MAKE BANDS GREAT!…AGAIN: What Causes Bands To “Fall Off”?

Howard University “Showtime” Band

In the college band world, full of tradition and pageantry, there exists four types of band programs; 1) Bands that have always been great, 2) Bands that have been great then fell off, 3) Bands that have never been great… until now, and 4) Bands that have never and will never be great. Your favorite band or alma mater exists in one of these categories today. As a proud alumnus of South Carolina State University, I’m not ashamed to say that it seems as if my alma mater has created a 5th type of band over the last 20 years of it’s existence: Bands that have been great, then fell off, then was great again, then fell off again. Of course this issue of consistency is not unique to any particular region, conference, state or school. So the question I will attempt to answer, for all of college bands, is what causes a band to “fall off”?

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SC State Marching 101
SC State Marching 101

If you ask the average band director why things are not going well, you might as well have a seat because that’s a very long conversation. There are many reasons/excuses for not achieving the desired product. You’ve probably heard them all; We are young this year, alumni are not supporting, inadequate facilities, program resources, alumni are causing issues, students are not reading proficiently, my budget was cut, kids these days are different, admission requirements are too high, millennials are lazy, etc, etc… I’m not minimizing these issues. These are real problems that exist, in some form, within all band programs. However some programs navigate these issues successfully while others can be obliterated. It would help us all if we understood why.

In my opinion, it boils down to 3 broad areas; Leadership, Resources, and Product. Leadership is important for many reasons. A band program has to have a leader with a vision that current students and alumni believe in and fully support. Many directors make the mistake of thinking “I’m the director, this is my band”. Yes, a director must demand respect and discipline but an effective leader creates a student focused environment as opposed to a director focused one. Drops in retention rates is the first sign that there may be a problem with their leadership style. That long look in the mirror is the hardest one to take, but sometimes can mean the difference between success and failure.  School leadership is also pertinent to a band’s success. There have been many cases where the school’s vision for the program and the director’s vision for the program did not properly align. In these cases it is the director’s responsibility to convey his/her, student and alumni shared, vision to the administration. The director should garner the respect on their campus as the expert on all things concerning instrumental music. Their opinion should be sought after not chided. If this is not the case then, once again, there may be a crack in the mirror.

When I mention resources, for most, money is the first thing that comes to mind. However in a college band situation there are resources that are more valuable than money. Among them are relationships. With good relationships come lots of money and other resources that can sustain your program for years to come. A resourceful director is well connected. Connected to; all the high school directors in his/her state and surrounding states, potential recruits and their family, to the religious and civic organizations within his/her state, to political figures who pass the laws for public education in his/her state, etc.. The resourceful director should be that individual that can get on the phone at 7pm in the evening and get the necessary resources needed for their band. School budgets will always be a fight rather it be scholarships, travel, equipment, or what ever. At the end of the day, It’s up to the director to ensure that their program’s needs are taken care of.

The biggest tool for recruitment is the product. If you have a successful band, you are the greatest advertising agency for your institution. You are the school ambassadors and model for student excellence. Dr Isaac Greggs used to say “I make Southern University better than the rest of ’em… That’s why I don’t have to recruit!” He was right. Students want to be apart of something successful. It doesn’t take a large scholarship budget to have a large band if everybody wants to be in your band. I would have gladly marched at my alma mater for free because I loved and dreamed of that band for years as a high school student. Directors, your product will speak for itself… What it will say, is up to you.

I believe a focused approach to these three areas; Leadership, Resources, and Product is how to achieve consistency at the collegiate level. Once program “success” is achieved and the director is satisfied with the product, then these three areas become the litmus strips for program consistency. Having issues? First look at yourself and see if there is anything you could do to correct the trajectory. Then look at your resources to be sure that your program is properly supported in all areas. Finally look at your product. Is it something students are knocking down the doors to be apart of? If not, you’ve got some adjustments to make. Becoming a consistently great band is definitely not easy to do and there will undoubtedly be challenges every step of the way, but the approach I’ve described is one of the ways it’s done, with success, within the educational system we currently enjoy.

Published by Ernest Stackhouse

-Music Educator -Marching Band Show Design -Musical Arranger -Adjudicator -Fine Arts Administrator -Band Director -Writer

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