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

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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!





All materials © Copyright Adam Nelson