As part of an inaugural national competition the renowned heavy metal musicians created, Oakton High School’s band re-created a Metallica concert on its field in Vienna, Va. Mainly using traditional marching band instruments, Oakton’s band played five Metallica songs and wore costumes adorned with wigs and chains to appear like Metallica’s guitarists and drummers.
More than 450 high schools and colleges entered the competition. On Sunday, Metallica announced that Oakton was one of the four high schools to win. The Fairfax County school will receive $15,000 to spend on musical equipment.
Jamie VanValkenburg, Oakton’s band director, told The Washington Post that he thought the competition would be fun, but he didn’t expect to win.
“I’m still kind of processing it,” said VanValkenburg, 48. “It’s like nothing that’s ever happened to our program before.”
In April, VanValkenburg saw an announcement video for Metallica’s competition on social media. VanValkenburg had been a Metallica fan since he was in middle school, when he watched the band’s music video for “One” almost every day on MTV. He later bought almost all of the band’s albums.
But when VanValkenburg told his Gen Z band protégés in June about the competition, many weren’t as familiar with Metallica, which formed in 1981. Chloe French, a senior who plays the trumpet, said she only knew a few of Metallica’s songs — mainly through her father.
After learning about the contest, Oakton’s band members listened to Metallica songs during band class, in their free time and on bus rides. They focused on the five songs they planned to play — “The Unforgiven,” “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” “Turn the Page,” “The Memory Remains” and “Enter Sandman.”
“I was curious of how we would turn that genre of music into a marching band show,” French said.
While Metallica typically performs with a singer, two guitarists, a drummer and a bassist, Oakton’s band needed sheet music for more than a dozen marching band instruments, including trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tubas, flutes, and bass and snare drums. VanValkenburg worked with Kent Baker, a former professional musician who assists Northern Virginia high school bands, to write the notes.
They made some adjustments, such as cutting down the long buildups Metallica started some songs with. One Oakton student owned a guitar, so the band leaned on that instrument and the sousaphones to play the songs’ bass. The band used flutes, clarinets and trumpets to play the songs’ melodies. VanValkenburg, who has directed Oakton’s band since 2012, also put to use a drum set the school owned.
Meanwhile, VanValkenburg said the band members’ parents planned the decorations. They made a small stage the percussionists, guitarist and drummer could play on. The stage’s makeshift black curtain said “PARADE TO BLACK” in silver letters — a pun on Metallica’s song “Fade to Black.”
Oakton’s band began rehearsing in July and practiced three days per week when school started. In August, the band performed for the first time at halftime of the school’s home football game.
The show began with French playing the trumpet to replicate the power ballad “The Unforgiven.” Some members wore black leather clothes and chains, staples of 80s heavy metal.
VanValkenburg wanted to include a surprising moment near the end. That came when members put on the punk-style wigs and walked onto the field displaying “rock on” hand gestures. French thought the wigs were unusual, but after throwing one on during the first show, she felt an adrenaline rush when the audience cheered.
The band refined its marching and dancing throughout the fall. VanValkenburg wanted to record the nearly nine-minute performance in a quiet setting, so he booked the football field one night in October as parents recorded the show on video cameras.
While reviewing the video, VanValkenburg said he thought for the first time that his band had a chance of winning. Oakton entered the “small high school” category, which encompassed bands with fewer than 75 members (Oakton has about 70 members.)
A panel of six music teachers from across the United States narrowed the applicants to five finalists for each category last month. During band class on the day of the announcement, VanValkenburg listed the finalists on a screen but didn’t tell his students anything. When they eventually looked at the screen, they cheered.
Still, VanValkenburg was eager to see which bands Metallica would select as winners.
On Sunday, VanValkenburg said he was watching football at his Fairfax City home when a friend texted him that Oakton had won. The winners were announced on ESPN.
When he looked online, VanValkenburg confirmed the news and sent an email to the band’s staff, members and boosters. At school last week, band members re-watched their performance and reflected on funny rehearsal memories, such as rushing to put their wigs on and the smoke machine malfunctioning.
VanValkenburg said he plans on using the prize money to buy new percussion instruments. He hopes to make a plaque to commemorate Oakton’s win.
“It’s the kind of thing that’s going to stick with the school for a long time,” VanValkenburg said.