Learning to march in middle school has both benefits and challenges. While it does make more work for students, directors and parents, junior high band can provide an unforgettable experience and a marching foundation to last a lifetime.
Photo courtesy of the Independence Jr. High Band
High school and college marching bands are a widespread American tradition; however, junior high or middle school marching band is much less common. Some communities have always had marching band for 7th and 8th graders while other programs are rare or just emerging.
So what do middle school marching bands do? Much like high school bands, they march in the fall and focus on concert band in the spring. But instead of a halftime field show, they usually stick to community parades and sometimes parade competition.
At Alvarado Intermediate School in Rowland Heights, Calif., band director Steve Krumbine takes his marching band to four or five competitive parades, a local community parade and a performance at Disneyland each year. “The competition and trophies are all secondary; it’s about what the students get out of it, not what we walk away with,” Krumbine says. “I want to make it enjoyable for the students and the parents, so that when they leave the school, they understand a lot about music and walk away with a lot of good memories.”
For Michael Lasfetto, who is now an elementary band teacher in Scottsdale, Ariz., parades were what first inspired him to join the Centennial Middle School band in Portland, Ore. “The middle school band had a tradition of performing in [Portland Rose Festival’s Junior Parade], and watching that kind of influenced my ideas of what band was,” Lasfetto says.
In 2012, Portland’s Junior Parade is still going strong, with almost 30 middle school bands.
Independence (Iowa) Jr./Sr. High School has grades 7 to 12. The 7th and 8th grade musicians form the Independence Jr. High Band, which performs in the Homecoming Parade and does a field show at one football game per year. “We just do some basic steps; it’s nothing extravagant, but we do teach them a lot of things that they’re going to need to know in high school,” says co-director David Lang. “If they didn’t have that, they’d be lost and feel very apprehensive. I think they’re pretty proud of their performances.”
Just like in high school, it all starts at band camp, albeit a shorter version. At Alvarado, band camp lasts for four days and includes proper posture, marching fundamentals, music rehearsal, and breathing exercises. “Trying to get the students to know their left from their right is one of the biggest issues we have,” Krumbine says. “Discipline plays a big role in it, learning how to work as a group. Everybody matters and must be in the correct rank and file and diagonal and contributing 100 percent. When they finish and see what they’ve done, it boosts their self-esteem and helps them to be more confident.”
Independence begins with a two-day band camp of marching fundamentals. “It’s all about discipline and getting kids to do things the same, and at that age group, you’re doing pretty good if you can just get them to move together down the street,” Lang says. “It’s a struggle. They start out being awkward and having a difficult time, but the more repetitions we do, they seem to respond and get things learned.”
Lang’s band performs in jeans and a printed T-shirt to fit each year’s show theme, but Krumbine’s has a full-fledged traditional uniform with jackets, bibbers and shakos. “One of the biggest reasons we started band camp was the uniforms,” Krumbine says. “It took us so long to fit the uniforms that we lost a lot of class time. During the marching part of band camp, the boosters grab 10 kids at a time and fit them top to bottom. Even in the four days, you never get through everybody.”
Teaching younger students to march can be challenging but has proved to be very beneficial for both concert season and high school. “The marching aspect has its quirks and downfalls,” Krumbine says. “The first time you see the band go out on a street after band camp, you just want to giggle because it looks so bad. But the upside to that is the reward at the end of the year when you can see that they actually can walk in step.”
Sometimes the younger middle school students are less mature, but the skills required for marching band can help them grow up. “It’s really hard for a 7th grader to focus for a long time, and when you’re asking them to stand still, it doesn’t come easy,” Lang says. “The biggest struggle is getting them to grasp the discipline necessary and getting everyone to do things together and be quiet when they’re supposed to. It transfers into concert band season, too; they have that discipline to sit quietly.”
While school budget hardships have led to cuts in many middle school and junior high music programs, those that are able to stay afloat are thriving. Approximately one hundred of the 200 middle school students at Independence are in the marching band, and in Krumbine’s seven years at Alvarado, the band has steadily grown.
“Because of marching, my program has grown just because it gives the kids something else to do; I think they come away with a better experience,” Krumbine says. “A lot of students transfer in from other schools as 8th graders, and they said they got bored in 7th grade of just sitting and playing. I think it’s another tool to keep school music programs growing and thriving with both students and parents.”
Marching can give middle school students a taste of what’s to come in high school, inspiring them and ensuring they stay involved in music. Lang and Krumbine report that nearly 100 and 80 percent of their students, respectively, continue to high school band.
“If they’ve never marched before and saw the high school band, they’d be fairly scared to be a part of it, so we want them to come in exposed to the activity and all the things that go with it,” Lang says. “It helps make a smooth transition into high school and the high school band. They have friends already, and it’s a big family situation that we try to create here.”
When advancing to high school, those who marched in junior high start off more prepared—but that’s not to say that others are at a disadvantage. “When I go and work with the high school that I feed into, I can see the difference in marching with freshmen students,” Krumbine says. “My students typically know about posture and carriage and how to march at correct intervals and the basic commands. After freshman year, though, everything levels out.”
Marching band also gives junior high and high school students a chance to interact and assume leadership roles. “You do have a lot of opportunities to teach student leadership,” Lasfetto says. “Having high school volunteers come to help is a good way to expose them to teaching.”
Independence marches a combined junior/senior band in the city’s annual Fourth of July parade and provides additional opportunities to work together. “We have Jr. High ‘Band-Aids’ to help us move props and move the pit in and out of the shows and football games,” Lang says. “They’re around the band a lot, and they get excited about the shows that we do and go on excursions to the competitions. They are excited and can’t wait to see what the show’s going to be when they become a freshman.”
Alvarado also has junior high indoor percussion and winter guard. The smaller groups and the full marching band have taken out-of-state trips to Walt Disney World or other festivals.
Students don’t need to be an existing member of the marching band to participate. “Drum line and color guard benefit the overall program; … both groups are a beast that feeds the bigger beast,” Krumbine says. “We get a lot of students who aren’t in the band and aren’t doing well in school, but they change their attitude after joining drum line or band, and then it’s nice to see them go to the high school and compete there as well.”
Even if adding marching to a middle school program isn’t logistically or financially possible, it may be wise to introduce students to marching by going to shows or viewing performance DVDs. “Marching doesn’t diminish the need for a strong concert band program because if they can’t sit and play, there’s no way they can stand up and move,” Lasfetto says. “But if you’re teaching your kids strong fundamentals, then having them go outside is a good thing. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. You can have a strong concert band and still expose students to drum corps and marching band to tell your students that that’s a legitimate form of expression even if that’s not the focus of your program.”
While it may take some sacrifice, adding marching to a middle school or junior high band is a risk worth taking, according to Krumbine. “I know it’s expensive, but it’s such a fun time to put the kids out there,” he says. “As long as the kids have good memories, then I’m doing my job the best I can do it. The kids learn a lot from you and each other; they learn about leadership and discipline. If you have a middle school, and you’re wanting to try something different, put ‘em on the street and have fun with them.”
Recalling from personal experience, Lasfetto knows how pivotal middle school band can be for a student. “I think that regardless of whether you have a marching band, middle school band is a make-or-break point in a student’s band career,” Lasfetto says. “If they have a great experience, it can really set them on fire, even if they don’t realize until later.”
About the Author
Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor for Halftime Magazine and a freelance journalist and communications professional in Los Angeles. She marched flute at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band, where she now works as a teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.