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Where the Band Kids Are

Two teenage girls kneel on the floor of a band classroom and apply makeup in a mirror. The girl on the left wears a white long-sleeve polo and a blue plaid skirt and applies lip gloss. The girl on the right wears a navy blue Ravenna High sweatshirt and applies mascara. Between them, a teenage boy in blue jeans and a white T-shirt kneels and takes the photo with a black camera.

Where We Are is a visual column about young people coming of age and the spaces where they create community.

Contrary to what the movies will tell you, the marching band at Ravenna High School is pretty well respected. This year’s homecoming king and queen were both members. “It definitely helps that we have a small school, because we’ve all known each other our whole lives,” said Trinity Dunch, 17, who plays the trombone. “Everybody knows everybody. Someone you’ve grown up with, you don’t really pick on.”

But there are plenty of other things to worry about. Ravenna, Ohio, is not the sort of place anybody wants to make movies about, Emmanuel Miller, 17, a senior tuba and sousaphone player, said. It’s the sort of place you leave — dwarfed by its next-door neighbor, Kent, home to Kent State University, which has more undergraduates (more than 20,000) than Ravenna has people (just over 11,000).

When Ashley Markle returned to photograph the band students at her alma mater, the most striking difference in her hometown was how anxious everyone seemed: about exams and extracurriculars, dates, college prep, figuring out what’s next. (Ashley, who graduated in 2013, was in Ravenna’s band, too; she played the flute.)

One thing that hasn’t changed: the escape that the band room can offer.

A classroom with staggered black plastic chairs in front of a row of four drums with shoulder holsters, sitting on metal stands. In the background is a blue curtain.

When she was a student at Ravenna, “band didn’t even feel like part of the school, to be honest,” said Ashley. “It felt like I was a part of something special and important. I felt that I could make a difference on a large team of people all striving for something we cared about.”

The reflection of two girls in a white-framed mirror, which is hanging over a wod door in a bedroom. The girl in front is sitting on the floor and wearing a dark green tank top. The girl in the back is reclining on a bed and wears a black T-shirt and plaid pajama pants.
These days, that team snaps people up early. Julia Stratton, 15, in back, and her girlfriend, Nina Fuller, 16, seated on the floor, have both been playing flute since the fifth grade.
A teenage girl wearing a long-sleeve white shirt, a blue plaid skirt and sneakers lies on the floor with her arms at her sides. Her legs are propped up on a black chair. The floor beneath her is blue and yellow linoleum with speckled dots.
Julia was intimidated by the high school’s band at first. “There are very few anxieties I’ve felt more extreme than that of being a first-time freshman at band camp,” she said. But the people she met “make all of that anxiety feel like it fizzles away.”
A group of six smiling teenage boys and girls lie on top of one each other in a pile on the floor. Behind them are drum sets.
“My girlfriend and best friend are both fellow ‘band kids’ and I genuinely don’t know where I’d be right now without them.”
A girl with long, wavy, blonde hair standing on a metal step stool and conducting with both arms in the air. She wears a copper vest, a black skirt and tights. Rows of high school students in front of her play trombones and other band instruments.
Now, she and Nina help recruit new kids into their cohort, visiting the local middle school for a club fair in the hopes of enticing some of the outgoing eighth graders.
Five students in a school hallway. In the foreground, a girl with long brown hair in a ponytail holds a bassoon. In the background, more students sit and stand. One girl, with long wavy blonde hair pulled up with a middle part, sits in a chair with a laptop. Another student sits on the floor with a pen and notebook in hand.
“Every extracurricular a person can sign up for adds anxiety and stress, but few have given me the type of support system I gained from band,” Julia said.

About 500 students attend Ravenna High. They come out to hear the band play at pep rallies and football games, where they provide the soundtrack to the Ravens’ triumphs and defeats. Their halftime show this year is centered around fearless women of pop music and blasts through a mix of Demi Lovato, Billie Eilish, Nicki Minaj, Halsey and Lizzo.

