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Marching Band Redux: Finding A Good One

Marching Band Redux: Finding A Good One

By Mir Kamin

Are you sick of listening to me go on and on about high school marching band? Too bad! We got a great reader question the other day on my original post, so I want to share it here and answer, as I’m sure Maria isn’t the only one wondering. She writes:

Maybe you or your readers can help…how do you evaluate if a school has a good band program? I have a 7th grade trumpeter. We are thinking of moving to another state. She loves band, and I want to make sure she continues to have a great band experience. Any insight? Here in Texas we have UIL and I know other states have similar programs. Should I look to see the schools that win the most of those contests? I don’t know if this is the best indicator. Any insight you can give would be most appreciated.

I don’t claim to be an expert, Maria, but I do think there are several pertinent areas to examine when trying to determine whether or not a band program is a good one.

Band Director

When I praised band directors in my original post, I did get multiple bitter comments from folks who insisted that not all band directors are selfless and wonderful, and of course… they’re right. I still think most band directors are in for the love of kids and music, but there are exceptions. How do you know if a band director is a good one? I can tell you that our director gives the same speech every year at the first meeting and it always starts with, “I am here to help you raise your children into productive members of society. I will use music as a tool in that endeavor, but my main goal is to produce good citizens.” Not everyone is going to say that—and not everyone is going to see it that way, either—but it told us right off the bat that we would have no worries about dealing with a tyrant who only wanted trophies. To me, that attitude tells me my kids are in good hands. From a logistical standpoint, find out how long the director has been at the school, and ask about any changes during his tenure there (good or bad). Find out what the rules are (a good director of any school activity has a set of “good stewardship” rules for the kids even outside of said activity, and sets an expectation of excellent behavior in and out of his purview). You’re looking for someone who loves teaching, loves kids, strives for excellence, and wants the band experience to be fun. Which leads us to…

Band Culture

The same director who talks about raising good citizens tells the kids they’re a family, over and over. In fact, this year he declared their “theme” to be relationships, and the kids have been encouraged to view socializing together as important as rehearsal time together. This is the sort of thing you have to both talk to people about directly and just sort of suss out around the edges. Are the band kids generally good students? Is the group pretty cohesive? Are there “stars” and “favorites” or is everyone important? Do they look out for each other? Do they respect the director and are they proud to be part of the group?

Music, Routines, and Competitions

Did I mention that marching band should be fun? It should be fun. Doing the same thing over and over isn’t as much fun as doing new things. Again, ask around for some history—is the show similar every year? Do they experiment with different genres and different formations? As much as most teens love marching arrangements of pop music, seeing your kid learn to appreciate jazz or Latin music or anything outside of their comfort zone, really, is amazing. Variety keeps them learning and keeps them engaged. I would also say that competitions have their place in the marching band experience, but less for the trophies and more for the “let’s go show off our hard work” aspect of it. Do you want them to be competing every weekend? I’d say no. But one to three competitions during the season? Yeah, that’s probably going to be great motivation and some fun experiences. Winning is nice, of course, but it’s not necessary.

Rehearsal Schedule

For as often as we talk about work-life balance for busy adults, I’m astonished at how often some people seem to neglect this consideration for our teenagers (who are, after all, still children). A good marching band will require dedication; it’s a very time-intensive endeavor before and during football season, what with rehearsals, games, and weekend competitions. Finding a balance between enough rehearsal time but allowing kids sufficient time to have lives can be tricky. To determine how you feel about this one, you’ll need to talk to the director, other parents, maybe some band kids, and—here’s the important thing—listen to your gut. My kids do an intensive band camp (that’s pretty common) before school starts, and during the season they have two full-band rehearsals a week (and occasionally an additional section rehearsal) plus a game. We do just two competitions each year and usually a parade at the end of the season. It’s a lot of hours, but does leave the kids ample time for homework, family time, and just general teenager time. In contrast, my son’s best friend attends a school where they have full-band rehearsal three times each week, for nearly twice as long as our rehearsals, plus a game and a full-day Saturday rehearsal if they’re not at competition. In my opinion that’s overkill, and my son’s friend is not having a good experience. (Lest anyone jump in here to point out that this is how excellence is achieved, I disagree. Both bands attended the same competition, and our band did much better than the practice-all-the-time-band, which seems to be composed of exhausted and unhappy kids.)

