Marching in the Heart of Texas

Known for cowboys, cattle, oil, The Alamo, football and marching bands, the Lone Star State sets a great example for music education.

Photo by Ryan Cain/Marching.com

Texas high schools are well-known around the country for their passionate football programs. The sport has brought together communities in tight-knit towns in the Lone Star State and reveals a sense of pride as residents pack their local high school stadiums. Under those Friday night lights is another institution—the marching band—that comes forth at halftime and is just as passionately followed as the football team.

Texas has some of the most competitive marching groups in the nation, and that has translated well in major national competitions such as Bands of America (BOA), with the most recent Texas national champion being L.D. Bell High School from Hurst, Texas, in 2007. Since 2000, the L.D. Bell Band has medaled at state and BOA events at least 27 times, and it has placed in the top five of every contest it has attended since 1998.

Like L.D. Bell, many of the Texas bands have a large number of members and have the same support from the community as for their football teams. What makes these bands so successful in recruiting people and sustaining thriving programs? There are quite a few factors, ranging from the culture of the state to the organizational structure of the marching bands themselves.

The Football Factor

Football will always be part of the discussion when it comes to marching band in Texas. The band is able to feed off the passion of football, says Van Mathews, director of bands at L.D. Bell. “In Texas, marching band is just as beloved as high school football in many communities,” Mathews says. “There is pride in the schools in a community like Hurst, and band is a recipient of that support that happens every Friday night. The marching band is perhaps the most visible musical ensemble in the high school. I know people in the community who come out to the football games just to watch the marching band.”

At Allen (Texas) High School, Anthony Gibson presides over one of the world’s largest high school marching bands with more than 850 members, and he believes there is a symbiotic relationship between football and band. “I think that we are constantly trying to find a balance between the artistic approach to marching band and a sheer fact that we are there as part of the halftime for a premier sporting event that happens every Friday night,” says Gibson, director of bands and performing arts for the Allen Independent School District. “So if you embrace the fact that you are part of the big picture, it becomes a successful relationship. I have always had very large bands and a lot of participation because of that partnership, and it lets the kids be involved within that community.”

Organizational Structure

The organizational structure of marching bands in Texas also makes the groups stand out from much of the country. The University Interscholastic League (UIL) administers and creates rules and regulations for almost all athletic, musical and academic contests—ranging from football to debate club—for public schools statewide. One rule in Texas is the eighthour rule in which marching bands are only allowed to practice for up to eight hours cumulatively for every school week.

At The Woodlands (Texas) High School, the time crunch forces the band to become more efficient at practice. “The rule forces a band like us to see what we can do during that time and figure out how to manage that limited time,” says Joni Perez, head band director. “A lot of the bands in our area have become more efficient with their practices, and it levels the playing field a bit as all bands have to adhere to that rule.”

In addition, Texas high schools recognize the athleticism of marching band, typically offering students physical education (PE) credit in addition to fine arts credit for their participation.

“When we are doing our field shows, we are working just as hard and exerting just as much energy as the football team or other athletic activity,” Perez says. “The school recognizes that, and the administration at schools like mine award PE credit. In turn, we are able to get even more students involved in band.”

Another important aspect for Texas bands is a vertical chain of educators who work with students from elementary school through high school. Students start the process of music education at an early age, so when they join the marching band, they will already be musically adept. What is most important, though, is that the chain allows the marching bands to get students interested in the group early on.

“The instructors that work with the kids in elementary school will work with them in the middle schools,” Mathews says. “By the time they reach high school, the same instructors will still be there with the marching band, and they can feel more comfortable about joining it. It creates a sort of family atmosphere within the group.”

The same emphasis on consistency exists in the Allen Independent School District, and interest at an early age has helped the band there maintain its numbers. “We have had students who knew about the marching band early on from their instructors and knew that they wanted to do it,” Gibson says. “It’s wonderful to see them grow up within the music program in the district and become passionate about the band when they get here. You are able to be a part in their lives when they are still developing as people.”

Community and Legislative Support

While many other states in the country are seeing cutbacks in music programs, Texas has become a case study in promoting music education.

“Texas is a little different than other places for a lot of reasons,” says Vince Chiappone, a representative from national retail chain Music & Arts. “There’s a culture here that has been created over time by parents, teachers and administrators who get the attention of state legislators to keep music in the schools. Many bands are well-funded through booster organizations by parents.”

Passionate parental support has been key in expanding the financial resources of marching bands.

“The parents pay a school tax that they are happy to pay as they know it will be put to good use such as for a good music program,” Chiappone says. “A lot of the parents that are involved in the band have been in the band themselves and help out with boosters or reaching out to legislators as a way of giving back and as a matter of pride with the school.”

Despite of—or perhaps because of—the intense competitiveness of marching band in Texas, the lessons learned during band apply to all future walks of life. “We want our students to be successful when they move on in life,” Gibson says. “Not all of them will go on and continue to do music professionally as some might go into doing baseball or doing science. What they will have had is . . . an atmosphere of a supportive group during what can be an angsty time in life and that what they did in marching band can apply to their current occupation.”

About the Author

Jeremy Chen is a senior 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 snare drummer and office staff member for the USC Trojan Marching Band. He aspires to one day become a correspondent for the BBC.

Yoga and Sound

In the last number of years, I went from having nearly constant major back issues, where it was difficult to be on tour and walk ...