Message Bearing Marching Bands

High school marching band shows reflect our priorities and our insanities. How can they help make us better?

By Mark D. Harris

Ours is a marching band family – four of our five children have been in marching bands at the high school and/or college level.  The other one was in the orchestra. Our kids have been at Hayfield and Thomas Jefferson (TJ) High Schools in northern Virginia, Collierville High School in Tennessee, Shady Spring High School in West Virginia, and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. We have enjoyed parades, pep bands, and shows at football halftimes and band competitions. Dance teams, color guards, drum majors, and lines of marching and playing students entertain us every week in every autumn.   

High school marching band shows have themes, ranging from the musical (the Music of Queen), the cinematic (Illusion, including Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), and the historical (the Transcontinental Railway). Bands compete before judges, who score them on such measures as musicality, marching/dance, visuals, guard, pit, and drumline. At the end of every competition, the band with the highest score in their division wins a trophy. But what do judges find worthy of acclaim?

Since our family began watching marching bands in 2011, we have attended dozens of competitions and seen hundreds of shows. The band at Thomas Jefferson (TJ) numbered near 100, while the band at Hayfield had fewer than 50 students. Quality differed, as did venue. One band competition was in the stadium at the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

The theme of TJ’s Marching Colonials in the first year was Twisted, and its songs included Sweeney Todd and Danse Macabre. By design, the tone of Twisted was dark and bizarre. Sensitized by Twisted, I noticed many other band shows in northern Virginia (NOVA) that year with themes of death, the victory of evil over good, or mental illness. From 2012 to 2016 when we left NOVA, many high school marching bands varied these themes, and no matter their musical or technical excellence, I was left feeling low.

Yesterday we enjoyed the Black Walnut Festival in Spencer, WV, including a parade and another band competition. The Lincoln County High School marching band saluted The Greatest Generation, opening with Glenn Miller’s In the Mood and closing with God Bless America. Girls in 40s dresses danced and waved guard flags, while band members in uniform and boys in fatigues marched to honor their forebears. At a competition in Princeton a week before, one band presented a show highlighting the victory of good over evil, rather than the other way around. I left with a smile.

Shady’s show this year, named American Heroes, began with America the Beautiful. Dance team girls in red tops and blue skirts accompanied boys in World War II Army uniforms marching off towards a large American flag. Cantina from Star Wars symbolized the good times on the home front, and the Pacific symbolized the fighting. An air raid siren disrupted the music, and the dance team girls lined up to await the return of their beloved soldiers. The first three came home physically unscathed, the fourth in a sling, and each couple, boy and girl, walked away arm in arm. The last man was not there. Instead, another uniformed soldier carried his folded American flag. The girl ran around the field looking desperately for her beloved as the flag bearing soldier approached. Unable to escape the horrible truth, that her beloved was dead, the forlorn girl collapsed in tears. The marching band concluded their show with Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. The boys who had played the soldiers ran across the field and set up a flag like that at Iwo Jima. Many spectators clapped and leapt to their feet. I smiled.

What accounts for the difference in show themes? Could it be that high school band leaders liked angsty and depressing shows in the early and middle 2010s but not later? Perhaps wealthy and urban northern Virginia is more focused on death and disorder than poor and rural southern West Virginia, although death rates from substance use would not support that conclusion. Perhaps depressing themes are chic among band competition judges, and directors play to judges, not to crowds. Perhaps those with the most advantages toy with the idea of disadvantage in their entertainment, while those stuck in real poverty, sickness, and pain need encouragement from their entertainment. Perhaps something else is at play. Perhaps a systematic review, rather than my convenience sample, would show no difference in the mood of the themes of high school marching bands.

Followers of Christ must be light in a dark world. We are to acknowledge the brokenness we see around us…indeed, it is so pervasive that we can’t avoid it. However, we are not to dwell on this brokenness. Channeling the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, beauty, and glory of God, we must reflect His light to those around us. Paul writes

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, let your mind dwell on these things.”

Do high school marching band directors and the judges let their minds dwell on what is true, noble, right, and pure? If not, how does that influence their students. If they did, would their influence on their students change? How would their influence on the future change? How would their own lives change?

Shady Spring High School Marching Band playing Swing, Swing, Swing – good music and a good show!

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