Band Camp Nightmares

I graduated from high school fifteen years ago. Life since then has gone relatively smoothly, except for one thing: Usually in late August, I have the annual band camp nightmare. There is no specific plot, nor are there consistent characters in this occurrence. But I’m at band camp, and that’s bad enough.

Most people think of marching bands as being good only for football cheerleading purposes, and they are right. The problem is that band directors would also think the same thing were it not for the dreadful festivals known as band competitions. Each school shows up, plays its ditties, and is awarded points based on various subcategories which I will not enumerate so as not to bore you to death. The trouble with this is that for most band directors this is the be-all and end-all of their entire program, perhaps because they are trying to out-do the athletic coaches by being something they’re not. Students who do not put on the comical semi-military uniforms are often marginalized in the rest of the instrumental music program.

The average band student does not know any more about music than anyone else. If you want your child to be cultured you’d be better off sending him to the chorus or getting him painting lessons. Most band directors, however, are not going to bother with any music that can’t be degraded into a cheer or a raucous company front.

No, the purpose of marching bands is not to culture our children; it is to teach them to sit down and shut up and do what they’re told. Marching bands, as you may know, are based on military culture, and that’s pretty self-explanatory. It all dawned on me one day when I got back from a five-week retreat, where I, along with a number of others chosen from throughout the state of Pennsylvania, were chosen to explore our talents more thoroughly. We were treated like adults, we were told our expectations, and then we were turned loose. Amazingly, no one died.

I got back from that retreat two days before band camp started. There was, shall we say, friction, which came to a head. The band director told me to just “be a kid,” and then when I graduate I can go off to some music conservatory to “drink or smoke,” or whatever it is that I need to do to become a good musician. Bitter, much, Herr Direktor? The funny thing is that the last thing at a school that’s childlike is the marching band. It comes the closest to Orwell than any other activity I can think of. A wide receiver can break his pattern to make a big play, a forward can streak down the basketball court for a spectacular dunk, but a member of a marching band has his place, and better well stay in it. Each is turned into a human-shaped object.

Band kids are known for being dorks and wimps, and having been one, I think I have the right to say that this is largely true. What kind of timidity, after all, does it take to submit to such regimentation?

As a musician, I worry most about what marching bands do to the public perception of musical art. I once asked a band parent about their director. She replied that he’s really good, exhibit A being that he can combine the color guard moves with the marching band in really neat ways. Not exactly what I was looking for. You see, it’s fine with me if most band directors want to be stupid, but the problem is that it makes their students and their students’ families stupid. Most marching band members wouldn’t know Mozart or Beethoven if they came back from the dead and ripped the plumes off their little Viking helmets. This is a cultural poverty. Playing ditties does not make one musically educated.

Not all band directors are like this, but I have to say that most of the ones I’ve met are. In their defense, they’re the ones that fit the demand placed on them by the ruling booboisie. This situation is, in a way, helplessly circular—unless the band director has the imagination and the drive to re-shape the prevailing mentality.  I met one director in Maryland some years ago who told me that they play the five home football games each Fall, and then the clown uniforms go back into the closet. He ran one of the best programs in the state. No coincidence, methinks.

Something funny has happened this year. I have not had the annual band camp nightmare. I don’t know why, but I’m not complaining. I suppose I can only thank those teachers I’ve had who enabled me to get out of the marching band milieu. Maybe they indirectly taught me to resist the sadder societal trends in general. Marching band, after all, is the perfect training for an obedient worker who votes for Diet Pepsi or Diet Coke and all the while takes pride in his ignorance.

I have friends who are band directors, who are trying to be real educators and not just poor imitations of coaches. I wish them all the best. I, for one, however, am glad to be far away from it all.

I need a drink.