Can Competitive Marching Band Be Healthy?

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Let me just say it: I think that competitive marching band can be a very beneficial activity for students. Many of our students are not in a sport, and marching band can be a great way (sometimes their only opportunity) to experience competition prior to the rest of their (post schooling) life. But as with all aspects of a carefully-structured music program, the framework and philosophy put in place correlates to the type of experience the students will have. It shapes their views on what it means to have a successful season and whether that amounts to something other than a trophy count.

I know there are probably some teachers reading this who (like myself) no longer compete...or perhaps never have. Please know that this article isn't really written for you. This is for the folks that compete and have a little knot in their stomach because something isn't feeling just right as they drive home from a competition.

I'm going to start with the most problematic aspect of assuring student success in competitive marching band, and then I'll touch on some other aspects that are equally critical to the health of the group.

Warning: This involves some serious gut-checking.

The most fundamental aspect of being successful in competitive marching band is the vehicle...your show. Unfortunately this foundation tends to be the weakest area for many bands. For many directors it is something that has to be merely checked off, or worse yet, something that gets put off. What some directors end up with is an odd combination of last minute ideas put together by committee because time has run out and we have to "go with something at this point."

If you are going to compete, you owe it to your students to provide them with an achieveable show that, when mastered, has the capability to receive a great score.

If you cannot grasp and actuate this important reality then it's going to be a long year (or career). Students deserve a vehicle that is both effective and achieveable given their current ability level. I think that many directors know that their show is not what it should be, but figure that if the students just work harder it will somehow be OK. This is simply wrong, and it will create a lot of frustration for your students. Over the years I have seen (and fallen prey to) things that prevent the students from doing well such as:

  • A show concept that is too esoteric for the students (or anyone) to grasp
  • Drill that is too difficult for their current ability level and/or does not serve the music properly
  • Music that is too difficult and/or does not account for instrumentation issues
  • Music/Drill that is too simplistic
  • Show design/coordination that does not properly address the "GE moments" that are necessary to hold interest (BIG problem here for many groups)
  • Program construction that has been turned over to staff rather than properly originated and guided by you, the teacher

Again, the vehicle is the most important factor in setting up your students for success. A compelling, thoughtful show with appropriate levels of difficulty will foster buy-in, capture/involve the audience/adjudicators, and create a synergy that will propel your students through the season in a postive manner.

Don't hire an arranger, give them a few titles, and wait for the results. Get the score and sketch out the edits YOU want and/or take recordings and splice together the general flow. YOU decide where the impact points should be. YOU decide where the woodwinds get their time in the sun, or where the percussion break will be. Then YOU meet with the visual designer and, arrangement in hand, talk about the required staging and coordination. Don't hope for compelling show, ensure it. And if you are the design staff...don't be proud, get some feedback early in your process from trusted colleagues. This season, while you are still thinking about it, watch the audience (not just your own band parents), and really listen to what your judges tapes are revealing to you.

 

Lack of commitment to this issue is the reason I refuse to adjudicate anymore. I just couldn't stand to put a number on students who are clearly working hard but have a vehicle that is lacking, incoherent, or mismatched to their abilities. I think some directors spend more time planning their awards banquet than they do envisioning every aspect of their show, and that's just not right. I think most current judges...if they could be completely honest with directors...would say that the main problem with marching bands is the vehicle, not the subsequent instruction and certainly not the students. Without a strong vehicle, your students have too much to overcome. They are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own.

It is your job to provide a vehicle that is as thoughtful and effective as those with whom you are competing. Anything less is an injustice to your students.

Now, let's assume that the vehicle you have put together can be successful. The next important areas are:

  • An efficient system of learning music and drill, and appropriate contact time to accomplish it
  • The right level of staffing (read "budget") for design and for proper instruction
  • Participation in shows that have your group in similar company
  • An enacted philosophy that defines competition as an internal quest for perfection


This last point is essential to a healthy marching program. As directors in the very top (state/national) echelons will tell you, there is only one band that can "win." So in fact groups at the top of the activity spend more time not winning than they do winning…most win nothing. And yet these upper level groups find the experience to be positive. This is because those teachers understand it is incumbent upon them to lay out a philosophy that takes this important truth into account:

The better you become, the less likely it is that you will receive any external rewards.

