Band Day: Uniting Present and Future

Photo courtesy of the Mississippi State University Famous Maroon Band

For one day each year, many high school bands travel to nearby universities to get a taste of collegiate marching band life. Although this event is generally known as “Band Day,” it appears across the country in a variety of forms. Whether it’s a competition, a clinic or a larger-than-life halftime show, Band Day is an event appreciated for its ability to connect college and high school band members.

My students always joke that there are two great holidays every year: Christmas and Band Day,” says Jay C. Rees, director of The Pride of Arizona Marching and Pep Bands at the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson.

Band Day, an event that brings high school bands onto a college campus to perform, compete or take part in clinics, provides benefits for all parties.

High school students get to experience the excitement of a college campus and performance atmosphere, which in turn motivates them to continue their musical journey. As a result, Band Day turns into a great recruitment tool for the university bands.

Mass Performance

Over the years, the basic meet-and-greet concept has evolved into a number of forms depending on the needs of the college and its high school guests. Probably the most common format involves high school bands joining a college band in a football game performance. At the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Amherst, for example, 60 to 70 high school bands play about seven minutes of music with the Minuteman Marching Band. Since approximately 3,500 students take the field at one time, no marching is involved. And it’s not just for spatial reasons—there’s not much time to teach drill when thousands of students need to be organized in only a few hours.

“In two hours and fifteen minutes or so, we go from … meeting each other to breaking into sections and learning the music to getting spots on the field assigned to playing the show,” explains Thom Hannum, associate director and percussion instructor for the Minuteman Marching Band. “It’s pretty spectacular to see it all take place.”

Similarly, at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 3,000 high school students pour out of the stands and tunnels of the Rose Bowl Stadium to join the UCLA Bruin Marching Band, “The Solid Gold Sound,” on the field. According to Dr. Jennifer Judkins, assistant director of bands, interacting with the college students is one of the most valuable experiences a high school student can take away from this kind of Band Day.

And at Mississippi State University (MSU) in Starkville, 250 students from many different area high schools not only play with the Famous Maroon Band at halftime, but they also follow the band on its march into the stadium and gather in the stands to perform a fight song and cheer together.

“This is more fun for them than sitting and waiting to perform at halftime,” says Elva Kaye Lance, director of bands at MSU. “We typically do a cheer with them that the crowd is with us on, which is something they might not experience at their high school.”

The Shift to Competitions

Some college and university band programs believe that an adjudicated Band Day is the most meaningful for their high school guests. “[Many universities] have shifted from traditional band day gatherings to competitions, and that’s the shift that we went with,” says Chad P. Simons, associate director of bands at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque.

Now, UNM’s Band Day is a competition known as the “Zia Marching Fiesta.” Thirty two regional high school marching bands visit the university campus for the day to perform their shows and receive ratings and comments from nationally recognized band pundits. The groups get to perform their own music in a large venue, observe the musical and marching styles of 31 other high school bands and walk away with constructive criticism from the judges in the form of adjudication tapes.

The University of Arizona hosts a festival-style performance opportunity where participating bands are judged in six professional categories. The university invites seven respected professionals from all over the country to adjudicate on Band Day.

“I think the judging [at UA Band Day] is the best we receive throughout the entire fall semester,” says Brian Wolfe, director of bands at Rincon/University High School in Tucson.

The university band program benefits from this style of Band Day too. For instance, the UNM music education students get to see how adjudication tapes are made. And while the judges are deliberating, the college band performs an exhibition for the high schoolers, a crowd that’s in attendance solely to support the marching arts.

At UA, this aspect is what makes its Band Day so special.

“Band Day here at UA is a culminating event for our band program and for high school programs all around the state of Arizona,” Rees says. “It’s the biggest day of the year. Although we love supporting the athletic department, Band Day is an opportunity for us to take the field for an audience that is there to see band. Everyone is there because they love the activity. It’s the best possible performance for the most appreciative audience in the best possible setting!”

Band Day Benefits

Probably one of the most exciting experiences that high school marching bands can take away from any Band Day is the opportunity to play in a major football stadium for thousands of spectators. This is especially true for small bands. At Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Band Day attendees from the area tend to be groups with no more than 40 members.

“The bands that come here are usually really small, and suddenly they are in a Big Ten stadium playing with 1,500 people,” says Paul Popiel, assistant director of bands. “The students get to play for a big audience even though they’re a small part of a big band; it’s an exciting event for them.”

Jordan Childress, a senior at Eastern Greene High School in Bloomfield, Ind., is one of only two snare drummers in his band, so attending the IU Band Day and participating in a 50-person drum line was eye opening for him.

“I never really imagined how loud it was going to be,” says Childress. “It was very surprising to hear how together and tight it was and how loud it was compared to my high school’s drum line.”

Even at a competition-style Band Day, small high school bands can get a lot out of the experience.

