Marching Band’s Place in Music Education

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 22, 2006

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By Stephen Pratt

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am enjoying my first year here at Central State College. I just wanted to write and let you know how much band meant to me in high school. I?ll never forget all of the hard work, all of my friends, the thrill of competing against the other bands, bad times when we didn?t win, but also the great times when we did! You helped teach all of us how to work hard to be the best we can be, to set a goal and strive to accomplish it.

If you ever put together an alumni marching band at Chathom High, be sure to let me know. I?ll be right there with my marching shoes on and my lucky reed in place!



Robyn Smythe

What?s wrong with this letter? Anything? Actually, it is a great letter ? the kind I always wanted to get! Wouldn?t it be great if our students were able to find the time or have the desire to write this kind of letter?

It?s the kind of thing that we could use to brighten the day after the fourth challenge in a row, the third fundraiser, or just after the principal has talked about the continuing budget problems of the district, leading to the 20 percent reduction for next year. What?s 20 percent of ?not enough to begin with??

We are all aware of the impact that we, as teachers, have on the lives of our students. Sometimes the actual thought of the magnitude of that impact is frightening and a difficult thing to face ? so we don?t. For many of our students, we are the only conduits for serious musical learning they might have. Therefore, it?s up to us to look in our professional mirror and ask, ?What things am I teaching my students that they will use for the rest of their lives?? Many of us say that we teach music, when we actually teach many things in addition to music. The question always remains to be faced: Of all the things I teach, is music the top priority?

The only thing missing in the sample letter printed above is, of course, music. Not every student graduating from a high school band program should be a music major. In fact, only a very small percentage of students should even consider the idea. No, our place in the public school curriculum should not be dependent upon producing a few music majors every once in a while. If that is the case, we are in a lot of trouble. No public school could support such a cost-ineffective enterprise. Unless we are offering something of educational value for many students, we will lose our curricular status very, very soon. We should try to produce students who enjoy making music, who are good enough to make music somewhat independently, and who are committed to making music as well as supporting the musical life of the community.

The MENC: National Association for Music Education has published a booklet with the title, ?The School Music Program Description and Standards.? Inside we find that the musically educated person:

1. Is able to make music alone and with others.

2. Is able to improvise and create music.

3. Is able to use the vocabulary and notation of music.

4. Is able to respond to music aesthetically, intellectually and emotionally.

5. Is acquainted with a wide variety of music, including diverse musical styles and genres.

6. Is familiar with the role music has played and continues to play in the life of human beings.

7. Is able to make aesthetic judgments based on critical listening and analysis.

8. Has developed a commitment to music.

9. Supports and encourages others to support the musical life of the community.

10. Is able to continue his musical learning independently.

What a challenge! The times in which we live require us to meet tough challenges how ever we might wish to avoid them. The arts in many school districts are facing severe cutbacks or outright elimination because we have not met the challenge to prove that we belong in the curriculum and that we have high educational standards for our students. This is different from or, hopefully, in addition to having high performance or discipline standards. Our students need to learn more about music than many of them know now.

Okay, so where does the high school marching band fit in all of this? Simple: right in the thick of things. The marching band can be a very useful tool in teaching music. We are all aware of the public relations benefits that a marching band can give. It can serve as a great motivational device. We can teach rhythmic pulse, breath support, diverse musical styles, dynamic contrast, blend, balance and a myriad of other concepts through the medium of the marching band. We can also, of course, teach those concepts effectively in the concert band setting. The determination of the teacher is the key in all of this. The problem is that some of our ?music? teachers have reversed the process to the extent that the musical goals mentioned above are very difficult to achieve and are really not thought to be of any value at all.

How can you tell where you fit in all of this? Take this test as honestly as you can. No, don?t repeat what you remember from methods class or what you know is the ?politically correct? response. Look at what you are actually doing to answer these questions.

1. Are you spending your time in rehearsal developing independent musicians or are you preparing for a rating at the next contest?

