College marching bands appear to be failing the diversity challenge.
It is impossible to imagine attending a major college football or basketball competition these days without the attendant soundtrack provided by campus marching bands. Serving up stadium favorites like “We Are The Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” and the “Theme from ‘Rocky,'” these student musicians provide sports fans with an audiovisual exhibition of individual artistry and cooperative teamwork.
Jino Ray, one of the few Black members of Florida State University’s Marching Chiefs, is proud of his affiliation with the college band and eagerly contributes to the revelry and merriment the Chiefs bring to games.
Yet, it has not escaped his attention that African American participation in the marching band falls short of the 12.3 percent representation Black students have on the Tallahassee campus. This lack of Black participation also stands in stark contrast to the numbers of Blacks on Florida State’s dominant football and basketball teams.
Ray says he believes Black participation in marching bands at predominately White institutions has not kept pace with Black student enrollment, which tends to be low anyway, and falls far short of the percentage of Black players on the big-time football and basketball teams.
“[Many minorities] tend to be discouraged about even auditioning,” Ray says. “The performances of these bands cater to the predominantly White audiences they are being performed for, and minorities are not attracted to the music. I also feel that Blacks are not sought after to participate in these bands like Whites are,” he says.
Although virtually no surveys have documented the level of representation of Black and other minorities in marching bands at major predominantly White institutions, a number of band directors and student musicians across the country report that band membership of minorities is quite low.
African Americans comprise roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population. “I don’t think a [marching band] in the country has those numbers, other than the institutions that cater specifically to those groups,” says Dr. Richard Green, director of the Penn State University department of music.
Actually, most traditionally White campuses don’t have 13 percent Black representation in their enrollment either. But Black representation among band members is often even lower than the already low enrollment percentage.
Sara Beth Carr, a White Florida State University freshman and a member of the campus marching band, offers her impressions. “Taking a look at the Florida State University Marching Chiefs, I would say that there tend to be more Caucasian musicians that are part of the organization than other ethnic groups. It is not at all a discrimination issue, rather a lack of equal amounts of students from different races trying out.”
Bucky Johnson, director of the bands at Georgia Tech and director of the Atlanta Olympic Band, agrees that Blacks and Latinos are underrepresented in university marching bands. Johnson, who is White, notes that Georgia Tech’s music department enrollment is only 3 percent African American. Blacks are two percent of the marching band’s 290 members. Total African American enrollment at Georgia Tech is 9 percent.
Culture Clash On and Off the Bleachers
Opinions vary about why Black participation is so low in traditionally White college and university marching bands. Dr. William Foster, director of Florida A&M’s famous “Marching 100” since 1945, says White schools haven’t been as competitive as historically Black schools in attracting Black musical talent largely because of different cultural traditions.
“At major football universities, it is true that the racial composition doesn’t match the ethnic enrollment of their football teams and the universities themselves. The style of marching, selection of music, format, type of maneuvers and show design is not relevant to the heritage and lifestyle of Black people,” he says.
Dr. Richard Green, the White director of the Penn State University music department, also cites cultural reasons as a key factor.
“I think one of the largest reasons for low ethnic enrollment is that a large part of the Western musical traditions, many of the classics taught in university music programs, came from a European, and largely Caucasian, tradition,” he says.
“Here at Penn State, our African American [student] enrollment is 8 percent, which is low, reflecting a national trend of low university enrollment amongst that group. Our music department numbers are even lower,” he adds.
Style, however, “should not be an issue for the well-rounded musician,” says Dr. Larry Pannell, director of Grambling University’s Tiger Marching Band. “Good musicians make it their business to learn the styles that are popular. A well-rounded musician, whether seeking professional engagements or enjoyment of a hobby, should be able to perform what is needed. They should know the classics, jazz and popular standards. Simply put, diversity is the responsibility of the individual musician.”
In recent decades, marching band traditions in the United States have evolved along decidedly different cultural tracks. Historically Black colleges and universities have developed flashy, dance-oriented styles that are popular among African Americans.
Georgia Tech Band Director Bucky Johnson explains that there are two main styles of marching band presentations, “show” style and “corps” style. Show style, which is identified closely with HBCU bands, involves the use of the high step, and incorporates dance, popular music and concert formations to achieve a crowd pleasing, community-energizing performance. Corps style utilizes a glide step, and, rather than a perpetually upbeat approach, uses motions that ebb and flow with the mood of the music. Corps style is more focused on a symphonic, controlled sound that utilizes dynamics and a range of mood Johnson says.
High school students who continue in college bands like to continue in the style they were taught, especially if it’s culturally relevant to them, Johnson says. “It’s like Southern churches,” he adds.
“Even though segregation is illegal, there is voluntary segregation in many of our services down here, simply because people choose one style over another. A lot of that is personal style, ways of individual expression that are comfortable and preferable for any given community,” Johnson says.
“An African American student looking for a show band experience, as is available at Black colleges, would likely find the band experience at a predominately White university disappointing,” he adds.
Georgia Tech has tried to diversify the appeal of its ensembles, particularly by varying the repertoire to include broader musical content, according to Johnson. Eden Elizabeth June, the only Black woman of nearly 30 women who participates in Georgia Tech’s marching band’s flag corps, says band members, flag corps women and majorettes were appreciative of band efforts to integrate both show and corps styles during this past football season.
