Take the Field Designs

Custom Visual Design for Marching Band and Drum Corps

Take the Field Designs is custom marching band drill/visual design by Adam Nelson and custom arranging/composition by Jesse Chavez

Is Marching Band, or the Marching Arts, a Sport? Part 2: Marching Band as Physical Education Follow-Up

This one took a while to edit and put together, folks. With all of the writing, performing, teaching and driving I do, I think its safe to assume that you'll get a new blog every month-ish. Cool? Cool.

I wasn't expecting to do a follow-up to my previous post about Marching Band and Physical Education, but I got a lot of great comments on Reddit and Facebook about the topic. They helped me focus my views, and I've come up with a rather obvious conclusion. Are you ready? 

Ahem...*cups mouth with hands*


A: Well, it depends. 



See, wasn't that easy? Next question:

*cups mouth again*


Sorry. Back to the topic at hand. Yes, it depends. If you want the short answer, just read the next three paragraphs, after which I will start defending my conclusion:

If your high school marching band offers its students consistent physical activity that prepares them for (and possibly administers them) a fitness exam, teaches them how to work together as a team, helps them learn good physical work-out and stretching routines, and the students know how to maintain a healthy lifestyle through physical activity after graduation, then YES!, Marching Band (and any other extra-curricular program that does the same) should provide the student with a PE credit. 

If your band does not satisfy these needs, then perhaps your band should only award you an arts credit. An exception would be where your school has a PE program that also does not adequately satisfy these needs. Then perhaps a Marching Band could award a PE credit in lieu of a credit from an unsatisfactory PE class.

Basically, every school is different, and we should treat this particular issue on a school-by-school basis. For every unambitious band out there, you can find an equally unambitious PE class. And for every exceptional PE class, you can find an exceptional Marching Band.

In the last blog entry, I covered how marching band *can* (not necessarily does) provide the student with physical activity. Let's look at how it can (and why it should) qualify as physical education.

1. Athletes (and bands) across the country are already being recognized for their participation with a PE credit.

There are already a lot of schools that award PE credits to people who participate not only in sports teams, but also Marching Band, Dance team and Cheer-leading! Reddit comments alleged that school districts in Iowa, Alabama, Texas, California, and Arizona already let students get PE credit from extra-curricular activities. Idaho was considering giving PE credit to student athletes in 2014. A high school in Colorado allowed in-school sports, Marching Band, Cheer-leading and even out of school activities like Karate to give you Physical Education Credit. Some schools even use class time to train their athletes, and this counts for PE credit too! Certainly if school teams can get a PE credit for their participation, the Marching Band should be considered too. On this very subject, one California Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf went as far to say "there is no difference between band and athletics and rally (cheer)...Athletics and rally have already been approved to generate P.E. credit." Some athletes may not like this next addition, but she went on to say that "it would be unfair to prevent marching band and color guard participants from earning P.E. credit, given that some these other activities are far less strenuous than marching band, but can earn credit" (taken from this source).

These examples seem to be on a school-by-school, or district-by-district basis. Its not a blanket policy that applies to all of the schools in the state, unless its a policy that simply allows schools to do give PE credits for extra-curricular activities, but leaves it up to each school to decide if they should. This is probably the way to go, as each school has programs and teachers inconsistent from each other. Their PE class, marching band and assorted sports activities will all have widely varying degrees of ambition, work ethic, enthusiasm and success. Let the school decide which activities meet the PE requirements. 

2. Teachers can easily incorporate physical education into rehearsal (and sometimes the audition process).

When PE teachers face the issue of potentially losing students, they typically bring up the difference between Physical Education and Physical Activity. Barbara Kaufman, a PE teacher debating against aforementioned Superintendent Sarraf, said "P.E. is about more than raising heart rates and breaking a sweat." She teaches her students not just physical activity, but also about the mechanics of their bodies.

These lessons can easily be incorporated into your Marching Band rehearsal. Let's look at one specific example. My sister is a Band Director in a Texas district with four high school marching bands that all compete in BOA. Her band students are required to run a 10 minute mile to qualify for Varsity Marching Band. They also take one day away from rehearsal to take a fitness exam. For this, as well as their lengthy and strenuous rehearsals and performance schedule, students can earn all of the PE credits that are required to graduate! Her band, and many others like her's across the country, typically start rehearsals with stretches and cardio work. Their trained instructors teach the students about injury prevention, good posture, work ethic, work-out routines and nutrition to help their students prepare and condition for the season. Any band with this kind of instruction almost definitely has an ambitious show that is physically demanding of their students, and the inclusion of this kind of instruction definitely puts the program on par with the physical instruction that one would get in a school sport like football. 

