Wherever I May Roam: Mason alum directs marching band to victory in Metallica competition


Smoke glides across the Oakton High School football field. A black curtain—20 yards long—hangs in the center of the field with giant silver letters: “Parade to Black.”

As the opening bars of “Enter Sandman” play on vibraphones, 50 high school marching band members emerge in ’80s hair metal wigs. They join the arrangement of the hit Metallica song, head-banging in between choreography and music cues. 

A student drum major directs the Oakton High School marching band during their performance of Parade to Black.
The Oakton High School marching band performs their award-winning show "Parade to Black" at the VBODA State Marching Band Assessment. Photo by Dave Custer. 

“Enter Sandman” concludes the eight-and-a-half-minute medley of Metallica’s most popular songs, performed by Oakton High School’s marching band and color guard. Directed by Mason alum Jamie VanValkenburg, BM ’97, MM ’00, the Marching Cougars won the approval of Metallica itself, winning the small high school category in the inaugural “For Whom the Band Tolls!” marching band competition, beating out more than 450 other competitors. Other than praise and acclaim from the gods of metal themselves, the band will also receive a prize of $15,000 for instruments and equipment. 

“It’s surreal. I grew up listening to Metallica,” VanValkenburg said. “Their albums were huge when I was in middle and high school, so when I saw the initial announcement on social media about the competition, I thought doing a Metallica show and entering their competition would be fun. I never expected that we would win.” 

VanValkenburg, an upstate New York native, chose Mason at the encouragement of his middle school band director, whose college band director was Anthony Maiello, University Professor of Music in the Dewberry School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Before he came to Mason, Maiello taught a number of future New York band directors at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, in northern New York state. 

“Once he moved to Mason, those directors encouraged their students who showed interest in majoring in music to look into Mason,” VanValkenburg explained. “We joked that in the Mason music department, if you weren’t from Virginia, you were probably from New York.” 

VanValkenburg met his future wife at Mason, also from Upstate New York and with a Maiello connection, Holly (Constantine) VanValkenburg, BA Music ‘00. Maiello was also the conductor for VanValkenburg’s New York All-State high school band.

While Maiello brought VanValkenburg to Mason, it was retired professor Roger Behrend who put VanValkenburg on the path to teaching. “Behrend insisted that those of us interested in music performance get our degrees in music education,” VanValkenburg said. “It would ensure we had a plan if we were unable to sustain a career in performance. It was some of the best advice I ever got.” 

VanValkenburg still draws on the lessons from his time at Mason. In particular, he remembered Maiello’s influence. “Professor Maiello had very high standards, but he knew how to rehearse a band to meet those standards. He taught us how to reach those heights, and that’s something I try to emulate. He was incredibly inspiring on the podium, and I owe a lot to him.” 

VanValkenburg in his teaching element.
Jamie VanValkenburg, BM ’97, MM ’00, director of the Marching Cougars. Photo by Dave Custer. 

VanValkenburg isn’t the only Mason alum in the Oakton High School community: Multiple members of the band staff are either alumni or current students of Mason, including the marching band music arranger Kent Baker, BA Music ’21 ; percussion arranger Nick Kraemer, BM Music Education ’15; percussion instructors Ricky Carrero, BA Sociology ’17, and Bronson Rodriguez, BA Music ‘23; and color guard instructor Malcolm Wood, BM Music Education ’23. Current Mason students on staff include Elaine Hopkins and Carly Wolfrey. Together, they created the winning Oakton High School performance. 

Putting together a marching band show is a months-long endeavor, which VanValkenburg compared to a “1,000-piece puzzle.” Students are given the music arrangement near the end of the school year to learn over the summer. At marching band camp in August, they learn the drill and choreography, and develop the show as an ensemble. The show learned at band camp would be their show for the full season, including football games and competitions, which runs through October. 

The road to this victory wasn’t easy. School music programs are still feeling the impacts of COVID-19, including reduced student numbers and loss of group performance skills. 

“For a full year, none of them were able to play together. Once back in person, they didn’t know how to listen to each other, how to work as an ensemble anymore,” he explained. “And the process of virtual band was so painful we saw a lot of students not continue with their music programs.”
VanValkenburg suspects that recovery will take a few more years, but he hopes that this victory will encourage student interest. 

“I’ve heard from directors around the county that after the winners were announced, their middle school students came into class all abuzz with the news. It’s awesome that everyone is as excited about this as we are,” he said.