A sharp drop-off in marching band participation occurs between high school and college. For those that do make the leap, college band proves to be extremely rewarding.
With a crowd of nearly 100,000 gridiron-loving fans, college football games are perhaps the most visible stage that I have performed in during my marching career. By contrast, high school football games were simply the Friday-night “dress rehearsals” for the big weekend competitions. Some of my bandmates simply ignored the game while others were only moderately interested.
I, on the other hand, did not differ much from the crazed football fans; I was really into the games. Little did I realize that in college I would wind up being a part of the epitome of band-driven football passion at the University of Southern California (USC).
Everything would literally be aimed at helping the football team win the game. Nearly every band member would be highly involved in the football game, cheering along with every positive play and expressing disappointment when the calls didn’t go their way.
The clear contrast between high school and college band hit me very hard, and it did feel strange for a little while, but by the end of the first game, I could say that I loved being in college band.
Approximately 2.2 million students participate in middle and high school band, according to MENC: The National Association for Music Education (MENC). On the other hand, only 75,000 to 80,000 students are active in college/university band programs, based on estimates from the College Band Directors National Association.
The switch from high school to college marching band can either be a very smooth transition or a stark contrast for many marching musicians due to the increased rigors of academic study, changing personal interests as well as the different focuses of the bands themselves. In general, high school and college bands function very differently as the former typically involves competitions, parades and festivals while the latter involves supporting school athletics and promoting school spirit. As such, some high school performers do not see college band as being particularly challenging and simply decide not to join.
For those that do take their playing to the next level, the overall consensus is that college band is in its own unique world, greatly enriching the lives of the performers and allowing them to express their art in a more relaxed environment given the stresses of college life.
For Alberto Ocasio, a music education major at the University of North Texas (UNT), college marching band differed greatly from his past experiences. As part of the highly regarded L.D. Bell High School Band in Hurst, Texas, he was driven to succeed in marching band. The band has been a major contender at Bands of America Grand Nationals, most recently winning in 2007.
“There was a very high energy level that we needed to exert in order to perform the show in high school,” Ocasio says. “At North Texas, though, the atmosphere was more relaxing as you don’t have competitions, and the style of music was more contemporary. [In high school] the music was more intellectual while the football crowd at North Texas wanted something that they could relate to, so we did video game music and Michael Jackson tunes.”
Taylor Mitchell, a music education major at the University of New Mexico, had a similar experience. “At New Mexico, the band was about having fun and playing tunes in the stands to support the school, so there wasn’t as much pressure when compared to a competitive high school marching band,” he says.
Like Ocasio, Mitchell routinely participated in field competitions with his high school group, the Manzano Royal Guard Band from Albuquerque.
College can be a scary place for incoming freshmen, but with marching band, Mitchell managed to meet many people—including upperclassmen— to help ease his overall transition. “In the New Mexico band, they accept anyone who’s willing to put in the commitment, regardless of their playing experience, so it allowed me to meet other fellow musicians who come from very different and diverse backgrounds,” he says.
Ocasio says that his bandmates have even helped him with academics. “The band was incredibly important in starting to make friends in college as we were all tied together under one organization, and that creates a sense of comfort,” he says. “These friends are in my classes, and at times they can help me if I’m having trouble with schoolwork. The band had a wide variety of majors from engineering to English, which makes for an assortment of help outlets.”
With the rising cost of participating in high school bands around the nation, many entering college musicians may worry about band dues on top of having to pay for college tuition. Incoming freshmen, though, should have no fear about the cost of college band as most members pay little to no money to participate and at times could find themselves earning money. “We are given a stipend during the band season, and it increases the longer you stay in band,” Mitchell says. “Everything was paid for, so it was great.”
The band trips that many have become familiar with are covered as well. Stephanie Graves, a 2010 USC graduate and current Fox Sports West web reporter, traveled with the band to Brazil as well as to bowl games and away games. “The meals, hotel, the buses and the trip itself are paid for by the band,” she says. “The only thing that needs to be paid by a member is a spirit pack that has your band shirts, hats, bag and other accessories. Pretty much it’s everything you need for the next four years.”
Continuing to Compete
For those people who still itch for competition at a college level, drum corps provides an outlet. Mitchell participated in both drum corps and college band in the same year, marching baritone for the Bluecoats Drum and Bugle Corps. “College band from a drum corps person’s perspective could get very boring and unchallenging. … For me though, it was an experience where I felt relaxed, so that college could be the focus when drum corps wasn’t around and to take a break from the activity but still be playing music.”
Graves tells potential musicians not to compare drum corps with college band as they are two distinctly different activities. “You have to understand that something like the USC Band and The Blue Devils cannot be compared together, as one band is meant to entertain the crowd with contemporary music while the other has performers doing extremely precise movements and choreography.”
All three of these college marchers made the transition from high school to college as seamless as possible. Ocasio advises college band members to really listen to the instructors as they are very experienced at their craft, and you can get a lot of useful information.
Mitchell suggests that incoming freshmen make new friends on the first day, know your music well when it’s time to perform, and most importantly, to relax and have fun as the stress of competition no longer exists. “Go out and enjoy your time with the people you like, and your college experience won’t feel weird as long as you just relax.”
Most important of all, Graves stresses that self-motivation will be key for new members to be successful. “You should motivate yourself to get better at playing your music and knowing your stuff in order to present the most entertaining show possible to tens of thousands of people; and in turn, you will feel great and have a greater appreciation for the college you go to.”
As for me, the experience I have gained in performing with a band like USC has been overwhelmingly enriching to my college life. Never have I learned so much about school spirit and sacred traditions that define the institution. While I may not be a professional musician in the future, at least for the remainder of my college years, I have a relaxing musical outlet to use as an escape from schoolwork. I encourage anyone who is thinking about joining college band to do it, as they will likely appreciate the pride and camaraderie they can gain from the activity.
About the Author
Jeremy Chen is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). He marched cymbals for two years at Rancho Cucamonga High School before playing bass drum and snare at Upland High School. He is currently a cymbal player and office staff member for the USC Trojan Marching Band. He aspires to one day become a correspondent for the BBC.