But band programs like these do not represent every marching band in the country. Not every band puts the same physical demands on their students. Bands like these require their students to play complex music at high tempos without crashing into each other or having feet in their sound (that's harder than you think!) while also mastering expressive dances and equipment maneuvers. Their show design cannot be achieved unless the students are trained in cardio-vascular activity, stretching, agility, upper body strength, core strength and endurance. These bands are also rehearsing 5-15 hours a week (or more during band camp), sometimes in very hot weather on a blacktop parking lot while the football team uses the field. Bands that are this demanding are arguably making PE redundant for their students.

To be fair, these bands are sometimes part of a school that requires more than a single course to fulfill the Physical Education requirement for their degree. Those schools can get away with extra-curricular activities giving PE credit because the students will still have to take a PE course of some sort. The issue is whether or not the schools that only require the equivalent of one PE course will allow a sport or physical extra-curricular to completely take the place of a PE course, and many do. The article about Idaho quotes an athlete who is taking a PE course in addition to playing a sport. They single this out seemingly to show that even though the athlete doesn't have to take the course, he is opting to do so anyhow, which implies that the course is no longer required of student athletes. Many athletes may choose to do this, as physical activity is a large part of their life. They may have an affinity for it, or a general enthusiasm for it. For many, PE helps one get through a day that is otherwise filled with motionless and repetitive academic study, but not for all.

3. Giving Marching Band members a PE credit can increase enrollment in Band, and encourage nonathletic students to become athletic. 

PE teachers like the aforementioned Kaufman also stress the importance of regular exercise and the adoption of a healthy lifestyle. This is definitely important. But does the average student walk away from gym class intending to continue an active and healthy lifestyle? Those who are enthusiastic about gym probably do, but what about those students who don't share that predisposition?

We know that each school is different, but so is each student. Gym can be an intimidating place for people who aren't physically inclined. I'd rather not relive my awkward childhood, but lets just say that sports and hand-eye coordination did not come easily to me, and I wasn't the only one who noticed. That doesn't mean that I and others like me should be exempt from physical activity and education, and I'm certainly not proposing that people give up on something just because they reached a single hurdle, but when the student isn't enthusiastic about physical activity, they are not likely to buy into the importance of a healthy lifestyle and will only participate at the minimum level. No class will likely excite every student who takes it. So when PE fails to inspire some students to become (and remain) physically active, then another activity is needed to serve this purpose. For a lot of people who aren't immediately drawn to physical activity, marching band is that very activity! I tried PE. I tried tennis. and I could barely run a mile without getting completely winded. It was not until I got excited about the marching arts that I was motivated to keep an active lifestyle. When I got very involved, I was running 2-3 miles every other day to keep in shape. Now. 15 years later, I'm running 4-6 miles, and occasionally lifting, planking, and doing push-ups. I wasn't motivated to do any of these things in PE, where I was always last to be picked for teams (very humiliating), mocked for my inability, and motivated by competition in physical activities where I exhibited significantly less inherent ability than my peers. In ambitious Marching Bands, a private audition process determines your team eligibility (if your marching band even has auditions), peers are usually unable to mock you during rehearsal/performance (and though they still can find a way, I'd argue they are much less likely to do so), you are motivated by team-building as opposed to beating a classmate, and I was much more enthusiastic about the activity because I had a natural talent for it. The marching arts made me enthusiastic about having a healthy lifestyle.

There are many high school PE students who feel like I did - alienated, ostracized, mocked and unmotivated in regards to physical activity. But if the band program can count as a student's PE credit, students can get the same education in an environment much more suited to their talents and demeanor. As one Texas School Board member said, "If this is what keeps kids in school, then we should support it". And if disenfranchised kids can get a PE credit from Marching Band without having to take PE, think of what that can do for recruitment! Not only does the student find a better-suited place to learn about the importance of physical activity and education, but you've got yourself a bigger band! Its a Win-Win situation. 

High school students have already had PE courses throughout elementary school and junior high. By the time they get to high school, they generally know how to play all of the sports. The focus of High School Gym seems to be keeping the student active and letting them know how to be smart about physical activity in the future in order to encourage an active lifestyle, good health, the maintenance thereof and injury prevention. Being on a football team can accomplish this. So can tennis, swimming, cross country, dancing, and even marching band. This doesn't mean that we don't need physical education teachers anymore. It just means that students can be taught the same concepts in other classes and activities. If you need help, whats wrong with having the PE teacher stop by a few rehearsals and teach the students about proper stretching, injury prevention and healthy lifestyles? Do we need anymore proof that PE Teachers and Band Directors should be besties?