When a marching band consistently has a vehicle that fits them well, improvement ensues. This is most readily reflected in rankings initially. But after a time the band will reach a level where most of the groups are of a very similar ability. At this point there is very little "upward" movement. Does this mean the band is no longer having success? Have we stagnated? Why can't we beat anyone anymore?

See the problem with this method of measuring success?

You must prepare your students for this phase, otherwise you have set them up for disappointment that is no fault of their own. The real competition is the band's ability to master the vehicle, period. It is an internal quest that has very little to do with the event they are attending each weekend.

This is an extremely mature level of thought, and that is why I think marching band can be so beneficial if done right. But again, it comes down to the teacher's mindset and the framework you provide for the students.

Here are some things you must never do.

  • Never...ever, mention other schools negatively as a way of motivating your group
  • Never...ever, foster a dislike for judges within your students
  • Never...ever, allow students to do anything other than support and appreciate other schools at a contest
  • Never...ever, allow your students to think that success is manifested in the rankings...it's not

 

Be honest: How are you doing with the points above? Do you see the connection between these points and an unhealthy experience? If you won't or can't make it healthy, should your students be competing? If you don't have a choice, do you have some professional development to do? Like I said, there is some serious gut-checking here.

Golf is not, on the whole, a game for realists. By its exactitudes of measurement it invites the attention of perfectionists.

~Heywood Hale Broun

Marching band is alot like golf: It's the golfer against the course (for band students it's the vehicle). All pro golfers will tell you this is so...the more competitive you wish to be, the less you must think about anything except your own game. As soon as you begin to think that what you do has something to do with what someone else is doing, the wheels are going to come off. Like golf, marching band an internal effort: You do your best personal best, and the outcome is the outcome. That's how marching band works. Well, how it's supposed to work.

Now, golfers will also tell you that if they were forced to use inferior clubs, had a terrible caddy, or used a damaged golf ball all day, the experience would change drastically. This is why my first points about the vehicle, learning system, and staff are so important. Do not give your students the equivalent of crappy clubs, no caddy, dime store golf balls, and then expect them to be successful and enjoy the experience.

The bottom line: Watch your students as the scores are being read. You will know if your situation is healthy or not. If it's not, you know who can fix it.

(Join the discussion on our facebook group for band directors)

15 responses
I must begin by stating that I have never worked within the framework of a competitive marching program because my own concerns with involve basically two related streams: time and money. This "hit home" as recently as two years ago when I was contracted to serve as a field judge and timer for a local competition.

Here I was, stopwatch in hand, viewing ensembles, most of which had been working to perfect their shows since sometime in the summer. Only one ensemble did not meet the seven-minute minimum and no one even approached the maximum; in fact, it would be safe to say that the average performance was between 8 and 8-1/2 minutes. Thus, we were viewing eight minute performances that the ensembles had been rehearsing for approximately three months and had already competed several time (often twice in one day!)

The educator in me thoroughly questions if this is an appropriate use of the students' (and teachers') educational time. If we spent an equivalent amount of time rehearsing the same amount of concert band repertoire (probably one piece) and presented that at an eight-minute concert, we would sorely be in trouble. What makes this expense of time and effort appropriate to the marching band.

As for money, in no other part of our programs do we hire additional personnel to assist in our preparation thereof. No one is rehearsing with the winds, percussion or flag corps (thank goodness) alone. It's simple not needed; one person can do the job.

The point that I am attempting to make is that, to me, the time and expense put into any one facet of music education denotes how important that facet is and students can pick up on that. Would it be better to simplify drill and present a different performance at every outing (like back in the "old" days)? Probably, because that would mean that students are being presented with a great deal more music--and music is what we need to be about, not scores, medals and trophies.

I feel that when competitive marching band is structured as a true extra-curricular, voluntary activity, it deserves the same level of support that other activities receive in terms of instructors (coaches) and resources.
I couldn't agree with you more.  It would be wonderful to see more programs examine marching band as a "true extracurricular, voluntary <u>activity</u>."  I have seen this model both as a success (in some very fine programs) and a failure (in my own high school experience).  The element that caused the failure was a lack of commitment from the students for the "long haul," resulting in an ensemble less than 50% of its original size at an end of the year parade.  That was nearly 40 years ago.  In the busy "do everything" climate of the 21st century, I can only imagine that it would be more difficult to maintain.  However, we certainly can dream.

