The reasons for declines in marching bands

Published 9:55 am Friday, May 11, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

It starts out as a faint rumble that coalesces into a cadence which cascades through the air and ground. I can feel the music. The brass kicks in, jubilant, and my spine resonates. Then the colorful lines of musicians march past and away, and the thump of the percussion fades to silence.

Likes and dislikes are not to be disputed, according to an ancient Roman philosopher. Neither are likes and dislikes logical, regardless of how fascinating they might be, as Mr. Spock might say. They are what they are.

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So finding a parade more enjoyable when bands march in formation is a matter of taste, not logic. Some people love parades filled with tractors and candy, but I am not among them. What the bands play doesn’t really matter — “Gladiator,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” — I like them all.

So I like the plans Suzanne Mauer, Albert Lea High School band teacher, has for a parade band (Tribune, May 3). Mauer’s plans mean that, unlike the past few years, this Third of July I will be at the parade on Bridge Avenue, sitting in my camp chair, sipping a cold beverage.

When we first moved to Freeborn County in 1997, the parade included several marching bands from area schools. Gradually the bands all went away, primarily because the schools stopped offering marching band programs.

The reasons for the disappearance of marching music are complex, but that complexity boils down to a lack of support for music education in our society. It’s not the band teachers’ fault. They, collectively, have worked very hard to help bands survive. It’s the rest of us, kids, parents and people in the community who haven’t been supportive in the right ways.

Oh, I’m not the only one who loves marching bands at parades, and we’re oh-so-willing to pay (sometimes quite a lot) for performances by professionals. When it comes to music performed by ordinary people, however, we’re just not engaged enough when it comes to the nitty-gritty details required to make it possible.

It’s not about money, or at least not exclusively about money. It’s about people singing or playing an instrument just for the sheer joy it brings. Music can be, needs to be, interactive, not just passively listened to.


Probable reason No. 1 for no marching bands?

Kids are too busy doing other things to commit to band practices. With lives overflowing with lessons, camps, practices, activities and who knows what else, kids are so busy doing other things that they hardly have time to be kids anymore. Many don’t have time for chores at home, a job that pays money, or even driver training classes (the percentage of teenagers with driver’s licenses is shrinking).


Probable reason No. 2?

Lack of support for music education. This is something that applies to all music programs in public education, beginning in kindergarten and continuing into college. Oh, administrators and school board members want a band at homecoming events or Veterans Day programs, but music education requires money and resources that are frequently redirected to testing and compliance with state and federal mandates.


Probable reason No. 3?

Music doesn’t directly lead to jobs or careers for most of us, so practically minded Americans, including our leaders, just don’t make an effort to support music education. Making music requires discipline — mental and physical — and brings joy, a combination that is not focused enough on careers for those in charge.

There is at least one thing I don’t understand about high school marching bands in Minnesota. Why are they almost exclusively summer phenomena? When did Friday night football get separated from marching bands? Every other place I’ve lived had marching band programs in fall, not summer (except for a quick set of practices before the Fourth of July). Do fall sports suck up so many students that there aren’t enough left for a marching band? Is there a chance that a marching band might make a bigger difference on a field than putting every available boy or girl in a uniform (and on a bench)?

No matter. All these whines and grumbles will be set aside this Third of July; however, as I watch the kids march by, percussion thumping and brass echoing through my body.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.