4. Being recognized for my physical activity and education in Marching Band could have afforded me another elective.

Let's look deeper at what is required to graduate from High School. Though this varies wildly from school to school, some sort of physical education course is always required (often times, more than one course). Then you have the other required courses like some level of Math, Science, History/Social Studies and Reading/Literature. But invariably, each High School program has a few open credits that a student can earn with electives, such as Shop Class, Home Economics, Computer Programming, Foreign Languages, Arts Classes and Fine Arts classes like Band, Orchestra and Choir. 

The concern with those students who are very enthusiastic about one specific elective (like Band, for example) is trying to participate in that elective every year of high school. This can be important for many reasons - continued focus on a subject better prepares you for collegiate study, some states require participation specific classes to qualify for district/state/country-wide activities (like All-State ensembles requiring school band membership), etc. It was difficult for me to do so, because after the first year of being in both Band and Choir, I had fulfilled my elective requirements for graduation (at least how many you could receive through fine arts classes), and any other time I spent in Band and Choir would affect my GPA, but would not give me any credit towards my graduation. The time spent in music courses after my freshman year could have been filled with courses that I actually needed to graduate, or other interests, but Band and Choir were my priority. Specializing meant that I had to plan my schedule carefully from Freshman Year, and I wouldn't have any room for any other academic interests. If marching band had given me a PE credit either simultaneously or after giving me an arts credit, I would have had room for another AP Course, a practical class like Auto Mechanics or Computer Programming/Web Design, an advanced year in a Foreign Language, a science course beyond the prerequisite level, or even a simple study hall. In my case, I had to make sacrifices to fit in all of the music classes I wanted to take, to say nothing about ensembles like Jazz Band, Show Choir and the annual musical that all rehearsed outside of class time. 

Should a Marching Band student get both an arts credit and a PE credit? I think the answer is already stated in the previous paragraph. I had already maxed out on the Arts credits that would apply towards graduation. Why not reward me for another year of marching band with a PE credit? You could require that the student use the class to fulfill one credit or the other, just not both at the same time.  

And that is where you, the Band Director comes in. If you take anything away from this, I hope you will consider taking the necessary steps to allow your marching band to award your students with a physical education credit. Find out if your state (and your school) allows extra-curricular activities the option to award PE credit, and see how your band can do the same. This may mean dealing with a lot of bureaucracy, and/or stepping up your band's show design and physical demands. But your band (and your school) stands too much to gain - a bigger band, students who have more open class time (at least during the school day), a healthier student body, and potentially more funding for your band program!

So what happens after high school?

Students can potentially go on to become pros in Football, Tennis, Swimming and Cross Country. PE teacher Barbara Kaufman asks "How many people go on to just march in a band after high school? We want to give them [the students] concepts that they can take with them for the rest of their lives."

As for taking these marching skills further, lets consider Drum Corps, Winter Guard, DCA, and all of the teaching and design opportunities that are out there. We learn a lot of practical skills from marching band as well, as evidenced in this video and by talking to any enthusiastic former band member. As for taking sports skills further, how many high school athletes go on to play those same sports in college? Probably the same percentage of high school marchers who go on to participate in college Marching Band. After college? I think it mostly becomes the same story - Alumni looking back on their college days as the Running Back or the Tubist who got to dot the "i".

This brings me back to my initial question - is Marching Band a sport? Well yes, it can be, and in many places should be treated as such. And if that means the football team is getting PE credit, so should the Marching Band, as long as they are still fulfilling those PE requirements. 

But even high school sports have a professional equivalent, and that's where the "marching arts as sports" question gets exciting. Let's explore that next time!

Is Marching Band, or the Marching Arts, a Sport? Part 1: Marching Band as Physical Education

I love to pontificate, and to type, and to edit. But I know many of you will react with tl:dr (too long, didn't read). So I'll make it easy for you. My main points will be bold. Wanna hear my defense for each point? Read the whole darn thing! 

So, is Marching Band a sport? 

This question returned to the front of my mind when I saw an article summarizing a recent move in the South Carolina legislature to give High School Marching Band members a Physical Education credit for their participation. 