Thanks for your provocative article on this subject.
The usefulness of a competitive marching band varies by region. For many parts of the US, a competitive corp style marching band is an anachronism of the 1990's. Sadly, as I've relocated to New Jersey, I see many band directors who are stuck in the 1990's and maintaining corp style marching bands. While it works in a handful of NJ districts, it is an obvious and revolting failure in the majority of NJ schools. Many of my NJ colleagues have 40-75 kids on the field at a large suburban high school, and somehow believe this is an acceptable and successful program. While they insist competitive corp style band is a positive thing, in their very next breath they gripe about membership and their inability to attract students to their program. Why can't my colleagues add 2+2, and realize their marching program is why no students elect to join their program? It baffles my mind. In this age of budget cuts, having an inclusive band program is important. Failure to maintain enrollment will result in your position being reduced to part time, or your program getting cut altogether. Sadly, many of my colleagues continue down a path of increased competition and declining membership. Educational trends change. While a director may have loved being part of a drum corp, it is not necessarily the best thing for your local high school. Hopefully, my colleagues will soon adjust their philosophies accordingly, and NJ music programs will experience the same large increase in membership seen in other parts of the country where competitive corp style marching band has been avoided.
CJ makes a very good point and, unfortunately, in my part of the country, the Corps style of marching competition has been the norm for many years now. There is a program--a Class 4A school with over 1600 students--that now has 45 students enrolled in the band program. Is this the result of increased focus on the competitive aspects of the program? One cannot know without a thorough study of the situation. The least that one can say is that something has gone awry in this program that within the last 20 years has diminished from two concert bands to (barely) one. When some 300 students begin band in the fifth grade and less than 10% of those graduate in grade 12, the time has come to reexamine everything.
Honestly Brian, I think it's selfishness. That's why I'm so passionate about this topic. Some band directors were in drum corps, and absolutely love it. Rather than examine the needs of their program, they simply inflict their tastes on their program. Personally, I keep marching band to 2 hours a week, use lyres, and don't make a fuss about it. Fairfax County VA has very large and successful programs which are corp style. They push marching band and it works. For that reason, you would never see me as a high school band director in Fairfax VA because I can't pretend to care about marching band, and my style would not be what is best for their schools and their students. Some of these folks, while they have good hearts, are selfishly putting their love of marching band ahead of what is good for the students where they happen to be working. That disgusts me. Sadly, you're going to see many more 25 member band programs in NJ before my colleagues take the hint! Thank you for your article and the discussion.
While it's natural to take one's own approach as the right one, I'm not sure that those who do not compete can look from the outside in and make the claim that competition results in lower program enrollment, or take the view that competition is wholly wrong. As we all know there are many programs across the country that do not compete and also have low enrollment.

The point I'm trying to get across is that when we withhold the proper tools from the students then the ability to have a productive experience diminishes and we increase the likelihood of overworking the students in an effort to make up for poor planning and instruction. I don't see that as a competition problem. Poor instruction can happen in any facet of a music program. Think about concert bands that are attempting repertoire that is far too difficult, or those that are learning music that has such a lack of integrity as to be meaningless. Think of jazz bands where there is very little evidence of jazz instruction.

What we're after is a positive and educational experience for students, regardless of the paradigm. We all know of marching bands that compete and are able to keep things in perspective, provide excellent instruction, retain (or even improve) enrollment, and create meaningful memories for kids...so it *does* work. My point is, if you are going to compete, you have an obligation to emulate the teachers that get those things right.