2. Are you using the marching band as a vehicle to teach musical concepts or do you introduce musical concepts to produce a better marching band?

3. Is the percentage of time spent on daily marching drill justifiable in terms of teaching musical concepts the students need in order the develop independent musicianship?

4. Do your students perform one marching show too many times for continued musical growth?

5. Can your students tell which aspect of the music curriculum you are motivated by and which you aren?t?

6. Do your students continue to play their instruments after they leave high school? Are they supportive of the musical opportunities in your community?

7. Would your students be motivated to play their instruments if there was no competition involved; if it was just for the enjoyment of themselves and others?

8. Are you more anxious about the rating the group will get than how musical the performance will be?

9. Can your students sight-read well? Do you stress this skill in rehearsal?

10. Do you sometimes feel controlled by the success of your marching band program or by the feelings and attitudes of the students, parents or administrators in your community?

There are no standardized correct or incorrect answers to these questions. They are just intended to provoke you to think and analyze exactly what you, as a music teacher, are all about.

Our goal as music teachers is to use every method available to us to teach music. This includes marching band, jazz band, concert band, solo and ensemble ? everything we do. This works most effectively when we, the teachers, keep our programs in balance and strive every day to teach music ? not the activities that I have just listed, but music within those activities.

There is one foolproof method to find out exactly what you are teaching: ask the students ? they might know best. Try this question: What do you like best about band?

1. Social aspect (being with good friends).

2. Fundraising.

3. Trips.

4. Playing music.

5. Competing for prizes or recognition.

6. Performing in concerts.

7. Marching at halftime.

8. Learning about music.

9. Listening to music in class.

10. Other: Please specify_____________________.

Many times their answers will reflect what you are really teaching in class.

As we all prepare for the marching season that is coming soon, it might be good to do a little self-analysis. What is it, exactly, that you are teaching and why are you teaching that? Can you justify it in terms of what is best for the education of your students and the needs of a solid curriculum? Will your students continue to enjoy playing their instruments after they leave you or will they close the case, never to open it again? Are you teaching music or an extra-curricular activity that should not really be considered part of the educational process? Do you spend your budget on things that help the students learn more about music or are just for some kind of competitive edge?

These are just a few of the hard questions that need to be asked all of the time. We, as professionals, answer mostly to ourselves and must be accountable to the person we see in the mirror. The best thing is, when we strive to teach music, there are so many rewards that follow because making music is great.

Who knows, maybe we?ll get a letter like this some day:

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am enjoying my first year here at Central State College. I just wanted to write and let you know how much band meant to me in high school. I?ll never forget all of the hard work, all of my friends, the thrill of playing in the band, bad times when we didn?t play our best, but also the great times when we did! You helped teach all of us how to work hard to be the best we can be, to set a goal and strive to accomplish it.

I am playing in the marching band here and the college/community band that meets once a week. I?ve also found a friend that plays clarinet and we get together for duets every once in a while.

You can count on me this summer in community band. My brother will be there on bassoon, too, if you can stand his weird sense of humor!

Good luck at you concert next month and thanks again for everything.


Robyn Smythe

Indiana University professor Stephen W. Pratt teaches graduate courses in wind conducting and methods, and materials for band and orchestra teachers at the undergraduate level. As associate director of the IU Department of Bands, he conducts the Symphonic Band and directs the IndianaUniversity Summer Music Clinic. Pratt has extensive experience teaching in the public schools of Sturgis, Mich., where he was responsible for bands and orchestras at the high school and middle school level. From 1995 to 2000, he conducted the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra. He is in constant demand as a clinician, guest conductor and adjudicator.

Selected honors include his election into membership by the American Bandmasters Association in March, 2001. In January, 2001, he was named ?OutstandingUniversity Educator? by the Indiana Music Educators Association. He is currently president-elect of the North Central Division of the College Band Directors National Association. Other memberships include the Indiana Bandmasters Association (past president), MENC: International Association for Music Education, Indiana Music Educators Association, Phi Beta Mu, and Big Ten Band Directors Association.


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