Contest-Drive Music Education

My son has been in the marching band program since Freshman year in high school.  On top of all, he is in drumline. On top of that, he is the battery section.  These two odd facts will make sense to you as you read on. 

Before moving to Texas, I was warned how much school values football and football

only.  Since my child isn't into sports other than martial arts, it was never a concern of mine.  Then the summer before he officially started high school, it became clear to me that marching band is just as hardcore as football.  The only difference is football kids have a fancy gym, and they ride on, most of the time, fancy charter buses. 

For those of you who aren't familiar with the band program, please read on.  For all former and current band parents or students, you can skip the next few paragraphs. 

Marching Band Camp

Full-day marching band camps normally start a month before school begins.  Drumline camp, however, starts a week and a half before full-day marching band camp.  It is vital for these dedicated kids to get used to carrying heavy instruments, march, drum for miles without passing out in the sometimes triple-digit heat. 

Marching Season Schedule

As soon as school begins, these awesome dedicated band kids play during every single football game, home and away.  Then while most of the football kids get to sleep in on Saturdays, these band kids have to return to school on Saturday to attend various contests. In short, during marching season their only "day off" is Sunday.  Such hectic schedule runs all the way until Thanksgiving.  That said, if football team made State finals be prepared to be on the road again on Thanksgiving weekend. 

UIL Region Audition

Towards the end of marching season, all drumline kids start practicing University Interscholastic League (UIL) region audition.  Their hard work results in band placement in concert season (January to June). Each drumline kid needs to learn two-mallet, four-mallet marimba pieces, snare solo, and timpani solo.  Four pieces total.  

I can only speak for drumline kids, but by the end of my son's Freshman year, I realized everything he has done besides the Holiday Concert and Spring Concert were all contest driven. 

As I sat through my first percussion ensemble (an annual event), I noticed most of the kids on the stage delivered high-level execution but in a very mechanical way.  Something was missing.  I wasn't sure how much the music was played from the heart.  I couldn't tell if they were in a world of their own as what musicians do when they perform music from within.  

During my son's Sophomore year I started encouraging him to add some soul and feeling to the music he was practicing for UIL.  He looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues.  Then it hit me - he's taught to focus on technical proficiency instead of musically. 

Technical virtuosity, musical illiteracy is the commonly seen pattern in most schools.  The moment my son decided to pursue music over law school I knew we had to do something.  I encouraged him to audition performing opportunities outside of school.  In that way, he ends up being with, mostly, to say the least, students who love music and aren't there because they have to.  

Drew Matthew Tucker wrote a great article on "Our Young Percussionists Are Not Being Trained to be Musician." Although his focus was mostly on how percussion section is often being excluded in school bands, teaching kids to focus solely on the technical skills is also mentioned.  

The worst scenario I've witnessed firsthand was the band director in the middle school.  He would reject students without prior playing in a school band, and students with learning disability.  He runs the music program like a corporate business.  True that he has won numerous awards, but who benefit and get the most satisfaction out of these awards? Students? I highly doubt that. 

I went to high school in California, and I remember my band director, Mr. John McGurder, always taught us not just play the music, but feel the notes, so they come to live.  

The difference? I know 99% of the students from the band I was in continued to play music despite the career path they chose to pursue.  I would say more than half of the band kids these days would ditch their instruments the second they graduate, if not sooner.