In order to play in the marching band, you’re required to audition and enroll in concert band, a class. During marching season, the group practices every day.

There are 41 kids in Ravenna’s band. But there’s a difference, the students say, between being “a band kid” and being “a kid in band.”

Inside a closet with a rack of blue and white marching band uniforms. The blue jackets are have
Blue band uniform jackets hang in a row in a closet. A girl with curly blond hair pushes aside some of them with her hand, revealing a boy sitting on the floor in between the jackets. He wears red Converse, blue jeans, a gray Ravenna High sweatshirt and a blue backwards baseball cap.
“There’s some kids who are obviously really weird,” said Jason Marin, 18, below, who plays the snare drum. “And there’s kids who just want to play music on a football field.”
Four students lying on their backs on the blue and yellow linoleum floor of a band room, doing shoulder stands with their hands supporting their lower backs and their legs in the air.
A group of high school students in a band room embrace while huddled together in a circle, laughing and smiling. One of the girls holds her phone in the air to take a selfie.
While there are cliques — it’s high school! — band members consider themselves to be relatively welcoming and close-knit, especially compared to bands at larger schools.

Many of the students found their best friends or, like Julia and Nina, even their partners in band.

A teenage boy and girl lie on a blue and yellow linoleum floor facing each other, with their knees touching. She is on the left and wears ripped light jeans and a long-sleeve black top. He wears blue jeans and a black T-shirt. White papers are scattered on the floor under them.
“I think a lot of it is because we have all seen each other go through some bad times,” said Stephen Richardson, 18, at right, citing early season rehearsals “where everybody sucks pretty bad.” (Stephen, a percussion player, is also among those who have found love in the band room — with Trinity, at left.)
Students in blue marching band uniforms with red and white collars sitting inside a school bus with rows of green seats. Many of them are looking at each other and chatting. Two of the girls on the left have red polka dot bandanas in their hair.
Three students wearing royal blue band uniforms with red and white collars, huddled close together. Two of their faces are partially in view, and the third student’s face is out of view. The student on the right has a hand on the back of the student on the left, who is wearing a white helmet.
“It’s very rewarding when you can go on the field and do something awesome with your friends,” said Stephen.
A student in a band uniform with a blue jacket, white pants, white gloves, a white sash and a tall white feather hat stands on a field at night with their back to the camera, lit up by the flash. Beyond the figure are more students in white pants, blue band jackets and white helmets. One holds a large drum and another plays a large brass instrument.
Once you’ve experienced the rush of being on the field, it’s hard to give up. “I told my friends that if I wasn’t in band, I would be the mascot,” said Jason. “I would want to still be at the football games, and I would still get in for free.”

For the kids who call it home, the band room is a place of real refuge: somewhere to go during free periods, if you don’t like your lunch or if you just need a few minutes to reset your day. “It kind of feels like when you’re in the band room, you’re not really at school,” said Julia.

The students feel a sense of ownership over the space, and the room abides by the band’s rules, even if the musicians aren’t there.

“On Wednesdays and Thursdays, there’s a study hall group in the band room. If they ever have the audacity to touch the instruments and the band kids find out about it, they’re like, this is our space.”

Several members of the marching band in blue and white uniforms run across a football field at night. The figures are blurred with motion, and the field is green with a deep red end zone.
A group of students in royal blue band uniforms with red and white collars at night. One student, whose face is out of frame, is banging on a drum, and another is clashing cymbals together. A girl in the center wears glasses and has her hair in braided pigtails as she looks to her right at the cymbal player.
Territorialism aside, beef between the band and the rest of the school, the kind that pop culture would have you believe makes band kids’ lives hell, is rare.
The arm of a student holding a white ring with red and gold metallic strings of tinsel tied around it and blowing in the wind. The ring frames one of the other band members, who has long dark curly hair and wears a royal blue jacket with a wide white collar.
“There are a few football players who don’t respect the effort we put in, and they get irritated that we have to practice on their field and they have to practice somewhere else,” said Nina. “But that’s just three seniors with big egos.”
Four marching band members in royal blue uniforms with red and white collars and white helmets at dusk. In the center, a boy plays a tuba, blowing into its mouthpiece. A girl to his right plays the flute.
Otherwise, the school vibes with the band. “We’ve marched through the halls before, for pep rallies before our big rivalry game, and they were cheering us on.”

