Emerald Brigade: Granite Bay plays music of success

Granite Bay High’s Brigade and Color Guard thrive with regional support
By: Matt Whitley - For The Press Tribune
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The Emerald Brigade Support Organization held its annual Wines Around the Bay fundraiser at a private home in Granite Bay last month, hosted by Donna Eckwortzel Frey and Renee Nash. The annual event, now in its fifth year, occurred Saturday evening, Aug. 27. It was a luxurious affair, with featured wines and craft beer from around Northern California, food and treats from several local eateries. Macaroni Grill, Paul Martin’s American Bistro, Silver Oak, Knee Deep Brewery, Out of Bounds Brewery, Baldacci’s, Duckhorn and host of vendors from around Northern California kept attendees full and satisfied. Entertainment was provided by the Emerald Brigade and Color Guard members including student combos, and individual solos by various band members. Everyone had gathered for one cause: to raise money to keep Granite Bay High School’s award-winning Emerald Brigade and Color Guard running.

The Granite Bay Emerald Brigade and Color Guard is a complete band program comprised of a marching band, color guard, drum line, winter guard, two concert bands, jazz band and a jazz combo. The award-winning marching Brigade is led by the extremely talented Lynn Lewis. Lewis has led the band to victories in several competitions in her 11 years with the school, most recently including the Western Bands Association Class 4A championship in Fresno. The WBA is arranged into five divisions by size, of which 4A is the second largest, for bands of 100-140 members. In both 2011 and 2015, Granite Bay placed first in this division, competing against 15-20 other comparable marching groups. 

“This isn’t the marching band of years ago. Let me say this: marching band today is more like a Broadway performance with 150 kids in 15 minutes. Music, movement, props, dramatic effects with precision is a humongous undertaking, but with vision and total dedication Emerald Brigade consistently brings home top awards, including state championships!” said Donna Eckwortzel Frey, one of the co-hosts of this year’s Wines Around the Bay fundraiser. “My daughter Madeline Frey became interested in marching band December of her freshman year. She has loved the friendships, the tight-knit group and the challenge. Madeline has completely blossomed and has navigated high school with a close group of 150 friends who are just as dedicated to arrive on campus at 6:30 a.m. during marching season – plus 8-5 p.m. super Saturday practices – to endure challenges on and off the field together. It's a humongous effort to get 150 students to perform a Broadway show on a field. It's a must-see!”

The Emerald Brigade consists of 127 members to be exact, including marching band musicians, percussion and the color guard – costumed auxiliary members who use flags, sabers and rifles to perform precise patterns and tell stories to great effect, adding a powerful visual element to the music. Now in its 18th season, these students work tirelessly to make the Emerald Brigade one of the most successful programs in California. However, their hard work is funded entirely by donations and fundraising, as it is not sponsored by the school district or federal and state programs. According to the Emerald Brigade Support Organization president, Al Peterson, who created a nonprofit to raise funds for the group, the Brigade’s annual budget nears the $200,000 range to pay for uniforms, transportation costs, musical instruments and their upkeep, staff stipends, and host of other costs associated with maintaining the operation at such a high level. With school back in session and competitions coming up in October and November, funds are desperately needed to keep them on track. The recent benefit helps tremendously, but donations are still very much needed. In addition to operating costs for the Emerald Brigade, band instrument replacement costs hover around $600,000; a cost that Emerald Brigade Support Organization can only deal with in small amounts, gradually.

The benefits of the arts on student life, their grades, and how they function in the world is staggering. Sadly most schools cannot afford music programs without parent and community support.

“Music and the arts have tremendous importance in education – they are an essential part of providing context for history and culture; they are expressions of human creativity and thus encourage creativity and expression in performers; they provide reference points for mathematics, science, and language,” Peterson says. “The Emerald Brigade, as a competitive marching band, also teaches the same qualities as sports do – discipline, teamwork, integrity, sportsmanship. That serves young people well throughout the rest of their lives.”

The impact on students’ studies, and in fact an overall improvement in their academic performance, is profound as well.

“Despite the long hours required of marching band (counting rehearsal and performance, up to 30 hours a week), the students in the band actually have a GPA higher than average for this competitive college-prep high school,” Peterson points out. “Practices depend heavily on having everyone present – it’s very hard to keep your proper position in a marching band formation if the person next to you is missing – and the discipline certainly encourages students to maintain perfect attendance (except, of course, for unavoidable illnesses).”

Recently two former GBEB members were accepted into the Long Beach Conservatory of Music, and several others have received partial scholarships to study music.

Donna Eckwortzel Frey, co-host for the Wines Around the Bay fundraiser, said she “fell in love with the kids because they are ‘all-in’ all year long.”

“Some sports are only a short season or part of a semester, but band starts two weeks before school and continues into winter percussion, orchestra, jazz bands and their final performance for senior graduation,” Frey says. “In 2014, I had the privilege to chaperone band down to Disneyland where they played at both parks over several days. Tears came to my eyes during a Disney backstage session with a Disney music director who let the kids pick their favorite Disney film, see the animation without music and then, after one or two quick practices, play the score to the film! It was unbelievable! … I cried quietly. Watching how dedicated they are makes me want to help more. Without the fundraising, I believe the band would not have the resources it needs to win state championships.”

With well over 250 attendees, Wines Around the Bay is usually a success. But fundraising needs continue as every supply for the band must be provided by the EBSO.

To see the Granite Bay Emerald Brigade and Color Guard perform live before they hit the road for competitions in Dublin, Union City and Fresno, watch their performance at Del Oro High School on Saturday, Oct. 17.

For more information about donating to the GBEB or becoming a member of the EBSO, visit their website at or by call Steve Nash at (916) 719-4830. They also have a page on Facebook: Emerald Brigade Parents.