KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — Marshall Werling had a great sense of humor. He loved teaching music and loved Jazz.
That was the resounding message from the friends who miss working with him, and the students who miss his leadership this year at East Kentwood High School.
Werling had been a band director at the school for six years when he died of cancer in May of 2022.
“Shortly after Marshall died, one of the first things we thought about was how we could honor him at school with our students,” said Natalie Sears, who is also a band director at the school.
She was already on staff when Werling joined the team. The other band director, Mike Gozzard, started last year. He had known Werling since college, when the two met in class.
A nickname Gozzard gave Werling is now the title of this year’s Marching Band Show, ‘Blue Rage.’
“(The professors) would say ‘Write your name on the water bottle,’ and I looked over at his water bottle and I said, ‘Does that say blue rage?’ And he’s like, ‘No, it says beverage,’ and I said ‘OK, from this moment on we’re going to call you Blue Rage,'” Gozzard explained.
When the three directors all came together last school year, Sears said it was an instant fit.
“That was a cool experience for me to see his buddy, and they’ve known each other through college and they’ve grown together as band directors, and now we get to do it all together,” Sears explained.
Gozzard and Sears didn’t just choose to honor Werling with the title of the show. The music they chose for the performance also comes from Werling’s Spotify playlist and the second part of the show is all jazz tunes, which Werling loved.
Gozzard said he wanted East Kentwood to continue to be a jazz powerhouse, which he shared with the students at the beginning of the year.
“Then, day one of jazz, we had maybe 80 kids show up, and that was really cool to see,” Gozzard said, adding that typically there are about 30 jazz students total.
According to Sears, Marshall Werling was always “student first, music second.”
“We want to make sure we have good students, but we want to make sure they are leaving our care as great humans,” she said.
That’s work she and Gozzard are trying to continue in Werling’s absence.
The students have shown what good humans they are through their kindness to each other during a difficult time.
Marshall Werling fought cancer on and off for several years, so his students weren’t surprised to find out he was going to be gone for a while going through treatment, but they expected him to return.
McKenna VanOveren is a senior this year and a drum major, and shared about the day she learned how serious Werling’s condition was this time.
“The choir teacher told us that he was in the hospital and that he didn’t know how long he would have. We figured out on a Friday that he wouldn’t have much longer,” VanOveren said. “(I) decided I wanted to make a video.”
McKenna had other students record a message for Werling with things they liked about him and how much they missed him. She got it all together in a matter of two hours, and was able to send it to Werling the next day, which was just in time.
Werling passed away that Saturday, May 14, at 30 years old.
The music that honors Werling’s memory has been healing for everyone involved, including the students. When they found out they would be using their late band director’s Spotify playlist, they were excited, and that excitement hasn’t faded.
“In marching band, you spend three months on eight minutes of music,” Gozzard said. “Sometimes (at) this time of year, the students can be tired, but we’re not really seeing that. They’re still willing to get better, all the way to the end.”
The students will perform in their final invitational on Saturday, Oct. 22.