The writer cites South Carolina Senator Vincent Sheheen's first hand observations of his son's Marching Band rehearsals as justification. "My son, who is in marching band, consistently for a longer period of time gets more exercise than my sons who have just one semester of PE, which is the requirement". 

Without knowing anything about Sen. Sheheen's sons, I can assume with almost complete certainty that his statement is not an exaggeration. Firstly, I can personally attest to High School PE classes not being particularly demanding. From what I remember, each day had a myriad of stretches (from what I hear, the verdict is out on their merits) followed by a handful of push-ups and/or crunches and a paltry 4ish laps around the basketball court. After that it was a simple game of sorts where participation and exertion were more or less dictated by the individual's participation. That could basically be boiled down to "Am I naturally good at this game (basketball, volleyball, track etc), do I enjoy this game regardless of my inherent skill level, and will I be able to enjoy playing the game with these other classmates who are at a different level than I am?". PE teachers often try to encourage more participation and enthusiasm, but when we are at a different level than the rest of the class, the teacher has little persuading power.  

So it was easy to slack off in gym, and I think many people share that predilection. It was particularly easy for me because I chose to save my gym credit until my senior year. So not only was I as old as a PE student could be (sorry Super Seniors), but I had also returned from my first summer of Drum Corps. Ten whole Pushups? I didn't expect a sort of Spanish Inquisition! 

So I don't really blame Sen. Sheheen for thinking that Physical Education standards are a bit lacking, at least compared to Marching Band. My anecdotal evidence seems to agree. However, my High School Marching Band would not have impressed Sen. Sheheen. We were a small band in South Dakota, and my Director was much more concerned with Symphonic Band. I think its fair to say that many marching bands are the same way - "How many football games and parades do we have to play, and how good is this year's football team?...That good? Dangit, we'll be playing halftimes until December! Can't we just start Symphonic Band yet?". 

But that was 1997 in an area of the country that wasn't (and generally still isn't) very enthusiastic about the Marching Arts. And even then, it was still a physical activity. I'd say my High School Band was about as low-impact of a Field Marching Band as there ever was. We learned 4 songs throughout the season, had a very minimal band camp that mostly consisted of learning and memorizing music, the tempos never exceeded (indeed, rarely even got close to) 140 bpm, and the step sizes were never larger than 6 or 7 to 5. Jazz running? Quick tempos? Pass-throughs? Tough direction changes? None of that.

But it was still physically demanding. You still broke a sweat. Yes, just like PE class, you will also find people doing only the minimum amount of work. So does someone doing the minimum amount of work in Marching Band get the same exercise and education that one would get slacking off in gym class? 

Anecdotally, I'd say yes. Scientifically, I dunno. What do I look like, an actual scientist?

Currently, Marching Bands have more control over their level of difficulty than PE classes. Most PE classes have standards set by the government that spell out exactly what the student should be getting out of PE. Marching Band does not have the same standards, so the level of physical education that one gets out of marching is based on the demand of the Director, the Designers, and the student leadership. But smart Directors and Designers know that some members are not at the same level as others. This is usually accounted for, so there is much less objection from less-experienced players (to say nothing about those ensembles who require auditions). The question becomes, is Marching Band as physically demanding as PE, even for those less-experienced and less-enthusiastic members? 

Here's the part that you marchers were probably waiting for me to finally say. Especially among competitive marching ensembles (indoor our outdoor), I'd have to say ABSOLUTELY. Marching Band is definitely as hard, if not more difficult. Want a test? Ask a layman to run. Now tell them that they can't take the same long strides, but have to take smaller steps at a pace that is much quicker than normal. Now make them conform their step style to a specific standard (toes up!), dress them up in full uniform, tell them to hold a 9 pound baritone still, and restrict their breathing.

Or another test. This one is much more easy: Run a lap around the football field and then play a soft longtone on your brass instrument. 

The reality that Marching Band is just as much a physical activity as PE class (and any high school sport, I would argue) doesn't help the case too much though. The problem is in setting the standard, and finding evidence that proves that marching band students have *learned* about physical activity, and not merely participated in it. PE programs across the nation work towards a myriad of standards that are designed to assess ones motor skills, body awareness, strategic thought processes and social skills, such as the set of standards laid out on this page and listed below.

  • Standard 1 - The physically literate individual demonstrates competency in a variety of motor skills and movement patterns.
  • Standard 2 - The physically literate individual applies knowledge of concepts, principles, strategies and tactics related to movement and performance.
  • Standard 3 - The physically literate individual demonstrates the knowledge and skills to achieve and maintain a health-enhancing level of physical activity and fitness.
  • Standard 4 - The physically literate individual exhibits responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others.
  • Standard 5 - The physically literate individual recognizes the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction.

