LEGACY: Does It Still Work For Today’s Bands?

My alma mater is a unicorn in the college band world. Not for any performance related reasons, but simply because we have never had an alumnus to serve as director of bands. That’s right… Never in it’s 101 year history has South Carolina State University’s Department of Music had an alumnus to serve as band director.


College bands have a long history of “hiring within”. For a university music program, especially an HBCU band program, to never have hired an alum is highly unusual. How we managed to go over 100 years without doing so, and still be recognized through the decades as one of the best, is anybody’s guess. But it does present a burning question… is a graduate the best choice when searching for a new band director?

A great band director once wrote…

foster 96
Dr. William P. Foster circa 2001

In my day, folks called it “growing your own crop” to ensure that you got precisely what you needed, and in the right proportions… My “growing your own crop” methods involved recruiting, evaluating, and training our own alumni, gleaned from our own fertile fields… This was one of the best decisions I could have made during the formative years of the Florida A&M University Marching Band.

Dr. Foster, in all his wisdom, was correct. Hiring properly trained and evaluated graduates was (and still is) a sure way to get the exact product FB_IMG_1476792086233intended every time. If the product is good, why change anything?… If it aint broke don’t fix it. Hiring non grads can be a gamble that sometimes pays and sometimes busts. Why would anyone wager against a proven concept?


Can graduates be trusted to innovate beyond what was handed down to them? Are they even allowed to innovate at all? In many cases the alumni director is put in place to ensure that things are kept the way they are. Though many aspects of a typical halftime performance was created over 70 years ago,  those maneuvers, steps, drills, and in some cases songs, still thrill audiences today… but for how much longer? In the year 2030 will floating diamonds still be as innovative as they were in the 1950’s? Times have changed, audiences have changed. As we look back over the last century I think it is obvious that not much innovation occurred within the ranks of most college bands. The next century must be different.

So, What About Tradition?

No school wants to lose its traditions. A band’s traditions are passed down through the decades and are the very things that make each band unique. Whether it be a sound concept, a marching style, or a specific maneuver… each of these things help to define a band’s style and approach to performance. Without these traditions it would be easy to say “once you’ve seen one college band, you’ve seen them all”. 325389_662185739083_1070673018_o

However, tradition sometimes gets in the way of innovation. When new ideas are presented they are usually packaged deep within a box of “school traditions” which they are not allowed to step out of. Most college bands are stuck in the “traditional way” of performing because it works. But if they are not careful a lack of innovation can make the marching arts obsolete.

Outsource Or Grow Your Own Crop?

So what would happen if your school hired a band director who was not an alumnus? Would the program lose its identity? Precedent has shown that it could happen…  At SCSU we have managed to hold on to certain “traditions” like playing Up For The Dogs, Pass the Peas, our attention and manuever comands, arrangements, and all the drum cadences. The only lost I can see is the tradition of “horn flashes”. I guess it depends on the individual hired, because any of those directors could have made significant changes that could have caused a total identity change for The SCSU Marching 101 Band. Some directors are so indoctrinated to the ways of their alma mater that they go from program to program creating knock off versions of that band their entire careers. Others are able to adjust to where they are and to what has been established there. One huge positive of hiring a non graduate is that individual may bring new innovations that an alumnus would not be allowed to attempt. It really is a gamble… Each school must decide if hiring outside of their own fertile fields is worth the risk of losing some of the coveted traditions of their program while potentially gaining growth and innovation. What are your thoughts?

Published by Ernest Stackhouse

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

31 thoughts on “LEGACY: Does It Still Work For Today’s Bands?

  1. While I agree that the lot of HBCU bands mentioned are all successful in their own right, the schools where alums have taken the helm are seeing successes with a broader impact. When you think of FAMU, BCU, Jackson State and Southern for example, the revenues that those programs generate and the levels of invited performances is unmatched. Additionally, when you look at the growth of those programs it is significantly greater in schools that maintain leadership under their alumni members. Something to consider!

