‘Everyone loves a good competition, right?’
The American Legion Band of the Tonawandas competes in the band contest at the 103rd National Convention in Milwaukee in 2022. (Photo by Hilary Ott /The American Legion)

‘Everyone loves a good competition, right?’

The American Legion has featured, in some form, a National Concert Band Contest since the 3rd National Convention in 1921 and a National Color Guard Contest since the 11th National Convention in 1929. Applications are currently open for the contests at this year’s convention in New Orleans – deadlines are April 26 for concert bands and July 26 for color guards. 

Post units who have never competed at the national convention are always welcome – information on rules and categories, as well as applications, is available at legion.org/convention/contests – but some have been traveling to the contests for years or even decades. Among these are the American Legion Band of the Tonawandas, sponsored by Post 264 in Tonawanda, N.Y., and the Newport Harbor American Legion Post 291 Color Guard of Newport Beach, Calif. The band has been American Legion champion 22 times, most recently in 2019; the color guard is also a multiple-time champion, most recently in 2023, and will serve in New Orleans as the National Commander’s Color Guard, the prerogative of the champion. Representatives from both units spoke with The American Legion about how they do it year after year, and how units thinking of taking the plunge can set themselves up for success.

How long has your group been competing?

Dave Abrahamian, band president and Squadron 264 member: The band was formed in 1929 by World War I veterans and Post 264 members. Currently 80 members at full strength, we draw our membership from a broad cross-section of western New Yorkers. The members have diverse occupations and backgrounds. A large number are instrumental music educators, or graduates or students of university music programs. Membership is open to all based upon placement evaluation and section vacancies. None of the musicians are compensated.

We rehearse and perform year-round. Formal concerts are performed between the months of September and June in area schools and theaters, and concerts and parades during the remaining months of the year throughout western New York and Ontario.

We have been New York State American Legion Senior Band champion almost continuously since 1947; American Legion Senior Band National Champion in 1972-1973, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2019; and Canadian National Exhibition International Band Champion on six occasions. We have and always will stand ready to aid in any worthwhile community function and uphold the great tradition of The American Legion.

Brian Fleming Jr., honor/color guard commander and post first vice commander: Our team has been competing in the national competitions since 2012. The first two years were commanded by my predecessor, Al Hoyo. In 2014 I assumed responsibility as commander of the team, and in 2015 our team brought home our very first first-place trophy.

What is the timeline, from decision to commitment to prep?

Abrahamian: The band votes on the opportunity and thereby makes a commitment to attend. There are sign-up sheets, logistics and cost estimates. Many years ago, we were able to raise the funds required to attend this event – that is no longer true. The funding the band is able to raise now is capable of funding maybe half the transportation and housing costs. The band members must cover the remainder if they wish to attend.

When a trip becomes too expensive, we may not be able to attend because the burden on our members becomes too great and we would lose too many. The expense of attending this event has increased far more than our ability to keep up with rising transportation, housing and logistics expenses. However, the National Concert Band Contest is a season highlight we look forward to participating in when we are able.

Fleming: In January, we begin our discussions about who will be returning to the competition team for the upcoming year. By the end of February, those who have committed to the team begin practicing and creating our new routine for the year. This timeline gives us four months to practice for preparation to participate at the department level, and six months to prepare for the national convention competition.

How do you recruit? Is it just within your post family? What is the turnover rate?

Abrahamian: We draw from quite a wide area. We recruit from high school and college bands for openings; after shadowing, they will audition if they feel ready for it. Turnover is not very high – they enjoy what the band does, what it represents.

Fleming: We recruit members for the competition team directly from our post honor guard/color guard teams. We require a full commitment to the team at the post first, and if a member presents an interest to the competition team, they are encouraged to join us in our practices and get put on a waiting list until a position is vacated and needs to be filled. All members of our team are Legionnaires. On average, we lose one team member a year due to various reasons.

How much of a weekly commitment is it?

Abrahamian: Selected pieces become part of concert repertoire (the summer season ends soon before the convention), so people are used to it. We announce our pieces when we reach the convention city; the rules are one march and two contrasting pieces.

Fleming: Our team practices once a week for two hours starting at the end of February.

What are the costs, and how do you raise money for them?

Abrahamian: Performers raise funds, and we have fundraising activities like a donation drive. 

Fleming: The costs could get pretty extensive, depending on your teams' obligations year over year. The two main expenses that could get to be a concern are the airfare and travel costs, and the cost of hotel rooms. Our team is very fortunate that it is written into the annual budget to have funds set aside to ensure we can go compete.

Why do you keep coming back?

Abrahamian: The contest offers a platform for growth. We support the Legion, honor and entertain, showcase our talents, get meaningful feedback from well-known judges and leave our best performance on the stage.

Fleming: Everyone loves a good competition, right?

There are a handful of reasons we continue competing. The cohesiveness it builds within our own team back home; the comradery it provides by engaging with other teams across the nation; and the exposure we get to the overall American Legion, much further than just our own post. And never to overlook the pride that is displayed throughout our department, district and post. (And, of course, all the pretty trophies we keep bringing back home.)

Do you have any advice for new units looking to commit to their first competition?

Abrahamian: Remember that there are two categories: competition and exhibition. Remember that you have to fund it. And remember that you can get feedback, and support the Legion.

In order for an organization to form a concert band, the following instrumentation should be represented in the areas of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. Woodwind: flutes, piccolo, oboes, bassoons, clarinets (and clarinet family). Brass: trumpets, French horns, trombones, euphoniums, tubas. Percussion: snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, timpani, mallet instruments. You can see that it is not such a simple task to find accomplished personnel in all these areas.

Fleming: Come out and participate! Use YouTube videos of previous years’ competitions to get familiar with how other teams perform. Get contact information for teams that have competed in the past and talk about previous experiences. And practice, practice, practice.