School Bands and Athletics

Marching BandI haven’t done a lot of marching band, so my opinions about it are tempered somewhat by my lack of experiences in this area. Personally, I was always more interested in making music for listening purposes, rather than in conjunction with something that looks cool on the field. Also, I have to admit I’m not much of a football fan, so I never really was interested in going to a lot of games. At the high school and university I went to for my undergraduate degree there wasn’t even a marching band to participate in, we just did pep band and played in the stands.

But I do know a lot of musicians who had very positive experiences in marching bands and drum and bugle corps, so I understand the appeal. And I’m trying to learn more about this in order to be able to be more versatile as a teacher.

Recently NPR broadcast an editorial about marching bands and sports, which I found very interesting and have some agreement with. Frank Deford mentions his surprise in learning that many schools offer scholarships for students to play in the marching band. I have no problem with this, many schools offer financial incentives to students to play in a particular ensemble for both music majors and music minors. One of Deford’s other points I’m in full agreement with.

Lisa Chismire, the parent of a student in the Unionville-Chadds Ford District in Pennsylvania, discovered that it was district policy — as it is elsewhere — to force serious music students to attend band camp in the summer and then march in the band at football games. If music students who had no interest in the marching band did not go along and assist the football program, the young musicians would not be allowed to play in the concert band, the symphonic band, the jazz band or the orchestra.

Chismire, who is a retired lawyer, was appalled. She called this “extortion” and “institutional bullying” — coercing students in one discipline to serve as spear carriers for those in another.

In my experience, if the marching band is run well by the directors you typically don’t need to spend a lot of time recruiting your band students to participate in it. They will want to because it’s enjoyable. If anything, I feel that the concert band is the ensemble that needs to be the core group of a high school band program and this is the ensemble that should be required for participation in the marching band. It’s in the concert band where the director can most effectively teach essential musical skills that will translate to a good sounding marching band, where the marching band has too many other activities involved to really focus on making music well.

But there is some controversy about these different priorities. Many high schools really focus their band program on the marching band. It is the most visible group of the entire music program and is how many school band programs are judged by the general public.

The comments in the NPR article are also interesting to read, with good points being made by both sides of this issue. What do you think? Should marching band be the core ensemble of a high school band program or is this putting the cart before the horse? Does the real answer to this question lie somewhere in the middle?

Paul T.

This is an interesting issue, actually. Here are some potentially unrelated comments, on no specific order:

1. I’ve seen many players get hurt or have trouble playing because of marching bands. It’s brutal, it’s hard playing, and there is no concession made for people’s anatomy (i.e. everyone is expected to hold their horn at the same angle). This is particularly difficult if you play with your horn at a significantly downward angle, for example.

2. Some players actually develop nicely by doing marching bands. I know one trombonist whose playing improved tremendously from being in a marching band: I’m pretty sure it’s because he was forced to bring up his horn angle, and that change pushed him over the edge from being a medium high placement player to land in a solid and strong low placement. I’ve heard other people report improvement because raising their horn angle forced them to bring out their jaw (and, like the guy who changed his mouthpiece placement as a result, it was what they needed to do).

3. When I was in high school, we were “forced” to play in marching band if we wanted to play in any of the more musically prestigious groups (like the jazz band or the symphony orchestra). This was horrible, and we all hated it. Our marching band was physically grueling and the music always sounded horrible, since the quality of the marching was the priority (and most people couldn’t get a good sound while marching at the same time). We also played the same three songs over and over again… for the whole year.


I hated my two years of marching band. Music wasn’t all that great, and seemed to me more about upperclassmen bossing around the younger players than about anything else. Mix that with the military lingo (“detail,” “about face”), the sweaty polyester uniforms and the unparalleled opportunities to get your horn dinged up (concrete bleachers, anyone?), there wasn’t much incentive for me to stick around. Had I been forced to march, I would likely have quit trombone. As it was, I had to miss half a semester of concert band to skip marching.

Don’t hold out concert band and jazz band as carrots to get students to march. Seriously, the only place you ever see the words “forced” and “march” together are in references to prisoners of war–and marching band! Obviously marching band isn’t evil, but if you try it once and don’t enjoy it, don’t stick around. There’s other ways to make music.

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