Chapter 3: Literacies across the disciplines

3.6.2 Marching band literacy (synthesis)

Alana Thigpen

English 102, October 2020

Marching bands have a history that goes back further than performing halftime shows and parading for national holidays. Marching bands originated from military bands in the Roman Ages where they were used to signal battle attacks and retreats. We all remember the old war movies from highs school with the drummer boy and the trumpet players, but later it progressed into larger ensembles of musicians marching and playing music. With this in mind, it is easy to recognize the correlation between the two. After all, marching bands left and right flank, about face, forward march, and dress left or right. In my high school marching band, when we play the National Anthem the commands go: “Guard dress center” where we all angle ourselves towards, the fifty-year line, “Band horns up”, obviously mimicking the actions of the military force commands. So how did these military bands transform into mass gatherings of musicians you may be wondering? In Rontrell Callahan’s “An examination of High School Directors’ Use of Cooperative Learning Approaches in A Marching Band Setting” he discussed the origin of marching bands. Following the lost in the French Revolution, most of the country was destroyed. The concert halls were closed permanently, and musicians needed a way to provide for themselves. This meant often that they would join the local army as the military band, which eventually led to a growth in numbers for the bands (p. 2). France then took this idea and created a free school to teach students how to play marching style music. From there the natural progression of musicians continued and marching bands were born.

One thing that does not change is the responsibility of the directors in a marching band. Since the beginning, music teachers were responsible for being well versed in music theory as well as instrumentation. But I believe that the most critical part of being a band director is musical literacy in your instrument as well as the other sections of the band. A plan of instruction is critical to the teaching of musicians, especially children. A balance of patience and discipline will serve to teach young kids to be musically literate. Callahan believed that the main job of the high school band director was to put on a visually pleasing performance with a band that can satisfactorily play the show tunes (p. 3). This required discipline from the band and an enforcer of rules, which should be the director. Additionally, the director should have experience with many styles of music, and it would beneficial for the director should be musically literate, as well as helpful, understanding and have a specific plan geared toward their student’s particular circumstances.

In Gee’s What is Literacy, he discusses the importance of different discourses. A dominant discourse is your primary use of language and communication, which will help you identify yourself (Gee, 1989, pg. 18). In this case, the primary discourse of most of the band students would be some version of English, with one of their many secondary discourses being a discourse in their instrument. Gee then claimed that all discourses are acquired rather than learned and practiced over time in places such as school (p. 20). This is true for music groups as well. How to play your instrument is considered acquired knowledge you pick up over time. Instrumentation however is the practicing of the music to improve skill level and experience. If you can never figure out how to finger notes on an instrument or learn to make sound, how do they expect you to then improve on your knowledge and be able to play more complex pieces, or do drills while playing?

Similarly, in a paper by Jennifer Anox, “Polished Gems: A Supplemental Curriculum for Developing the Musical Literacy and Musical Expression Skills of Junior High Flute Students”, research was conducted on an Arkansas middle school band who were transitioning to high school band. She felt that in general teaching students to play their music was more “due to the students’ lack of fundamental knowledge and skills” (Anox, 2018, p. 1). This further emphasizes the common instance the students face when they lack basic literacy skills can not properly express themselves musical and therefore often get frustrated with their progression. In the study for this paper it was shown that those who practice more often, at least three times a week on average, have higher chair placement in the ensemble than those that slack outside of school rehearsals (p. 9). They also made the middle schools students audition for the limited spots in the high school marching band. This not only created friendly competition between the band members, but motivated those who wanted a spot, as well as weeding out those who were not willing to put the effort in. Something as simple as auditioning for a place in a band can instantly improve the ensembles sound quality. There was also another term she used that I thought would really help the progression of ensembles. She called it a “performance plan”; where students would envision what they wanted their final performance of a song to feel like and sound like, and then create a plan to reach that goal (p. 12). By doing this, they have a lay out of exactly how to achieve the best sound they can and will be able to reach out for help from their teachers as need be. It will be obvious from there who needs the most assistance out of the group as well and they entire ensemble can thrive at their own pace.

But while there are always components that the students can improve on as the grow to be musicians, it all starts with the right music teacher. Richard Goodstein wrote a journal article called “An Investigation into Leadership Behaviors and Descriptive Characteristics of High School Band Directors in The United States”, where he discussed the most important characteristics of band directors and what leadership style should be used in a marching band setting. Goodstein believed that leadership was the perfect balance between relationship behavior and task behavior (p. 15-16). With this combination and the correct characteristics from the teacher, a band can grow strong in sound as well as numbers. From there, he conducted a series of tests on marching band directors, with the assistance of the National Band Association selecting sample groups, to see what components of a band are most important to their success. He determined that director age, funding, freshman entry size, and band size were amongst some of the most significant factors to a band’s success.

Through this research he found that band with a larger presence as well as a larger freshman class entering every year, will have better inclusion rates (p. 18), therefore allowing the students to better interact and learn from each other in times the teacher is not as readily available. Furthermore, director age is a critical component in the connection between the student and the teacher (p. 18). Obviously, most high school students will not comfortably approach a teacher the same way they approach their friends. But with an even larger age gap between the student and the teacher, things can easily be miscommunicated as they do not necessarily think or communication in the same dialects. Goodstein determined that the most successful bands had directors in the age range of 36-42 in his sample group (p. 19).  The bands yearly budgeting was another important factor in band success. The more supportive the school, and community are of their band, whether it be through fundraising or school budgeting, the better off the musicians will be. This seems obvious, but bands need money for more than just instruments and sheet music. Transportation to events, where they have the opportunity to win prestigious titles and funding to bring in guest performers to inspire the members are motivation factors that will continue to push the band to want to be better for themselves rather than being unmotivated after viewing themselves as less than after losing a competition or not being able to participate in an event. He concluded that teaching styles should be updated frequently to match the drive of the band and to make sure it will align in the cross hairs of balance between task and relationship behavior (p. 24). This means assessing the goals of the ensemble, and creating a plan to achieve it, like Anox’s “performance plan”.

When a teacher is teaching with a course plan that is geared towards the needs of their student’s magic can be produced. The communication between the director and the student will almost always result in improvement of the teaching style as well as a child’s musical literacy if both parties are understanding and willing to accept the growth. Furthermore, teachers who have grown up in similar situations to the current students, for example a Black teacher who grew up in a low-income district, now teaching in that same district, will often times understand the needs of their students better than those from outside areas with different upbringings. In this case, the student and the teacher would naturally have a discourse in common, making it easier to relate to one another and build a bond through this connection.

Works Cited

Amox, J. (2018). Chapters 1 and 2. In 971570742 754142304 P. Quest (Ed.), Polished Gems: A Supplemental Curriculum for Developing the Musical Literacy and Musical Expression Skills of Junior High Flute Students (pp. 1-12). Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest.

Callahan, R. (2013). An Examination of High School Directors’ Use of Cooperative Learning Approaches in a Marching Band Setting (Master’s thesis, Tennessee State University, 2013) (pp. 1-4). Ann Arbor: ProQuest.

Gee, J. (1989). What Is Literacy? Journal of Education, 171(1), 18-25.

Goodstein, R. E. (1987). An Investigation into Leadership Behaviors and Descriptive Characteristics of High School Band Directors in the United States. Journal of Research in Music Education, 35(1), 13-25. doi:10.2307/3345165


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