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GALLAGHER: Gehlen drum major seeks ‘clarity’ through music, prayer

September 5, 2018
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Anthony Vera is shown sitting in the band room after the first period of classes on Aug. 28 at Le Mars Gehlen Catholic High School. Vera, a junior at Gehlen, serves as drum major this fall for the Jays.

LE MARS, Iowa -- Some years, the drum major at Le Mars Gehlen arises from the group, almost organically, a musician chosen by his peers.

This is one of those years for Paul Niebuhr, director of bands at Gehlen Catholic high School in Le Mars.

“The other students said Anthony Vera should be our drum major,” Niebuhr says.

Vera, a junior, is the son of Hugo and Maria Vera, immigrants from Mexico. Anthony, who was born in Los Angeles before being relocated to Le Mars as an infant, is asked if he’s the first Latino to serve as drum major here.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t thought about it that way.”

Niebuhr, likewise. “I would say he is, but I haven’t thought about it, either,” he answers.

To his classmates, Vera is simply leader of their band, the curly-haired, good-natured kid who plays flute and bass guitar when he’s not acting with the Le Mars Community Theatre or within the Gehlen speech and drama program. Additionally, he keeps busy working in the kitchen at Hy-Vee in Le Mars.

Vera runs in track and cross country for the Jays, but not on the varsity level, which is fine with him. “I like being a part of the team, that’s all,” he says.

With the marching band, though, he leads the team, calling musicians to attention at the edge of the field before marching forward. He takes his place on the director’s stand and improvises a salute. While it’s early in the season, Vera toys with the idea of making a sign of the cross and genuflecting to begin the program. He says doing so fits everything, even a marching band show.

And, it’s a natural for a 16-year-old who has designs on becoming a priest, the occupation he tells his parents that will bring him closer to God, his No. 1 career goal.

“Our show is called ‘Lifescapes’ and it’s about running through life,” he says.

The first song, “Running Just to Catch Myself,” according to Vera, illustrates the hectic pace many observe as they chase goals, material items and more. The second number, “Clarity,” slows and finds musicians taking time in prayer. The song ends with band members kneeling in unison.

“We end with ‘Geronimo,’ which is a celebration,” Vera says.

After a 7-day band camp that preceded the school year, the Jays meet each morning at 7 a.m. to work on musicianship and marching. Gehlen’s band played for two home games in the first Friday nights of the football season. Niebuhr’s unit has its first marching band competition Sept. 15 at Millard West High School in Omaha. StarFest in Sioux City happens Sept. 29. The season closes with a state-sanctioned contest at Sheldon High School on Oct. 6 and then the extravaganza hosted by the Pride of the Dutchmen Marching Band at MOC-Floyd Valley on Oct. 13.

“I usually look at the band and see which section I can take a musician from,” Niebuhr says. “But some years, the kids suggest a student. This year, they wanted Anthony to give it a try. He’s worked out very well, he’s serious about directing and he’s working on his technique.”

A determined student possessing a 3.98 grade-point average, Vera welcomes the responsibility.

“Why be a drum major?” he asks, repeating my question. “We needed one. I’m outgoing and I like to try new things. I wanted this challenge and to be there for my band.”

Then he adds a statement that should remain at the heart of every high school extracurricular activity. “Plus it’s a lot of fun.”

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