When Snowflake resident John Lunt learned two years ago Eastern Arizona College would no longer have a football team the trombone player didn’t hesitate for one second. He still enrolled at the college and joined the marching band.
“I didn’t see the marching band as something to do for the football team,” Lunt said. “The marching band is entertainment and I knew we could still entertain people.”
And the only junior college marching band in the state has done just that.
Last year, the band played with local high school marching bands at football games, they played the Star Spangled Banner at the opening of the House of Representatives at the state capital, they performed at a community college rally and they went on a three-day recruitment tour in the White Mountains.
“I knew we’d be fine, we’d just have to find places to perform,” said Geoff DeSpain, who has been leading EAC’s jazz, symphonic and marching bands for the last 12 years.
Not even COVID-19 is stopping the 61-member band from playing.
This year, the band is holding a series of concerts for staff and faculty and DeSpain is exploring the possibility of live-streaming the events for the community at large.
“This was something I wanted to do, just to give students chances to perform and to give back to the college and the community who supports us so well,” DeSpain said.
The last two years without a football team have been “interesting,” but it’s important to keep the tradition going, he said.
Kids come to EAC from all over the state and New Mexico just for the chance to join the band, he said. Not all of them are majoring in music, either.
“People like to march, students like to come and participate. It’s a big draw for my program to have a marching band, plus it’s fun. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun,” DeSpain said.
Flute players Axel Hansen and Emily Chamberlain are first semester students from Sahuarita. They chose EAC over other colleges with football teams for a variety of reasons.
“I thought about the University of Arizona, but they practice way more than I would have time for,” Hansen, a Walden Grove High School graduate said. “Here I could still play in the marching band and take all of my courses without stressing over three to four-hour rehearsals.”
She’s found the atmosphere on campus to be relaxing, the band members tight-knit and DeSpain “awesome,” the music therapy major said.
“I always found a home in band and I didn’t want to lose that just by moving,” Hansen said. “(DeSpain) understands that everybody has a life and he tries to put the students’ lives first.”
Chamberlain, a Sahuarita High School graduate, said both of her parents graduated from EAC and she appreciates the smaller campus. The band’s schedule works very well with her school schedule, too.
She’s thrilled about the upcoming performances because she’ll still get to march, play her instrument and have a traditional college experience.
Clarinet player Bailey Pearce moved to Thatcher from Mesa to attend EAC. She hopes to one day be a choir director. She knew DeSpain would make marching band a fun experience with or without football. The drum major had that same faith when COVID-19 hit.
“I fought really hard for us to be able to do (these performances) because we all need a happy boost,” Pearce said. “I thought it would be great for us to do them even if it’s for a small group.”
Both Pearce and Lunt showered DeSpain with praise for his ability to bring a wide variety of students with different backgrounds together to have fun.
“He’s a great teacher, a funny guy and an even better person,” Lunt said.
DeSpain’s son, Teancum, said he’s dreamed his whole life of playing in EAC’s marching band. The Thatcher High School grad said this year has definitely been different than what he’s used to, but in a good way.
“We’ve definitely become more creative,” he said.
He’s hopeful they’ll be able to live-stream their performances so an even larger audience can be entertained.
Geoff DeSpain described his students as “good, hardworking kids.”
“They really dedicate themselves and I stretch them. I pull them out of their comfort zones and make them dance and march and play a lot of fun music,” DeSpain said. “They’re good kids and it’s a real honor to work with every single one of them.”
The band, which also has dancers and a flag line, first got together for a two-day camp on Aug. 21 and 22 and ever since then they’ve been gathering every morning to rehearse new and old material, DeSpain said.
Each show will run roughly 30 minutes. They’re scheduled for Sept. 18, Oct. 2 and Oct. 16.
“It’s been very interesting. We’ve had to be very creative in making things happen, but we’re making it work,” DeSpain said. “It’s great.”