The Aurora 99: Nearly a hundred strong, Huskies band is the beating heart of rich school tradition

The Aurora 99: Nearly a hundred strong, Huskies band is the beating heart of rich school tradition

By Tyler Dahlgren

The story behind how Aurora junior Elena Kuehner became involved in band is altogether simple and symbolic.

Elena’s mother had a flute, and, even as a young kid, she had her sights set on one day playing said flute. The rest, as they say, is history. Elena is a junior drum major and plays, you guessed it, the flute in her school’s tradition-rich marching band.

Prophecy fulfilled.

“I really just love music,” Kuehner said. “I’ve always loved music so much.”

Of the 99 band members at Aurora, many share sentiments similar to Elena’s. Like senior Ellie Wanek, who, like many Huskies, joined band in fifth-grade because of family intuition or natural influence.

“All my siblings were in band, and my mom was in band when she was in high school,” said Wanek. “I figured I might as well try it. And then, I ended up really loving it. I am so happy that I followed that path.”

That path, really, is the foundation for what Aurora’s band has become through the years. A program synonymous with the culture of its school. A tradition that has spanned from generation to generation, standing the test of time.

“Pride, dedication and tradition are all things we emphasize on, and there’s a great atmosphere in our band program,” said Kuehner. “It’s so fun to be a part of. We learn so much, and we have a great time doing it. It’s just a great experience.”

Tradition inside the program is so strong, said Wanek, that former band members from 10, 15, even 20 years ago still sometimes have a presence in the school’s band room.

“We can always relate to basically everybody that’s been in this band through the years, and that’s really cool,” Wanek said. “It’s a really nice thing to be able to relate and compare how we do things with how they did things.”

Some things may change throughout the years, but one that has remained steady is an excellent relationship between the band and the community. That’s one of the first things high school band director Dan Sodomka learned when he arrived in Aurora 19 years ago.

“The town is very, very supportive of the fine arts,” Sodomka said before expressing his gratitude for the brand new band room that was constructed in the school. “The entire fine arts wing has increased in size because of the support of the school board, the administration and the community. They see that students are highly involved in this. Performing for the community is very important to us because of that support.”

On the morning of October 15, for example, the band was performing for residents in the parking lot of Westfield Quality Care, a nursing home on the northwest side of town.

“When there is time, we truly try to get out and show the community some respect in return of their support by performing for them in whatever way we can,” said Sodomka, whose father was a music educator for more than 40 years. “Anything that we could possibly try to do, we do.”

Members of the band feel the support from the community, too.

“Really, no matter what we do, we always have our community behind us,” said Wanek. “Even walking through the grocery store, sometimes I’ll have people stop me and say, ‘Hey, the band sounded great on Friday night!’”

Aurora students are exposed to band as early as the fifth-grade, when the high-school band leadership team visits and performs There Is No Place Like Nebraska for the kids. It’s always fun for the high-schoolers to see young eyes light up with excitement and intrigue.

“The kids get to see how excited we are about band and see that we’ve been in it for seven or eight years and are still so happy performing and still so proud of that decision,” said Wanek. “It makes them look up to us and want to be like us. It’s super important, and we always love doing it because it’s so fun to see the kids, too.”



Speaking of the leadership team, Sodomka said that implementation has been crucial to the band’s success, just as good leadership is in any successful program or organization. The team meets weekly and knows that their behavior and actions on the field, in practice or performance, are constantly modeled.

“Hopefully, the leadership skills they’re learning apply to more than band, to other facets of their lives” he said. “That’s what we always try to stress. Everything we do applies to what they’ll encounter in their lifetimes, whether it’s goalsetting or interacting with people in large or small groups or handling adverse situations.”

With such large participation numbers, Sodomka said it would impossible for himself and middle school director Kate Metzger to lead in the manner they do without the student leadership team. On the flip side, explained Wanek, band members wouldn’t learn as much as they do about life without the leadership of Sodomka and Metzger.

“Both directors are super awesome,” she said. “I always hear people say they’re going to miss band a lot because it’s something they love, but I think part of what makes it hard to leave when you graduate is having to say good-bye to the directors. They just have such a big impact on us. We’ve been around them for eight years, longer than any of our other teachers. They are there with us through highs and lows and super involved in our lives.”

Kuehner agrees.

“They help us to become better musicians and better people,” she said.

The pandemic has shifted the way the fall semester has looked for the marching band. With competitions cancelled, Sodomka had to get creative to ensure that students were still afforded memorable experiences. There was a big appreciation day, where the band performed for family and friends. And the ACME (Aurora COVID Marching Exhibition), an event that drew six other bands to come perform (socially distanced, of course) in front of each other. There were inter-band competitions, such as the Marching Band Games, to liven things up, too.

“Being a senior, we were so blessed that Mr. S and Ms. Metzger put on those little competitions, the Marching Band Games and the appreciation days, because I know I was really bummed out knowing that we weren’t going to go and compete for another trophy,” said Wanek. “Mr. S always says that it’s not about the trophies, but, as high-schoolers, we are naturally a little competitive, so it was nice to be able to showcase our talents.”

Throw in the fact that the marching band was in a completely different rehearsal space than usual because of the construction to the new band room, coupled with the protocols and guidelines pertaining to the pandemic, and it’s been an interesting stretch for the Aurora band.

“Everyone has done a great job at being flexible,” said Kuehner. “Through all of those factors, with the construction and different location and masks, everyone stayed positive and focused. We were all just very thankful to have our marching season and the exhibitions.”

Sodomka makes it a point to stress just how involved these kids are, as athletes and academics and in clubs such as FBLA and FFA.

“These kids are highly involved, and not only are they involved, but they are officers of these groups. It shows you can be very successful in a lot of things and still enjoy this.”

Wanek starts to talk about the stigma that surrounds high school bands, the one you see so often in the movies and in pop culture. There’s no such thing as a band nerd in Aurora, she laughs. Not even close.

“That’s just not the case at Aurora,” Wanek said. “Our school loves us. Even talking to the volleyball players and basketball players, they’re always asking us ‘Oh my gosh, is the Pep Band playing tonight?” They talk about how much better the atmosphere is in the gym when they have the energy of the band there.”

That’s the thing about music, Kuehner said. It’s the great connector. It has the power to bring together a student body, to span generations and, even in the face of a life-altering pandemic, to make things feel normal again. Even for a little while.

“It’s just really cool how music can connect people in so many situations, and how by performing we can bring more light into the lives of others and positively influence people in the community,” Kuehner went on. “I just love that.”

When the Aurora 99 come together and play as one, they carry quite the tune.

The tune of a culture and of a tradition. Engrained so deep that former and current band members, Husky fans and folks from around town can close their eyes and hear it.

The sound of a school.

They Said It!

Q: It's been a difficult year, but it seems like you two both look at things through a positive lens. What will you remember most about the fall semester of the 2020-21 school year?

"I will remember how hard everyone worked to try and make it, quote unquote, normal for us. Watching Mr. S and Ms. Metzger work so hard to get those days for us to perform and carry on our traditions, I'll remember that. We always have the Senior Dances. Mr. S Polka dances with us at our state competition. Always. So at our Appreciation Day, we got to do that and have lunch together as a band.

I am going to remember how hard everybody has worked for us in making things positive and happy. Knowing how hard my teachers are working, even though it's hard for them, too. Just how awesome everybody has been."-Senior Ellie Wanek

"I'm so thankful for all of our teachers, and just the fact that we have gotten to have a marching season, and that we're still in school so far. I'll definitely remember how this has unified us more. Everybody wants to be out there doing whatever we can to make this a memorable year."-Junior Elena Kuehner