~Brian

All fair statements to make. Again, regional tastes are a major factor. I don't mean to come across as a "one size fits all" type person. However, when looking at a national trend in the past 10 years, one sees a definite connection between taking marching band "seriously" and low enrollment. One paper posted by the Kentucky Music Educators Association nicely displays how a gentleman taught in two different high schools, and by transitioning away from "serious" marching band he was able to grow and improve both programs drastically. I read a similar article from Wisconsin. Similar tales can be found both through one's own observation and by scouring the internet. I have to humbly disagree with your statement regarding lack of connection between competition and low enrollment. My connection to your article is that while your points are very well explained and excellent, the entire framework you're fitting into is becoming obsolete in the regions many people who read this are from. I know it still works nicely in Ohio, parts of VA, and Texas. However, for many schools, any approach where marching band is taken "seriously" with all kinds of planning, "efficient systems" "philosophies"...is a bad thing. Again, as long as one's numbers are up, produce, philosophize, and design away. However, more band directors need to consider that a productive, efficient marching band....can be a bad thing.
It might also be interesting to note that in a recent piece in the NY Times touting the merits of the "Little Kids Rock" program, the author referred to the four "streams" of ensemble education in America:  marching band, choir, orchestra and jazz band.  That is how we are perceived in the world around us.  Clearly we have some kind of image problem.
I noticed that as well...concert band was an unknown to the author
Again CJ, I would ask: Then what is the reason for low enrollment at schools where the marching band does not compete? In Illinois we have schools that compete, schools that don't, schools that require marching band, and schools where it is a voluntary, after-school activity. Amongst all of those scenarios you will find both large and small programs. So, at least here, I'm not sure you can establish the correlation between competitive marching band a low enrollment. I appreciate the dialogue (especially the idea of regional norms), and if you have links to those articles I love to read so pass them along!
The reason may be demographics (urban) or it just may be a tiny school. Obviously, a school with 500 students will have a small program. My criticism is aimed toward the upper middle class high school with 1500-2000 students putting 50 kids on the field. In that situation, many times it's the marching band program driving people away. I'm not very familiar with Illinois, but it may very well be like Ohio where "serious marching band" works. I'm mostly troubled by the fact that I see band directors lamenting over low enrollment, but not really exploring the marching band culture of a school as a possible problem.. I see a bit of "Well I was in a drum corp so any band of mine must compete." or "That's the way it's been here for the past 20 years and it's our tradition." My response is "Well your tradition has gotten 50 kids on the field for you. Is that a tradition you want to keep?" I enjoy the dialogue as well. The one link I found conveniently is from Kentucky. This gentleman still does more with marching than I would ideally enjoy myself, however I think it's a strong example of how a band director can be more attuned to the needs of a program, and develop that program by taking a "less corp style" approach to marching band. I have an example in my head of a HS near me. They got a new band director, who is competent, popular, and a total marching bando. Despite his popularlity, by adopting a competitive corp style marching band, his band went from 120 students down to 50 in 2 years. That decline happened even though he is more popular than his predecessor. Here is the link. http://www.kmea.org/bgmn/marching.pdf
Absolutely brilliant! Yes, yes, yes. Too many kids suffer (yes, I intentionally used that word) including my own from marching shows whose concepts are weak at best, drills that are ridiculously fast moving and non-sensical, and given to students so lacking in the foundational fundamentals of music and marching that it is an endeavor of frustration for months on end. The directors solution to these systemic problems? More and more rehearsals. Needless to say the band program is dwindling consistently. Don't get me wrong. We know good band shows. (Seven days ago I was watching my son playing at the DCI World Championships.) Thank you for putting into words that I as a music educator and parent have felt regarding the folly and futility of throwing a weak show together at the high school band level.
Let me clarify a bit. A competitive drum corp is not a high school marching band. And, by the same token a high school marching band that meets before and after school a few days a week should not try to be at the level of a competitive drum corp who works an entire summer from sunup to sundown. Demanding normal high school band kids to perform complex drills is an exercise in futility. As you so eloquently put, you lose the "GE" moments. Choose shows that are meaningful to your students and the audience. Create a show that your students can reach an excellent level at.
CJ, I just don't agree. I think all of us get into the habit of developing our own theories as why this or that happens. Mine happens to be that anything is possible. In the schools I've worked with, competitive marching band is the draw. And the enrollment has been fine, and these groups have solid concert bands. And the kids are developing into great musicians. Why is there this assumption that kids as a whole don't want to do this? I've seen the exact opposite. My kids look forward to it just as much as I do. Just as my own preferences may be clouding my argument, couldn't the same be true for you? I have a feeling competitive marching band isn't your thing. And if you have any connection at all with your kids, your attitudes become theirs. It's as simple as that.