Class Composition

What are the numbers of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the band? A “top-heavy” band—with many more upperclassmen than younger students—may have experienced some changes which have resulted in poor recruitment or desire of incoming students to join, and could indicate a problem. Similarly, a “bottom-heavy” band—with tons of younger students but poor retention—can indicate problems, as well. Typically a solid band will have some drop-off in the upper grades—due to jobs, college prep, changing interests—but will still be fairly evenly distributed throughout the grades.

If all else fails (or if you still have questions)… go to a football game and watch the band. Are they having fun in the stands? Are they having a good time on the field? You’ll be able to tell. Talk to some of the parents, too. I’ve found parents are very quick to praise the good directors and share their misgivings about the not-so-good ones.

Good luck, Maria, and I hope you’re able to find a great program for your daughter! Marching band rocks!

Published October 1, 2014. Last updated October 1, 2014.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • […] amazing staff. Over at Alpha Mom, someone asked how you know if a band program is a good one, and I’ve tried to offer some guidance. If you have kids considering marching, definitely give it a […]

  • Atlantagirl

    October 1, 2014 at 11:11 am

    That’s so awesome that you found a good marching band! I totally agree with you about work-life balance-it seems that the director of the ‘overworked’ band needs to get some guidance about how productivity falls off once the peak amount of time is reached.

  • Wendy

    October 1, 2014 at 11:22 am

    We’re living, breathing, eating and sleeping band right now. The way I know he’s a part of a great band? My moody 14 year old is happily getting up at a crazy hour to march in the dark, is coming home late, is staying up late doing his homework because he knows his band director cares about his grades, and his younger sister can’t wait to get old enough to be a part of it all, too. Plus, the junior high really prepared him well for high school. He came into the band just as musically strong as the upperclassmen and isn’t having to worry about ‘catching up’ with kids who have been doing this for years. They didn’t march in junior high, but this summer he only had to worry about learning to march – not also upping his musical skill.

    • Mir Kamin

      October 1, 2014 at 11:25 am

      This is the kind of story I love, and the kind of story that’s common among band kids. My kids struggle with a lot of things but band is always a bright spot in their lives.

  • Brittany Ramos

    October 1, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    I never tire of hearing about marching band! So much good advice here Mir. I love what you said about family. That is a big part of band at our school. The kids feel like band is a second home, so it’s important to be a happy one.
    My daughter’s band doesn’t do the full competitive marching thing, and I’m grateful. Her practice schedule is very light compared to the other high schools in our area, and it works for her because she carries a huge academic load.

  • Melissa

    October 1, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you so much for your support of this great endeavor! I am a band director and it makes me smile every time you write about how much your kids enjoy it. It is a wonderful thing to do, and it sounds like your kids have a great director.

  • K

    October 1, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    Slightly off topic question…. Neither my husband nor I ever got into playing an instrument. Our son is in pre-k and if we want him to start playing, what is an ideal age to start him? 

    • Mir Kamin

      October 1, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      I think that’s totally a matter of personal preference. I grew up in a school system where we started in 3rd grade; the kids here start in 6th. Obviously many people would say “the sooner the better!” but part of what I love about band is that you don’t have to be the best-of-the-best for it to be a great experience. (I realize this is a non-answer. Maybe someone better acquainted with music theory can give a better response.)

    • Mary/FishyGirl

      October 1, 2014 at 3:57 pm

      Our kids’ private lesson teacher uses a Montessori approach, and she said the two requirements are the kids can read well enough to follow along in their books and learn to read music, and can pay attention to class and follow directions. Depending on the instrument that may be an issue; my daughter started on clarinet in third grade, my son is showing a high level of aptitude for trombone in second grade, but his arms are too short to work the slide all the way. Around here elementary schools start offering instrumental music in fourth grade, and that seems to work well. Good luck, band is a wonderful, wonderful thing!

