“Our Tribute to the USO Big Band Show”

2023 Community Involvement Award Recipient

Leyden High Schools Music Department

Leyden Community High Schools
Northlake, Illinois


Our Tribute to the USO Big Band Show is all about creating opportunities to empower our music students to realize the great things they can do when they use their time and talents for worthwhile causes. Located at runway’s edge of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the Leyden High Schools are truly a melting pot and a port of entry to the American Dream; with over 40 languages spoken in the homes of our families. Our community also has a strong legacy of military service, So, a project which celebrates our American heritage and salutes our Veterans is truly meaningful here.


Performing this show in both 2019 and 2022, our objectives for this advocacy initiative have included:

  • OPPORTUNITY: every student in our music department (and several other departments) has the opportunity to be included in this project each time we do it (2019, 2022, and planned for 2024), sharing a successful experience and common bond
  • CIVICS AND HISTORY: this project is a tremendous opportunity to teach our students civics and history through their music, actually meeting and interacting with our community Veterans, hearing their stories, and having an opportunity to thank them for their service to our nation
  • CHARITY: Through this and similar projects like our Annual Community Veterans Day Ceremony (MFA Community Engagement Gold Winner), we have raised money to support the important work being done by civic organizations like The Wounded Warrior Project and the USO
  • HONOR AND RECOGNITION: for the many Veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice, and particularly so for our Greatest Generation World War II Veterans and their families in attendance for our event
  • COMMUNITY: bring many people into our schools who would otherwise have no connection to each other, our students, or our program
  • COLLABORATION: with a number of our other school departments supporting this project (see below), and our external allies and partners like our local community American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and local townships
  • CELEBRATION: of the synergy that results when we bring together so much diverse talent, perspective, and commitment for a worthwhile cause, and so our students never underestimate their power to go great things with their time and talent

Target Audience

Our “target” is always pretty much EVERYONE!

The context being that the audience validation empowers our students to realize the meaningful contributions and dramatic impact they can make, and what a wonderful gift this is for others. When they utilize their time and talents for worthwhile causes, this can make our students see themselves in a new and more powerful way.

However, with this project, we especially wanted to honor our World War II Veterans in a meaningful way within the context of the show. We also wanted to cast the wider net of honoring all our Veterans/families because of our community’s strong tradition of military service and active service organizations like the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, that we regularly collaborate with and are great supporters of our music students.

This has been such a successful project and uplifting experience for our students that we performed it in 2019, 2022, and plan to do so again in 2024 because it has appealed to such a wide audience cross section of our community, many of which would have no other interactions with our music department, or even our high school.

Because we are a Title 1 School, our music events are free and open to the public as a way of building community. This resulted in an historic standing-room-only capacity audience for this event; something which doesn’t happen in our community. This created an absolutely electric environment for our kids and made for an emotional recognition opportunity for our World War II Veterans at the end of the show.


Because the Our Tribute to the USO Big Band Show was an original production, the concept was essentially “in the works” for years. The show design, story arc, and set, costume, and prop needs were finalized 3 months before opening.

Before the audience experienced our production, we wanted them to be immediately immersed in the era upon entering the auditorium. We hung 50 WW II era posters on the walls. We made 48 historic unit emblems from American and WW II allied armed forces units representing the many ethnicities represented in our student body. The pre-show featured an interactive WW II era quiz and a Movietone newsreel compilation to help create this effect. Partnering with our art department on this began 3 months in advance, but hanging the posters and other associated period artwork could only happen the week of the show due to an outside rental utilizing our auditorium.

Long term relationships built through our other endeavors like our Annual Community Veterans Day Ceremony also enabled us to have a WW II jeep on display!

To complement the students’ costumes and provide a nice keepsake, we collaborated with our industrial technology department to engrave show-specific dog tags. This coordination began about 6 weeks in advance.

The individualized coaching for our historical speech orators and students singing in French and Spanish occurred the month of the show.

We scheduled a weekend “Big Band Retreat” for our 3 extra-curricular jazz bands. We invited several of our partner school directors and former student teachers to serve as clinicians. This gave these ensembles a musical push and was a real confidence builder for these students to keep stress levels low so they could really enjoy both the process and the culminating performance.

