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…
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 intended 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”.
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?