The Importance of Band Alumni Groups

Mike Lawson • • March 20, 2017

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There were all the corny old jokes about “Hair today, gone tomorrow!” and worse. Folks that obviously didn’t immediately recognize one another with some additional girth and perhaps a few wrinkles, but eventually saw an old friend and fellow bandsman from the past. It was a band reunion dinner with almost 100 band members, spouses and significant others in attendance.

The organizer and master of ceremonies of this reunion dinner had once been the drum major and a saxophone player in this renowned high school band. Some years later he had become the band’s director! Attendees had been in this band over the years ranging from the 1940s and later…a cross section of multiple generations. Some had become school band directors or professional musicians but most had moved on to other things in their lives.

Was this just a good time and “do you remember…?” No, it also raised issues about the current plight of the high school band and music program that they all had in common. The high school, an historic building of noteworthy architecture, had been restored at great expense. In the process the band room and practice space had been re­purposed as additional class room space for the general curriculum. Old and worn uniforms were not replaced and even proper storage for the music library, school owned instruments and equipment was not provided. Some of the attendees presented a check to their old band.

The neighborhood demographics of this school had changed significantly as well. Many current students do not have the means to buy or rent instruments, take lessons, or certainly not for band trips to competitions. These items are not on the school system’s priority list and get little support there either.

Possibly several reading this article believe that they recognize this school and the band just described as their own. This scenario is, unfortunately, not unusual. But there is a cavalry unit over the hill that can come to the music program’s rescue. It is an active band alumni group!

In 1964, 67 former University of Texas Longhorn Band members formed an alumni band. A major focus of this group, known as “the blast from the past,” is performing a halftime show at a designated alumni band home game. The group, which now numbers over 3,000 across seven countries, fields a band that performs its own halftime show followed by a combined band, with the current Longhorn band, of over 1000. But it’s not all fun and games, as the group also has established a charitable fund for band scholarships to deserving Longhorn Band students. These include more than a dozen named scholarships, most honoring former band members or directors.

Another significant music program at a large public university, the University of Georgia, receives support in a variety of forms from a very large (over 4000 members), and extremely active alumni group. Members are linked together with a monthly newsletter and events held in a variety of cities. This band alumni group has donated $300,000 over the last ten years for band scholarships and operations. These funds resulted from annual events and targeted campaigns. A recently completed campaign generated $40,000 to build a state­-of­-the-­art multilevel teaching tower at the band’s practice field for directors and leadership team. Alumni pep bands also perform at fundraising events in several major cities across the country. Another campaign raised $50,000 to augment the physical practice complex. The needs are identified by a close relationship between the alumni association and the university band directors and staff.

Not just a support group in the strictest sense, the alumni band also joins the current band on the field for halftime. In 2013, the alumni band outnumbered the current band fielding 600 members from classes of 1950 and beyond, with ages of 17 to 78!

Recently the alumni group assisted in launching an exhibit about the 105­year history of the Redcoat band. Tours of this exhibit were conducted on home game weekends. The exhibit drew praise, additional interest and membership in the band alumni group.

The Columbia University Band Alumni Association steps it up a notch with a stated purpose of “we try to make today’s Columbia band even better than we were!” One approach is to have reunion donations to the general alumni association “earmarked for the Columbia University Marching Band or the Columbia University Wind Ensemble.” This alumni group, which bills itself as “the cleverest alumni in the world, “ provides financial and other support to the current music program.

It is notable that the general Columbia Alumni Association provided advocacy and funds in 1951 for a “rebirth” of a band that dates to 1904. That event sparked the establishment and involvement of an active band alumni group.

Several of the Dillard High School band members make up part of the Columbia University Marching Band and Wind Ensemble. This south Florida high school music program is supported in part by an active band alumni group. Dillard is an historically black public school with a nearly 90 percent African­American student body. Many of the students have limited means. The Dillard Jazz Band and its director, Christopher Dorsey, were recently featured on the NBC Nightly News as a public school that has achieved national honors and success. The jazz band is part of a magnet performing arts and music program which incorporates an active alumni program including concerts by alumni.

A recently created high school band alumni group in Michigan is the Holt (High School) Ram Marching Band Alumni Association. Formed in 2013 it has a stated purpose of “providing a support network for current Ram band members and volunteering to bring the band up to a higher standard of playing and leadership!”

In surveying band alumni groups, at both high school and college level, all sorts of causes, projects and goals are seen. Likewise, creative approaches to activities and fund raising are also found. The Lake­view­ Fort Oglethorpe High School in Georgia recently combined a BBQ dinner with a retired band director’s birthday party to raise funds for purchase of large instruments that students can’t afford.

A few communities have seen the development of band alumni groups that include former band members living in a specific area regardless of the school band they played in. These “super” alumni groups also support music programs in their areas. Some support and work with community bands and others focus on a specific school band each year. This concept will be presented in a future article about the Second Time Arounders Marching Band in St. Petersburg, Florida.

So, what is the overall impact of a band alumni group? University of Georgia’s director of bands, Mike Robinson sums it up, saying, “Almost everything we have or do has been made possible, at least in part, by our band alumni group!” He went on to describe the reality of a ten­-year plan that included everything from purchasing the band’s signature silver instruments to building a dedicated band practice field with security fencing, parking lot and lights. The practice field plan will be completed with the current addition of the teaching tower mentioned earlier. Robinson explains, “These accomplishments were the result of both advocacy and close cooperation between the university administration, the music department and the band alumni.”

The mission statement of the Edgewater High School Band Alumni Association (Orlando Florida), a scholarship foundation and advocate for keeping music in public schools, sums up the purpose of band alumni groups across the country in today’s public education environment. “The mission of the EHSBAA is to work toward keeping music education in our public schools, to provide music related scholarships for Edgewater High School seniors and high school seniors residing in the Orlando College Park Neighborhood, to support the current Edgewater High School music and fine arts programs, to nurture other music related activities and organizations at Edgewater High School, to organize and promote the annual All Alumni Reunion Weekend which will allow Edgewater alumni from all classes to socialize and reconnect.”

The future and success of bands and music programs across the spectrum of public, private, high school and college environments seems to be ever increasingly linked to having an active band alumni group.

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