The technical director was a huge help during our tech week.

Overview of Planning and Execution

Our other sponsors/volunteers/groups/charities included:

  • the USO, whose Midwest Region President spoke at our event, and provided a display of the meaningful work today’s USO is doing for our service members and their families (we raised $500.00 in free-will donations for the USO)
  • the teachers from the 6 collaborating academic departments, lending content expertise and involved their students in making many contributions to enhance the project
  • Leyden Township, for their wonderful publicity support
  • our local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars Posts, for their publicity support and use of the WW II era jeep display
  • our district’s Student Activities Director, who paid for the pre-show Veterans Dinner event
  • Key Club and National Honor Society students, who greeted, escorted, and served our Veterans Dinner guests
  • our partner school directors, who encouraged their middle school music students to attend the show, and some of whom served as clinicians for our Big Bands –professional swing dancers, who kindly donated their time and skills to greatly enhance our production
  • maintenance department, who let us have their old 55-gallon drums so we could repurpose them into set pieces
  • military, who lent us camo netting and sand bags to be used with the set pieces
  • alumni, who attended in large numbers to support and encourage our students’ efforts
  • wonderful music parents, who provided behind-the-scenes support to solve many problems and enhance many ideas

However, by far the most significant group was our community’s World War II Veterans and families in attendance. The entire evening was designed to be an immersive tribute to their legacy. But, the highlight was specifically recognizing these Home Town Heroes as the finale to the show. Seeing the entire auditorium erupt into a standing ovation was a fantastic moment that I really believe brought everyone together in a very dynamic way.

Tools and Resources

We utilized internal and external allies to the greatest degree possible in order to maximize available resources and content-expertise excellence. In addition to raising the overall excellence of the project, it led to exponentially increasing the stakeholders in it, translating to making this a huge community event in terms of attendance and support. Specific operationalizing of this is outlined in greater detail throughout the document.

Marketing and Promotion

We attempted to market and promote across all available community strata and media.

This included:

  • Utilizing all school web/social media outlets, and digital marquees
  • Asking the local townships to do the same (which they did!), and also including a flier in the utility bill
  • Enlisting our long-term allies in our community American Legion and VFW Posts to help bolster our many publicity efforts
  • Partnering with our activities director to sponsor a free pre-show dinner for all of our community Veterans and their families
  • Our music students placing several hundred large posters in key high-visibility locations throughout our community, so that the community would be aware of the good things our music kids are doing, even if they did not actually attend the event
  • Inviting all of our partner school music students/families
  • Local news coverage was also generous, both before and after the event
  • Involving students/staff from many activities within our school so they also had some ownership of the project

Fortunately, this translated into a standing-room-only audience, a very dynamic performance experience for our students, and some great long-term support and allies.


The majority of the key components for this show were either:

  • borrowed (authentic Big Band Era charts borrowed from the Air Force National Guard Band, camo netting and sand bags borrowed from the military, the WW II era jeep and artillery piece loaned from the local American Legion)
  • or made in house (all of the unit insignia decorating the proscenium, the WW II era posters, the Glenn Miller US Army Air Corps Big Band Fronts, the oil drums and ammo case set pieces and Apple Tree props, the dog tag, shirt, and pill box designs), and many of the period costumes were borrowed from colleagues.

Purchased items included 250+ WW II era US Army Air Corps color shirts ($1600), 250+ pill box style hats ($175), 300+ dog tag slugs and chains ($225), two period-authentic 48 star American Flags ($25), concert and band and orchestra arrangements ($325) , and all of the raw supplies for all of the art work created in house (paints/brushes, presentation boards, insulation boards; $150), and a number of period costumes ($725)

While technically, this is a zero-budget enterprise, the caveats are as follows: We are able to utilize our existing band, choir, and orchestra library literature for the ceremony. Our performing students already have uniforms for their respective role in the band, choir, orchestra, or color guard, and we utilize a large American flag and Armed Service flags purchased for use by our marching band (as our marching band honors a Home Town Hero from the community just prior to the Star Spangled Banner for each home football game performance). Additionally, Leyden Township Village Office was kind enough to cover the costs of printing publicity posters and included publicity for the event in the water bill.