    • My Kids Mom

      October 1, 2014 at 4:04 pm

      If your son wants to start a musical instrument, see if you can get him into piano lessons. The music theory will be great later and give him a good foundation for later instruments.

  • Stacy

    October 1, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    If you are leaving the state of TX, you should know, no matter how awesome a band program you find, it will not be the same.  My husband and I met in high-school band, in TX.  His son is now in band, in NC, and it is TOTALLY different.  Of course, we don’t think she was a good band director (hey, look, it’s the band director’s mug shot, from when she hit her husband and got picked up for DUI).  Here’s hoping the new director is better, because he was losing interest in band, but not plugged into anything else.  Great blog about band!

  • Lucinda

    October 1, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    We don’t have a marching band in our district unfortunately, but we do have a band program.  There is one teacher for both the junior high and high school.  My daughter, who dislikes school in general, loves her band director.  She has announced she will be in band until the end of high school, even if she has to play triangle! My son joined this year and he too seems to be really enjoying it. I think the value of music education is highly underrated and I’m so happy my children have the opportunity to experience music in such a positive atmosphere.

  • Brittany

    October 1, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    I love all the marching band support on here! It was a formative part of my high school years. I will say as a counterpoint that being part of a competitive marching band isn’t as bad as it’s being made out to be. In addition to football games, my band competed about twice a month during the season leading up to a championship competition. It was…awesome. A lot of work for sure, but getting to watch and learn from other bands was so much fun. Honestly it was the football games we viewed as a chore, competitions were where people other than our parents actually appreciated what we worked so hard for! I think the culture around the band and the way it’s run is so important so I would definitely check out those things that Mir mentioned. But don’t write a band off just because they compete, your child could miss being a part of something really great!

    • Mir Kamin

      October 1, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Good points, Brittany. I am assuming a regular-competition band would be a much bigger time commitment, but maybe it’s not really (maybe there’s fewer rehearsals?). Don’t let that be a deal-breaker, for sure.

  • Meri

    October 1, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Bad band director = has thrown a music stand in a fit of temper. People in my school really didn’t like him much.

  • Nelson's Mama

    October 1, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    My youngest marches and loves it.  They start band camp in July and practice almost every day after school, nearly every kid in band takes private lessons.

    They only did two competitions this year and placed third this Saturday; I understand the winning band starts with mini-camp in May, recruits 8th graders and only accepts new members by audition and competes EVERY weekend.  Not my idea of fun, but something that actually appeals to my kid.

    My daughter is actually considering trying out for drum and bugle corp – know that’s something I wasn’t cut out for, but we’ll see how that goes!

  • Kim

    October 1, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    Love the marching band! My kid, in a mid-Atlantic state, has practice from 3-5 M-Th, football on Friday, 5 weekend TOBs, and a Homecoming parade. She loves every minute of it, and is learning great time management skills, as she takes a super intense academic load. Our band has a very high percentage of Honors students, as well.

  • Tiffany

    October 1, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    We are loving marching band this year too. Texas has uil rules that control how many hours a week outside of class that can be practiced and it is 8 hours. Then if your child is in drumline they can practice up to an additional 8 hours a week. We practice Mondays from 415-615. Random Tuesday mornings and then weds- fri 630 until school starts at 8? Then there are random Saturday practices. We have out weekly football games and have 4 competitions for band, drumline has additional competitions which those kids love to participate it. Of course there is the obligatory month of August of practices.
    My kid loves it. Quite a few of the top performing kids are the ones that are in honors classes etc in our band. They are just plain old good kids. It has taught how to prioritize study load with practices. I know here in tx also that after a kids sophomore year they can drop band and have earned their pe credits through band instead. That is why there are so many more kids that drop out for their junior year because they didn’t want to do pe.
    I can’t say enough good about the band program!

  • Loonytick

    October 2, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Lots of contests aren’t a bad thing if the band is well-run. Those competitions were the most fun part of band for me–all day with my marching family, hanging out with everyone on the bus and in the stands, getting to see what all the other bands were doing, etc. If anything, I wish we could have skipped the football games.