“We did shows that had a more visually flashy style, and I think it invited a lot of student spirit,” says June, who is a junior.
Scooping Up Black Talent
Still, the interest that Black student musicians have in African American-inspired marching band styles have given HBCUs an advantage in attracting Black talent, according to HBCU band directors. And HBCUs do a lot to capitalize on their appeal, including the recruitment of band members, according to Melvin Miles, director of Morgan State University’s “Magnificent Marching Machine.”
HBCU band directors actively recruit students to their institutions with band scholarships that are distributed regardless of whether a student majors in music or not. Miles says band scholarships at Morgan State range from $200 to $2,000 a year. Students also receive academic credit.
“At most universities — other than HBCUs — the African American athlete is recruited and the qualified band member is not. Of the small number of Black students that are talented and who wish to be a member of an athletic band, most are recruited by the HBCUs and many have a great desire to attend those institutions to be a part of the Black college band experience,” Miles says.
At majority White schools, recruitment resources for music is believed to pale in comparison with those available to the sports teams. Many schools only offer band scholarships to music majors, and those scholarships aren’t anywhere close to what star athletes receive.
The message young people seem to be receiving is that excelling in sports provides more opportunities than excelling in music. Daniel Gilland, a White Florida State marching band student, expresses his frustration with the situation. “I was one of the top musicians at my high school and my county, and got several scholarship offers. However, none were for more than a few hundred dollars. Another condition to these scholarships was that I had to major in music. And I would have to maintain a 3.7 grade point average to retain that scholarship.
“I was excluded from accepting these, anyway, as I am not a music major,” says Gilland, who is majoring in marketing.”Athletes get the easy life. They can come in on these full rides, maintain lower grades than I do and focus primarily on their sport, switching majors as often as they like. It doesn’t seem fair to me.”
Musical Portraits of Inequity
Choices may be available, but are opportunities to pursue and benefit from them distributed fairly across racial lines? Many in the marching band and music education communities think not. Miles says he thinks the numbers of trained African American high school musicians are declining because public school systems, particularly in large cities, are eliminating their musical education programs.
“Many African American students come from large urban areas, where the band programs have been removed, where being in the band is not viewed as being the thing to do. It is often not supported by counselors when discussing college options, and is often viewed by administrators in some African American communities as a time waster,” says Morgan State’s Miles.
Ron Mendola, director of Georgia Tech’s Jazz Ensemble, passionately agrees.
“Weigh the benefits of school music, such as brain and neural development, and the pure, joyful pursuit of music, within the context of a world filled with detrimental obsessions available for young people. The support of these programs should be a no-brainer, but in national and local politics, music is largely a lip-service-only issue. If the fight in these primary and secondary schools could be won, college ensemble enrollment and cross-cultural participation would, I’m sure, amaze us all. I am confident that the attraction of drugs, gang participation and early sexual experimentation would be lessened as well.”
Penn State’s Green adds further concern to this picture.
“As real as music program problems are, that is not where the gross inequity really lies. The larger problem is that school programs, even when in place, are based on ensemble and orchestral learning. Private applied studio lessons, which hone the individual’s craft, are absent from elementary and secondary school programs in the first place. That part of the serious musician’s education is, therefore, left to the family, and requires an enormous investment. Instrument purchases or rentals, combined with private lessons, sustained for 14 years in many cases, can be as expensive as a private college education.
“If students don’t get individual instruction, they come to the collegiate level and have to compete against others who are better prepared,” he says.
Marching Band Benefits
Most college band directors indicate that, despite limited scholarship funding, there are incentives for being in a band. Beyond the value of musical learning itself, marching band opportunities lie in their potential for the development of personal and team character.
Chad Temple, a former head drum major for Florida State, lauded what the band program did for him.
“Marching band has provided me with a musical and social outlet during my undergraduate years that strengthened my musical ability and leadership skills,” says Temple, who is White. “I served the organization as a section leader, drill assistant and ultimately as a drum major. I developed an ability to successfully persuade and promote my peers to achieving performance goals through my examples as a musician, conductor and person. Even in times of disappointment and adversity I learned to maintain composure and work though it.”
Morgan State’s Miles agrees that the opportunities present in marching band experiences go far beyond the ample rewards of musicality. Band prepares students for a breadth of professional opportunities. Students can go on to “anything that requires enhanced musical skills, creative and critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, commitment, responsibility, honesty, integrity, peer support and the values that come with the team concept.
“Some move into the band world, becoming auxiliary coordinators and trainers, choreographers or band arrangers,” he adds.
Other opportunities include joining summer band camp personnel, becoming band directors, music educators, clinicians, motivational speakers, military band personnel, band or music librarians, drill designers, field instructors, musical and field adjudicators, parade coordinators, producers and public relations administrators.
The opportunity to have role models outside the classroom is also an intangible yet critical aspect of band experiences. Florida A&M’s Foster agrees that marching bands provide great potential for role modeling.
“The director is a great influence in the band’s appeal to students,” he says. “The musical competence, musicianship, interpersonal relations skills, enthusiasm, integrity, dedication, sterling character qualities, commitment, work ethics and vision are all qualities that are influenced by the band director.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com