  2. This is true
    Wendell Lewis assistant band director tried to incorporate the side to side horn front at SCSU in 1977 at that time the band members strongly disagreed with that concept. And I will leave it at that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      1. it was all good. The section leaders were leaders that day. But I need to tell you the whole story LOL

  3. Sorry don’t want to give wrong information
    Let me rethink
    Hampton Howard or Morgan
    Brain dead 30 years back lol
    but one of them for sure I will check and make any corrections if needed

  4. Hampton University used crops style back in the late or mid 90’S This was the first HBCU school I saw
    side line to side line horn front movements

  5. A very interesting read! First, it is mind blowing that a SCSU alum has not been the director of bands! I’ve honestly always thought alum would be a top choice before an outside hire. At the same time (playing devils advocate), if two individuals are going for the same position, one being an alum who gets basic results and the other being a graduate from another school who’s work excel within all stages (both concert and marching and yes I said concert first), if I’m the hiring vote, I will hire who would have what’s best for the program to excel. Programs like JSU, FAMU and BCU have hired within and it has worked well. And then you have programs like SCSU, Benedict College, Savannah State University, Edward Waters, where they hired directors that graduated from other programs and they have equated to outstanding success. As a person who values legacy and appreciate what is established for a program, when it comes to the position, the best qualified should receive the position.

  6. This is an interesting article. I noticed that Mr. Hughs name was not included in the list of Band Directors. He was there in 1972. Keep up the great work.

    1. Thank you Sir! And thanks for being so supportive of us young cats coming up through the years. I appreciated your willingness to share the knowledge when I was trying to survive in this profession.

      I’m trying to get the correct info on all the band directors that were at State because I’m planning something special for the 101 year celebration of the music department. Would you happen to know Hughs’s first name?

  7. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hire an alumnus but in some cases that would close the door to outsiders. A good director would research the traditions that made that program great. Many bands today have lost their identity listening to people who don’t understand traditions and there are directors who want to make changes for the purpose of their own ego, not for the betterment of the program.

    When I look at bands such as Mississippi Valley and a few others, I see bands that ONCE were great. Valley was the first hybrid band using Corps elements and presenting percussion features. A few people made fun of Valley but they always had a good sound and a unique show. Fast forward 20 years and bands like PV and NCAT are using those elements. Meanwhile Valley doesn’t look like Valley (Please don’t kill me yall, I love Valley).

    There are many bands that are lost. On the other hand, innovation is a good thing. That’s what’s missing in today’s band scene. We all agree Southern has traditions and has influenced many programs. However, when Prairie View and TXSU play, I don’t wanna see Southern, I wanna see the Ocean vs the Storm. When I go see Jackson vs Da Corn, I wanna see SOD vs Sonic Boom not an SU substitute. Each band has something that made them unique, I think they should maintain those traditions. And give us outside directors a chance.

  8. Research music programs that has performed at events such as NFL half times bicentennial Macy’s Rose Bowls and others
    They were establish years before the invitation was granted
    The main phrase is INVITED!!!!!!! Not from a travel company brochure

  9. First you must maintain a positive level of performance no matter who the director is first. Find what director started the legacy at that school and why did that band made a difference in the band world. There are many qualified alumni that have the degree but you must have an administration that understands what the music program means to the university (not band program)
    True that people have changed but tradition have not
    Do your research as much as possible
    The only problem with this is finding videos of those great bands and articles

    1. Mr Singleton! Awesome contribution to the discussion. Thanks for being the great band leader you are and for inspiring me to want to be just like you. ❤

      #MyHSBandDirectorYall 😊👍🏾

  10. Brother Stackhouse,
    What a powerful article.
    If I may, I am the Original Arranger of Up 4 The Dogs and Pass Da Peas!!
    It also was a blessing to have served my Alma mater as an assistant Director of Bands.
    I totally agree that the Director of Bands should come from within.

    Perfect examples are:
    Bethune Cookman
    Jackson State
    Southern University

    4 great band programs who are or have been led by Alum.

  11. As an alumni of Fort Valley state university we have only had 1 alumnus who served as our Director to my knowledge. I as well as my other alumni band members have been trying to get back and take over especially after one of the previous directors erased all the history we had. By the CV Troupe was one of our past presidents.

    1. Wow, what a coincidence… I thought we were one of the only programs to have such a shortage of alumni directors in our lineage. We are celebrating the 101st year of our program. I’ve been researching the former directors and I’d love to have any info on C.V. Troupe that you may have.

  12. When you have Alumni from within; Writing, Teaching, Providing great Student Leadership Training and real life lessons, this can help your program grow and of course when you Alumni Write Checks and give back to your Band Program. The more successful your Alumni Base and Student Bass the checks can usher in to grow your Band Program: Travel, Commercials, Fund Raisers, Leadership Seminars to High Schools around the Nation.

  13. I don’t understand why they don’t hire from within. Don’t they feel confident in what they produced? (Not the outliers that may be present). I think it would increase alumni support.

    1. One of the problems is that a lot of the graduates are not going back to school to get the proper certification; The Masters Degree. You have to encourage the Students that you need you Masters to work at the College level.

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