News & Politics

What It Felt Like for a Virginia Marching Band to Win Metallica’s Contest

Oakton High School wowed the metal band

Photograph courtesy Oakton High School.

Jamie VanValkenburg had to end class five minutes early on Tuesday. It was the day after Metallica announced that Oakton High School, where he is director of bands, had won the small high school category in the metal giants’ first-ever “For Whom the Bell Tolls” competition, which challenged marching bands to “craft the most exciting, unique, and impressive performances of Metallica’s music.” So VanValkenburg had to leave class early to prepare for interviews with local media outlets.

VanValkenburg is a huge Metallica fan. He remembers fondly rushing to the TV when he got home from school to see whether MTV was playing the band’s single “One” from its 1988 LP …And Justice for All. (“There was about a 50-50 chance,” he recalls.) A lot of the parents of band members are around his age, and they signed on immediately after Metallica announced the contest last spring, as did the band’s arranger. “When I thought to enter it I had no real expectation that we were going to win,” he says.

The show, called Parade to Black, took shape as a five-song tribute to Metallica, using the songs “The Unforgiven,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Turn the Page” (a Bob Seger song Metallica covered in 1998), “The Memory Remains,” and “Enter Sandman.” “Running a marching band is a bit like putting on a musical theater production,” VanValkenburg says. “There are so many parts, one person can’t do it all.”

Parents designed and built the props and had the idea to dress up the sideline kids as if they were in Metallica. The show began to come together during band camp last summer, three weeks before the school year starts. That period provided the most concentrated rehearsal time, VanValkenburg says, when they can practice as much in one day as in a regular school week. The idea then was to “get the show on the field,” then tweak it.

“Philosophically as a band, we obviously compete, but we don’t like to lose sight of the fact that we’re there to entertain people,” he says. “One of the things that works really well is to have a big moment two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through the show.” That became the point in Parade to Black when the woodwinds disappear behind the “stage” during a drum solo, then emerge wearing ’80s hair-band wigs. Audiences, he says, went wild.

The band performed the show nine times in front of audiences at football games and band competitions but opted to record its performance one evening after sports practices were finished. Parents and friends served as the audience, which VanValkenburg admits is “clearly not as loud as it would be at a football game,” but allowed them to run the whole show twice, so parents familiar with video editing could choose the best angles. They recorded the show live rather than go into a studio (“there was at least one band that did that,” he says), which added to the show’s “feeling of authentic marching performance in the stadium.”

VanValkenburg purposely never considered the possibility that his band would win. Not only would that foreclose disappointment, but also, he notes, Napster co-founder Sean Parker attended Oakton, and he wasn’t sure whether Metallica, which famously sued Napster, might hold a grudge. He found out last Sunday night, when the winners were announced on ESPN. (A tuba instructor happened to be watching and texted him.) “I still haven’t fully processed it,” he says.

As winners of their division, Oakton will receive $15,000 in new instruments. VanValkenburg figures he can get a new marimba, a new vibes, and a new xylophone with that much—band instruments are very expensive. Fox 5 has asked Oakton to perform live, and Metallica’s PR rep has also been in touch. “The kids,” he says, “are pumped.”  

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.