At the UNM, for instance, bands with 15 or 20 members are able to compete against 250-piece marching bands; groups of all sizes are judged “on the same playing field,” according to Simons. In fact, a 45-person band won last year’s UNM Band Day over every large group in the competition.

Band Day is also highly educational. Observing other bands’ styles and techniques can broaden students’ horizons and help them to be better musicians. They are able to improve their high school bands by bringing back and applying what they have learned.

“From watching the MSU band, I saw that technique could be better in our band,” says Kayla Giles, a junior trumpet player with Wayne County. “I noticed that every person I looked at had their toes up, and when they were backing up, they were on their toes. They had really good technique. If everybody in our band would work on their foot technique, we would be a lot better.”

Some universities also mix in additional educational opportunities through formal clinics. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, between 22 and 28 bands of all sizes perform their shows in the stadium. After each group performs, an expert brought in by the university whisks them away to a music clinic followed by a visual clinic, which includes viewing a recording of the band’s performance while the expert gives constructive comments.

College marching band students benefit from Band Day as well, by having the opportunity to build their leadership skills. At a traditional Band Day that begins with a group rehearsal or sectionals, college students can be an integral part of making sure that the high schoolers understand the music.

And at UCLA, a member of The Solid Gold Sound may act as a guide for one of the visiting bands. He or she answers logistical questions, helps the group locate its correct spot on the field and helps coordinate the mass movement of students from the stands and tunnels onto the Rose Bowl field at halftime.

“It’s a leadership role,” explains Judkins. “It’s particularly valuable for music education majors, but I think everyone benefits from the leadership and event management skills it takes to get thousands of people on and off the field quickly and to get them in the right place.”

Passing on the Torch

Many college marching band students around the United States were first inspired to attend a certain university and be in the marching band there, thanks to Band Day.

For instance, Olivia Boatman, a junior at MSU, attended the MSU Band Day for four years during high school. She says that participating in the game day environment made her want to attend MSU and be in the marching band.

“High school students see that they can still continue in music at the college level even if it’s not their major,” says Reesa Jones, director of The Marching Gondoliers at Venice High School in Los Angeles. “This gives them something to strive for. They get to see just the sheer size of what is possible.”

Meeting and working with a university band director at Band Day might also quell any nervousness a student has about auditioning for a college music school or band.

“By attending Band Day, my students get to realize that the staff members at MSU are real people,” explains Andy Pierce, director of the Wayne County High School Band in Waynesboro, Miss. “When [students] go to auditions, this helps them with their nerves.”

Overall, Band Day is an event that can leave high school students feeling incredibly inspired.

At UA, Rees purposefully chooses unusual music and writes complex drill when he is creating the Pride of Arizona’s Band Day show because he wants to expand the horizons of the high school attendees.

“We’re always trying to push the envelope,” Rees says. “We want to do something the high school kids haven’t seen before. We want to open their minds. We want them to be inspired.”

“The students’ energy before we perform is tangible,” Rees adds. “They remember being the high school student at the event who was inspired, so they have a great sense of purpose to put on an exhilarating performance that will speak to those high school students because those kids are the future of the band. My students are ready to pour their souls into the performance because it could literally make someone else decide, ‘I want to be in that band.’ It’s a powerful moment to know you are about to go out there and change someone’s life.”

Most of the students in The Pride of Arizona, according to Rees, initially decided to march at UA when they watched the band perform at Band Day.

Patterson is one example. “I’ve been attending Band Day since I was in high school, and that’s what made me want to go to the University of Arizona for sure,” he explains.

In fact, Patterson’s high school band director brought his students to UA because he was an alumnus of the band there, and both Wolfe and Jones were graduates of the universities to which they now bring their students year after year. Jones, who was a marcher, drum major and then teacher’s assistant for UCLA, enjoys experiencing Band Day now from a high school band director’s perspective.

“As a director, I realize how much the high school students get out of going, which I didn’t realize before,” Jones says. “I didn’t realize that for them it’s very special—they get so excited. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of them. … I am so grateful to attend Band Day after helping run it for so many years.”

By bringing their high school students to Band Day, alumni directors help their college or university marching band influence prospective members.

“A lot of students who have graduated from UMass are now high school band directors and music teachers, and they really like bringing their bands back here,” says Hannum. “They know what Band Day is, they know what their kids will get out of it, and they want their kids to have the same exposure to UMass that they did. Our alumni have been very helpful in helping us to expand the program.”

A line from the script that MSU uses at its Band Day sums it up. As both high school and college students march out onto the football field to perform together at halftime, the announcer declares, “We are proud to present the present and the future.”

About the Author

Janel Healy currently works as a professional vocalist for Holland America Line. She graduated from the University of Southern California in 2008 with a degree in communication and a minor in American studies. While at USC, she sang alto in her a cappella group, the SoCal VoCals, which won first place in the 2008 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. She played trumpet and piano in junior high.

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