A large-scale construction project created Herculean logistic and facility challenges coordinating the district’s various Fine Arts season events during the time of this production, leaving us with only one available auditorium.

Because the Our Tribute to the USO Big Band Show was an original show, we minimized obstacles by compartmentalizing components for scheduling and rehearsal space. Each extra-curricular jazz band portrayed a specific Big Band of the era (e.g., the Glenn Miller US Army Air Corps Band, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, etc.) Advanced choir students portrayed era vocalists, fronting jazz bands, concert bands, or orchestra, and swing dancers or multi-media pieces were paired with each group for production value.

This show design and repertoire strategy allowed us to divide 250 student performers into specific individual production packages that could be rehearsed independently, and blocked in alternate facilities because of limited auditorium access.

For economic and rehearsal expediency, we designed the show to repurpose the set from a professional theater rental in the school auditorium until the weekend before our show.

Costuming over 250 students poses huge supply chain and economic challenges. To overcome these, each of the 3 Big Bands was uniquely costumed. The on-stage singers/actors/dancers were also period-costumed. However, the large concert ensembles were “costumed” in a keepsake show shirt, dog tag, and pill box hat we purchased for them. The shirt design was a stylized version of the WW II tan US Army Air Corps shirt. The dog tags were designed with the show logo by our industrial education department.

Finding original arrangements of era Big Band charts can be a challenge, but we were able to borrow a significant number of quality Big Band charts from an Air Force National Guard Band, giving some real authenticity to the show.

Success/Effectiveness Measurement

Our Tribute to the USO Big Band Show project has positively impacted our program, district, and community in a number of ways over the years, including:

  • empowering our students to realize the meaningful contributions and dramatic impact they can make when they utilize their time and talents for worthwhile causes
  • making our students see themselves in a new and more powerful way
  • raising our students’ civic awareness, sense of history, and appreciation for The Greatest Generation’s many heroic contributions to our nation’s freedom
  • bringing together students from many different departments in our school to combine their talents and passions for a common cause
  • bringing large scale recognition and honor to our World War II Veterans, and all of our community Veterans and their families for their sacrifice and service to our nation
  • introducing many community members to our Leyden Music Department who would have never otherwise been aware of the great things our kids are doing
  • bringing more community members back to the high school for our students’ subsequent performances and when we host the Premiere Service Bands on their national tours

From our music students’ self-reflection assignment and senior student reflection, this project was almost universally listed as one of their most memorable and enjoyable music performances. The standing-room-only audience count was historic! The feedback from our own faculty has served to powerfully reinforce to our students never to underestimate their power to do great things through their musical endeavors.

Community Impact

The successes from this program have been many!

Within our program, we were able to construct a meaningful project where ALL of our music students could participate, regardless of age, ability, or experience.

Within our schools, we built bridges through purposeful collaboration with teachers and students from 6 different departments. We also strengthened relationships with our partner school directors and students.

Likewise, we showed our key decision makers (board/administration) how relevant, dynamic, and powerful our music department is in our community. The number of faculty and staff who attended the event, many bringing some of their family members who were Veterans, was a wonderful community builder, as was the praise our students received from them for their quality work in the ensuing days.

Within our community, we drew upon several key long and strong relationships forged through our Annual Community Veterans Day Ceremony for support and collaboration. Our Township and the local American Legion and VFW Posts were fantastic allies. We also partnered with the Chicago USO for this event. The USO Midwest Regional President spoke at the event, and we raised $500.00 in free-will donations to support today’s USO in their important work for our service members and their families.

Within our larger community, we brought people from our community into the schools for this project who NEVER come into our schools. A standing-room-only event simply does not happen in our community, but it did on that night! Beyond that, we made thousands more of our community members aware of our students’ worthwhile endeavors in our schools and in our community through coordinated publicity efforts and generous newspaper coverage.

Our kids also know that they gave our WW II Veterans another well-deserved moment of thunderous honor and recognition, reminding them that their service and sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Advice for others?

You can do this project!

It’s meaningful, empowering, and honors your community’s Home Town Heroes who have done so much for our nation.

Your kids will LOVE this project; it will make your program better and will be a standout music memory for them.

If you’re not sure, contact me and I’ll help you!

Supporting Materials