Do Marching Band members meet these standards? Let's start with Standards 1, 2, 4 and 5:

Standard 1 - This is covered by an everyday Basics block that every marching band does, to say nothing about learning, rehearsing and performing the show. Even bands who only perform parades get this done. 

Standard 2 -  The more involved basics blocks will cover this, especially when they do exercises that cover guiding issues, direction changes (FLBR, FRBL), step size changes, slides and horn maneuvers. And this is just to prepare students for what they'll have to do in the show. 

Standard 4 - Marching members learn to solve problems on their own and as a team. There are so many things that can go unseen by a director or instructor, that its inherently required of the members. They have to memorize a set of dots, know when and how to get there, and what everyone around them is doing and how they will have to adjust to it. They learn how to all play as one section (and as part of an even larger ensemble), how to solve issues with other players who are either colliding with them, trying to blend their sound with them, trying to spin a rifle around them, or trying to be in time with them. And need I mention the accountability structure of Director - Drum Major - Section Leader - Section Players? 

Standard 5 - This one may be harder for less ambitious bands to grasp, but members of competitive bands can hardly ignore how they've changed from the beginning of the season to the end. This activity takes in everyone, from the alpha males to the loners, the in-shape athletes to the less active indoor types, and turns them into a team. Enemies become friends, friends become role models and inspirations, and there are countless stories to be heard of the lessons that professionals learned in Marching Band, and ONLY in Marching Band. 

The hard standard to meet is 3 - will they continue to apply these concepts after they are done marching (or PE-ing) and stay in shape? Have they been educated in physical activity enough to know how to stay in shape, and will they? PE teachers have a lot to say about this. They express concerns about people not accredited as Physical Educators giving away PE credits, and are also concerned about students actually learning about physical activity, and their bodies, and how to use this education to keep themselves healthy. 

To speak bluntly, I think PE has the same track record as Marching Band on this one, to say nothing of the reality that the people who are not drawn to sports or PE class are often the same people who are drawn to Band. In this case, not only should Band be considered physical education, but it seems to be serving a portion of the student body that PE doesn't speak to. On top of that, Marching bands have a handicap in place for the less-experienced players, which encourages them to participate. PE does not

In the end, the question probably comes down to what standards would be set on marching bands in order to be officially considered physical education. Would those standards impede Directors, Designers and marchers? If the above standards are any sign, I think even the least ambitious, most poorly-funded marching band shouldn't have much trouble complying.


edit 5/11/16 10:38 AM: After digging around some more on the subject, I've already found so much additional material on this particular subject that I've got to make it my next blog entry, instead of supplementing this particular one. So the next blog post will have to be a slight continuation and elaboration on this topic.

edit 5/24/16 8:46 AM: Quoted article is actually from South Carolina, not California. Not sure how I made that mistake. I must be human. Consarnit!

Stay tuned for "Is Marching Band, or the Marching Arts, a sport? Part 2: Extra-Curricular Activities as Academic Credit"

Coming soon!





Coming Attractions

As this is my first blog, I figure that an introduction is in order. HI! I'm Adam A Nelson. I am the Owner and Visual Designer of Take the Field Designs. I've decided to start this blog for many reasons. The simplest one is that I really do enjoy writing, even if it isn't with dots. I also want to inject myself into the conversations happening around the marching arts. 

My first official blog post, set to debut very soon, will be jumping right in the deep end: "Is Marching Band a Sport"?

I plan to take on the more controversial topics, because some topics are just too short for a blog (Seriously Shakos? Aussies all the way). So keep munching popcorn as I present trailers for even more blog posts to come, such as...

"Dot vs Guiding!"

"The UIL judging system"

"Woodwinds in Drum Corps"

"Tim Hinton's Upper-Body Workout"...(seriously that dude is ripped!)

"How to succeed in BOA Grand Nationals without really trying"

"The Death of a Sousaphone Salesman"

"Balancing the pyramid of sound with Synth Bass and Piccolos"

"Why do Guard girls like Drummers? - Dating tips for young Brass players"

And my most anticipated blog...

"Horn Players: Civil War - The World's sexiest horn player: Gail Williams vs Ewan McGregor"


Ooh, help me Obi-Wan Kenobi! Sure to be a hotly contested matchup! Don't miss any of these exciting blog entries! Talk to ya soon!

All materials © Copyright Adam Nelson