That spotlight, while thrilling, can also be terrifying. “There will always be times that band makes me feel like the world is caving in,” said Julia, who struggles with anxiety, especially before big concerts or games.

A girl in a blue Ravenna band uniform and a ponytail bangs on a large white drum with white mallets. Behind her are more drummers.
But when the music is blaring and she’s surrounded by people who lift her up, she’s able to let it all go and just play.

Many of the current band kids are juniors or seniors and looking toward the future — one that may take them far beyond the bounds of their hometown.

“Ravenna is sort of a nothing town; people aren’t given a lot of opportunity,” said Ashley, the photographer. “When I was growing up there, it seemed that most people’s mentality was ‘this town is garbage and that’s all it will ever be, so no sense in trying to make it any better.’”

For the most part, it seems, that hasn’t changed. “I don’t feel like there’s enough opportunity here for me right now,” said Emmanuel, the tuba and sousaphone player. A senior, he is headed to Bowling Green State University in the fall to study aviation and dreams of traveling the world after school. Up to this point, the farthest he’s been from Ravenna is Georgia.

A group of teenage boys running through a grassy field on a sunny day. The boy at the back wears jeans and a white T-shirt. The boy in the middle wears red Converse, blue jeans, a gray Ravenna High sweatshirt and a backwards blue baseball cap. The boy in front wears blue jeans, a dark blue checked shirt and a hat. Behind them are trees with red and orange leaves and a clear blue sky with no clouds.

Emmanuel, at right, is hungry for opportunities beyond his hometown. But he also sees himself as a boomerang — someone who will inevitably be drawn back to this corner of the world when “quiet” and “boring” no longer seem so bad.

Two teenage girls lie on their backs with their arms crossed, facing each other with their foreheads touching, on a bed with blue and pink pillows. The girl on the left has wavy blonde hair and wears a green tank top and a necklace, and the girl on the right has short dark hair with an undercut and wears a black Metallica shirt.
“I want to settle down. Ravenna is a perfect town for that.”
A boy wearing a long sleeve blue shirt lies on his back on a linoleum floor, propped up on his elbows. A boy wearing red Converse, blue jeans, a gray Ravenna High sweatshirt and a backwards blue baseball cap leaps in the air over him. Behind them are drum sets.
Jason, a junior, is itching to get beyond the bubble of his hometown. He plans to go into the military after graduation. “They always say that musicians are really good with dealing with stress, pressure and concentration, so that might help out.”
Two girls standing close together and talking in front of a wall of white cubbies. Each cubby contains a black instrument case. Dozens of trophies sit on top of the shelves. There are several black music stands in the foreground.
Trinity, at left, also a junior, recognizes that “Ravenna is a town that people don’t stay in. It’s OK to grow up in, but it’s not somewhere you stay.” It saddens her to think that she may become one of those who leaves for a bigger pond where “not everyone really knows what you’re capable of doing.”

The secret of a town like Ravenna — the one she thinks people don’t talk about enough — is that being small has its perks, too. You are surrounded by people who know your potential and want you to succeed, which means that opportunities, while less plentiful, are easier to seize.

A group of students in Ravenna High sweatshirts and school uniforms cradle a teenage girl, who is lying horizontally across their arms and wearing gray sweatpants, glasses and a dark long-sleeve shirt. They are all smiling and laughing.
“I’m grateful for what Ravenna is.”

Ashley Markle is a photographer from Ravenna, Ohio, now based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has combined her backgrounds in film and painting to create still, surreal narratives through the lens.

Jazmine Hughes is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. She attended three high schools in the New Haven, Conn., area.

Where We Are is a series about young people coming of age and the spaces where they create community, produced by Alice Fang, Jennifer Harlan and Eve Lyons.