Near the end of the 80’s marching bands began to get “bigger”, figuratively and literally. Certain marching band programs gained popularity through commercials, movies, and Live TV performances resulting in an increase in their membership. In order for other programs to remain competitive, they began to recruit students into their programs through incentives. These incentives began as book fee waivers then matured into what we know today as The Band Scholarship.
In the spring of 1995 I remember receiving that envelope in the mail… My first college band scholarship offer. I was going to be a first generation college student so I was just happy to be accepted to the universities that I had applied. Being offered a scholarship to do something that I would have done for free was just icing on the cake! Tuition at South Carolina State University was $2,500.00 per semester (Boy, I wish it was still that cheap! LOL). As an expected Music Education Major, my scholarship package totaled $3,000.00 per year. Financial Aid took care of majority of the balance. I was left to pay $100 per semester out of pocket.. Sweet right…
But the money didn’t really matter. I knew I was going to be a member of The Marching 101, no matter what. Hell, I would have paid THEM to let me march. I had fully expected to march for free and do whatever I had to do to make ends meet. As a matter of fact, many of my band mates did just that and thought nothing of it. Our band program consistently boasted a total membership of well over 180 students all of my tenure at SCSU. All ensembles enjoyed full instrumentation and numbers were never really a concern. The program was always quality driven.
Around this time something interesting occurred… Bands got even bigger! When FAMU’s Marching 100, a band of over 300 students at that time, debuted “The Largest Sousaphone Section In The World” consisting of 32 bass horns, college bands were changed forever. Instantly bigger became better in the eyes of the average fan. The race was on to field a large marching band by today’s standards which meant a program well over 250 members.
In order to achieve these numbers incentives had to be increased. Band Scholarships increased to thousands of dollars per semester and were coupled with out of state tuition waivers so directors could expand their reach to students outside of their home states. This empowered the high school seniors across the nation. They could receive scholarships and out of state tuition waivers from schools, anywhere in the nation. The “Pay for Play” culture was born.
This culture uses the marching band as the main bargaining tool to lure in students.
Students are essentially contract workers for the marching band as they are paid to participate in this ensemble. Benefits are; bigger bands for the universities, larger talent pools, and Students enjoy larger scholarships and out of state waivers. However there are disadvantages; Students are required to participate in all rehearsals and performances above all else (Even when out of class academic help is needed), and scholarships can be dropped or rescinded at the discretion of the director or school.
Today’s high school senior, and their parents, enter into a bidding war for band scholarships. An auction for musical talent that, most of the time, settles for just bodies to put in a uniform. Gone are the days of the scholarship earned by years of planning, preparation, and sacrifice. Most of today’s students are mostly concerned with the scholarship dollar amount first and foremost. This is perfectly understandable from a parent’s perspective, but imagine how much better our bands could be if we returned to a quality over quantity approach.