, Joliet American Legion Band member
Fiske gave two reasons why competition was light this year. One, not every band can afford to compete every year, and some don’t compete at all, he said. Two, the number of active American Legion bands in the U.S. is dwindling, Fiske said. And not all American Legion bands perform year-round, as the Joliet American Legion band does.
So the Joliet American Legion Band set a goal of earning a higher score than the previous year, which it did. The 2022 score was 95.3 and the 2023 score was 95.7 on a 100-point scale, Fiske said.
“When you get close to 100 points, four-tenths of a point is a pretty significant jump,” Fiske said.
How the band competition was judged
During the national competition, American Legion bands are judged on several criteria, including tone, intonation, technique, interpretations and musical effect. One element that may affect the final result is that band members may change slightly from performance to performance.
For instance, 64 members intended to play at the national competition, Fiske said. But only 60 were actually able to attend. Still, every member strives to improve, even during the years when the band could not practice during the pandemic, and that makes a difference, Fiske said.
“Over time, we continue to stress certain things to the group,” Fiske said, “like playing better in tune, being more expressive, being able to play ‘soft’ with beautiful sounds: all those things make a big difference.”
“We bettered our score by four-tenths of a point. And when you get close to 100 points, four-tenths of a point is a pretty significant jump.”— Mike Fiske, music director, Joliet American Legion Band
Fiske said he’s glad the American Legion Band can be a source of pride for Joliet community. And he hopes the band always honors the legacy set forth by founders Bill Austin and Archie McCallister Jr. and longtime band director Tom Drake, who has passed away Oct. 23, 2022.
While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, both Austin and McAllister agreed that if they returned home alive, they would begin a band.
“And since Tom has passed away, we have renewed our dedication to perpetuate that legacy,” Fiske said.
A legacy in music
Lauri Bank said she and her husband, Mike, have a long history with the Joliet American Legion band. Lauri plays the piccolo, and Mike plays the tenor saxophone.
Mike Bank said Austin was his uncle and that Austin and McCallister presented Mike Bank with his first professional saxophone, which Mike still owns. When Mike Bank was in eighth grade, his previous instruments were hand-me-downs.
“When you come from a family of 10, you had to play your brother’s instrument,” Mike Bank said. “So my first one was my brother’s.”
During high school, Mike and Lauri played in a combined Joliet Catholic High School/St. Francis Academy band. The couple also played in the Joliet American Legion Band more than 30 years ago but took a break because of work obligations and raising three children.
They returned to the Joliet American Legion Band almost seven years ago. Mike also plays with the Joliet Fire Department Pipes and Drums.
They’re very excited about the recent win.
“It was like, ‘Wow, we did it again!’ ” Lauri said. “And we had a better score than our previous year, which was our goal. So, yeah, I’m pretty excited.”