General Thoughts - Marching Band: Expectations Vs. Reality

Well now, we find ourselves hurdling once again toward the summer, as our winter seasons are wrapping up, and the age-old process of attempting to convince high schoolers to give up their summers and their Saturdays to run around a hot field is about to begin in earnest. For those of you who may be put off by that last sentiment, let’s have a brief moment of honesty. We know all the good that comes from being involved in the marching arts as individuals who have either already decided that this is what we want to do during our high school career or, for those like me, are already looking back on 15 years of your life having begun to start experiencing the mythical Saturday only when a deadly pandemic shut down the globe. That’s right, for those of us who dedicate our lives to pageantry it took a literal global health emergency for us to finally say, “you know it’s ok that I’m not at rehearsal right now”.


The truth of the matter is that when we are tasked with selling the idea of marching band there might be some stretch in that truth. Will you have the opportunity to make lots of new friends? Absolutely! (but you might only really have time to talk to the people in your section). Will you get to travel around your state? Yes, you will! (But you’ll only be allowed to stay on the campus that you’re performing at.) Will you perform an elaborate show and feel the adrenaline rush through your system as thousands of fans applaud? No doubt! (but first you’re going to have to spend about 500 hours getting that show ready to even be seen the first time.)


So let’s talk about it then. Let’s really dig into what is it about marching band we sell to new recruits and how do those things translate into the real world? How can we better set those expectations to match the reality so that when students are on a blistering field in July they don’t look to the heavens and think to themselves, “How did I get here?”


The first thing I want to bring up is simply the dedication of time. So often we have students look at the rehearsal calendar, sign the forms, start attending and then realize that, wow, maybe this much rehearsal is more than I thought it was on paper. Now, that’s not to say we don’t do our absolute best every time to make sure each student understands the commitment they are making but you’d be lying if you said this has never happened in your program. The reality of the situation is that the average program in my area the competes at a high level asks on average for 18 hours a week from their students. Mind you that’s spread out across show days and regionals and the other longer time commitments we find ourselves with inside a season, but to a 14-year-old that’s still a part time job.


So, we need to level set here. Is it a huge time commitment? Absolutely and it should be addressed that way because to not do so takes the issue and makes it a problem. Be upfront with how much time is required. Make sure each student understands and appreciated not just how much time is required in rehearsals, but how much time is required for the season. We aren’t here to “just” do band. We are here to do a job. And any job worth doing takes time to complete. Sure, we could rehearse less, but would less rehearsal make for a better product? I certainly don’t think so. And having that conversation early in your season (preferably right at the beginning) can help to change the mindset of “I have rehearsal again” to “I’m going to go get better at my job again”.


Second, let’s talk about every educator’s favorite topic: CLIQUES! Woooo! There is nothing I love more than walking up into rehearsal and finding all the kids divided into the same pods of 5 or 6 that they are always in and never interacting with each other. It really fills my heart with warmth. In all seriousness, in spite of your best efforts there’s a chance that your program could have this problem and there is no shame in recognizing it and taking action against it. So often I have found in my time that there is a stigma against directors whose units have an “attitude problem” or is “having issues”. Yeah, sometimes we do. Sometimes teaching a marching band of 200 or so high schoolers is going to mean that there are going to be some students who don’t like other students as much and groups are going to form.


Here’s what I will say about this in as delicately of a way as possible so as to not be viciously attacked online (because even though I know someday it’s going to happen let’s not have it happen in the first week of this blog). Cliques will happen. Sorry, they will. And anyone out there who is claiming that their group all loves each other and always gets along, at least in my opinion, doesn’t have their finger on the real pulse. Because at the end of the day, the best groups in the country don’t all like everyone who is next to them in block. And that’s ok. What has to be there is respect. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone you march with. You don’t even need to like everyone you march with. But the person also put on their rehearsal clothes, drove to practice, and is here to do the same job you are. They are also giving up their summers and Saturdays to create this piece of art with you. You are all on the same team. So, talk to your kids early on and make sure they have those expectations set. Make sure they know that no matter what happens, we need to treat each other with respect and kindness and if along the way you make life-long friends then GREAT! Chances are if they go into their season with the mindset of respect then they’ll probably make more of those life-long friends than they would have otherwise.


The last one is one that I feel is super important and no one really talks about and that is travel. We’ve seen those flyers a hundred times of groups promising to travel around and see so many amazing things when you know that they are going on one trip and they will be there for two days and spend one day at the show site and another day at somewhere fun. But that’s one day. That’s one single of “travel” and in order to get to that place you have to first manage through 6 months of a hot and brutal fall season. So why, oh why, do we continue to do this and how can we change the expectations so you don’t have the student who joined to go to Disneyland only to realize the road to Disney is longer and rougher than expected.


Again, level set those expectations! Don’t be afraid to tell your new students that, yes, you are going to go to Disneyland for a day but that’s not why anyone should join. It’s a perk, sure, but it isn’t a reason. Even as I am typing this I can’t help but think about how it would not only be easier but in many cases cheaper to just go to Disneyland (for those outside of California I sincerely apologize for this example but if you do teach band in California you understand why Disneyland was the one I went with). Use those perks as a way to talk up the program and the amazing experiences you get to have, but don’t put a student in the position where they chose to sign up because of the one day they get to spend in a theme park. There has to be more to it.


At the end of the day, it’s important that the expectations of what a student will experience in any program matches the reality throughout the season. We have to make sure each performer is well equipped to handle the reality of long hot days, internal strife, and unfulfilled fantasy of what lay before them. To do anything else is a disservice.


And that’s not to say I’m perfect in any way (as some of you reading this are shaking your heads like, “ugh Shawn ok”) but in many ways quarantined has allowed so many of us to step back, get off the conveyor belt that is summer-fall-winter-summer-fall-winter and evaluate the way we not only teach our students the art of pageantry but also how we deliver to our students the joy of pageantry. How to really make sure each student who comes into the program get not only a great education but also has, at the very least, the experience they were anticipating. Because now is as good a time as any to commit ourselves to making sure every student who comes through those band room doors is given the reality upfront and can then have an experience they will always cherish.


So, now for the awkward conclusion bloggy part that I hate. Comment below! (is that how you do it?) Let me know what are some expectations you had going into your marching arts career that were way off? What surprised you? Let’s help each other out and work together as a community to better understand our jobs and trade ideas of how to do it even better.


Also, fun fact, I don’t edit these for typos because that’s not the way I write and so I thought it would be fun to have a little contest. Comment below the most egregious spelling or grammar mistake you can find and the funniest response to that comment not only will get a little shout out in future posts, but will also receive a personalized 20% off code to use on anything in the store! Thought maybe if there was enough interest this could be a fun little game we play where I allow to you publicly shame me online and then I give you discounts. So fun.


That’s all I have for now. Have an amazing week and I will see you back here next Wednesday for another rousing rant of General Thoughts!

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