Perspectives – The Mandatory Marching Band

Mike Lawson • Commentary • November 23, 2014

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When it comes to the high school marching activity, most programs follow one of two very different approaches. Allowing marching band to be optional usually means that all students who want to participate can do so, but they aren’t obligated to take to the football field if they only want to pursue jazz, concert, wind bands, or other musical activities. While this approach makes sense for many programs – depending on school tradition, culture, size, and the interests of both the student body and director – there are some strong arguments to consider in favor of having the entire band department participate in the marching band, whether incoming students initially want to or not.

Unlike most other school-related music activities, marching bands typically start their season before the school year begins. In the October, 2014 issue of SBO, George Hattendorf noted the tremendous amount of anxiety that can accompany a young person’s journey from junior high to high school, or even between grade levels, where comfort zones and friend groups must typically be forged anew. Being able to meet a group of students through the common tasks of the marching activity can alleviate that pressure, so that by the time classes begin, the younger students already have a host of comrades in the halls. And what’s more, the incoming freshmen won’t just be meeting other incoming freshmen – they’ll have the opportunity to meet and share experiences with students from all other grade levels, which can prove invaluable in terms of helping to dispel the intimidation that can accompany the uncertainty of change.

Once those positive connections are made, they can help foster a sense of community – many even eventually describe it as “family” – that can help students feel comfortable tackling whatever other musical challenges await them throughout the rest of the year. What better way to create a common identity in a band program than through a shared experience that is contingent upon unity, coordination, discipline, physical fitness, and, don’t forget, musical performance?

Of course, many students might resist, at least initially. And that’s perfectly understandable: there are a host of reasons for young people to want to participate in music, and plenty of ways in which the marching activity might not exactly fit with their preconceived motivations. However, those obstacles are often no match for enthusiastic student leadership, positive modeling, and the innate contagion associated with a successful marching group. And, as Hattendorf suggests, first sharing these benefits with parents of prospective students can go a long way in recruiting efforts.

In 2012, Carrboro High School in North Carolina considered changing their marching band from co-curricular (and mandatory for all incoming band students) to extra-curricular – i.e., volunteer. In a response to an editorial in the local newspaper, the Carrboro Citizen (, one student who was a band member at the time eloquently argued that if it weren’t required, “at least half of freshman wouldn’t try marching band, and if you don’t get into marching band as a freshman, you’re unlikely to try it during another year when you’re even busier… And it isn’t just our band that would suffer; it’s the entire community. An entire chain reaction would follow in the years to come, ultimately causing marching band to disintegrate… The optional requirement works for larger, richer schools – not us, where we only have 70-some people in marching band. Without our strong numbers, we could say goodbye to our complex designs on the field, and our heart-pounding music.”

While the motion to make marching band optional in Carrboro was shelved, consider reviewing your own situation to make sure that, whether optional or mandatory, your marching band is best positioned to provide the most benefit to your students, your program, your school, and your community. 


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