WHY IS BAND SO POLITICAL?: The division that predates Trump and Obama… Traditional and Corps-Style

Corps-style & Traditional

If you are a graduate of a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), or you previously taught a traditional styled band program, you are not qualified to direct a corps-styled band program in an “affluent” demographic on any level, high school or college… This is the “alternative fact” that keeps on rearing its ugly head in the careers of many directors who happen to have an HBCU on their resume. This lie permeates music education because music educators allow it and sometimes foster it.  Many in my profession believe the traditional style of march equates to a band program without; discipline, program structure, basic music theory comprehension, and fundamental musical technique. When I was a young band director, beginning my career in the state of South Carolina (SC), I was hit with this notion immediately upon graduation. It permeated through the entire system of music education in the state of SC. Therefore, I made it my goal to build a successful band program with a marching band that marched traditional style, hoping to earn respect for all traditional programs in the state.

I remember taking my band to a band competition that placed the traditional bands and the corps bands in separate divisions, even though the adjudication criteria was the same. The traditional band division was called “Show Band” (alluding to “for entertainment purposes only”). The corps bands would have serious competition in their division while the “show bands” competed, basically, to entertain the crowd. Seeing the unnecessary division and politics of it all, I wanted to prove a point, so I entered my traditional band in the competition. We placed 1st in our division with a rating of “Superior”. The bonus came when it was announced that our scores were so high that we beat every band in both divisions and was named the Grand Champions. This angered my corps styled colleagues because they didn’t see us as “worthy” opponents because of the style we marched. They complained to the host and some vowed to never return to that competition as long as we attended. It’s one story out of many from my days as a young band director in SC trying to “bridge the divide.”

Honestly, I am a tad-bit disappointed in my profession. As music educators we know EXACTLY why programs succeed and fail and it has little to do with how high you lift your legs or the type of music your marching band plays. It has more to do with the resources, support, and money that it takes to adequately invest in a school music program to ensure its success.

Gregory Drane, Dir. Of Athletic Bands – Penn State University

I expect people who are not in the profession to make broad stereotypical generalizations about what we do, but music educators are supposed to be the experts on the matter and should know better. The problems that exist in band programs, and every other problem in the world for that matter, are solved with adequate resources and support. I guess I’m naive for thinking politics should, or would, not influence the fine arts when it has influenced everything from homeowner associations to the church.

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Mr. Alfred Watkins, Legendary Band Director

But just like with everything else in life, politics change… Today there are a few successful examples of directors who graduated from HBCU programs and have lead “affluent” programs that utilize the corps-style of march. Prof. Gregory Drane at Penn State University (Bethune – Cookman Univ. grad.) comes to mind. As well as Mr. Alfred Watkins, Legendary former director of Lassiter High School Band (Florida A&M Univ. grad.). These men and their programs can be offered up as evidence contrary to the “alternative fact” that HBCU music education programs do not produce qualified graduates. However we still have a long way to go before traditional and corps-style marching bands are respected for their differences and truly seen as, simply, different ways to move your feet while playing an instrument… In light of today’s divisive political environment, it’s evident that we need something to bring us all together. If we are brave enough, music can be that thing that gets us perfectly in tune and well balanced with each other.


1 Comment

  1. I like both styles and have been privileged to work with both. It is unfortunate, though that traditional styles are seen as entertainment mostly. The hard work that traditionalists put forth should be recognized more often. Appreciation should rest with a groups performance: timing, showmanship, marching, visuals, sound etc not which style they happen to be.

    Liked by 1 person

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