Everything I need to know, I learned in marching band

It’s been four years since I was in high school and in a high school marching band. I miss getting on a football field sometimes for band practice, but I don’t think I could go back. I chose not to go into Stampede band, and made the ill choice of auditioning for Outriders on an alto sax instead of my usual tenor.

A bunch of high school kids — how good could we be? At the time, there was no questioning it. Now, I see that they’re (we were) just a bunch of high school kids, but you also have to consider the band has travelled to every continent but South America and Africa, has been invited back to overseas competitions numerous times, has won enough awards that there isn’t enough space for them in the trophy cases, and has a name for itself.

It never was easy. But the mosquito bites, sun burns, heat stroke, heartbreak, tears, exhaustion, laughter and joy I experienced because of it? Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Which is why everything I need to know, I learned in marching band. I apply a lot of these principles to journalism, because after surviving band practice, I can’t imagine any other way of doing it.

  1. Be passionate. It’s easy to lose sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing sometimes. So find a new way of doing it. People respect you more when they know you’re invested in what you’re doing.
  2. Find passion. Even when you’re exhausted (try hauling around a 16-pound instrument in the middle of a summer day), give it one more shot and give it the same energy as if it were your first.
  3. Leave your baggage at the door. We were told that when we stepped on the field, it didn’t matter what was going on in our lives. There would be time to deal with it — happy or sad — later. What mattered was giving your undivided attention to the drum major, and your full energy to the show. It goes back to being passionate, and invested in what you’re doing.
  4. Trust each other. I was a tenor sax player, and sax players have their own way of protecting themselves on the fields. But for tubas, they can’t see you on their left side because of their instrument. (And trombones need a little extra space in front.) So if you’re backing up, to stand beside a tuba on his left side, you have to trust that he’s standing where he’s supposed to be standing, and not slightly to one side, because you can’t shoulder check and he can’t see you. And getting hit by a tuba hurts. The same thing for bass drums — they might possibly hurt even more.
  5. Know how to teach. There’s the kind way, and there’s the hard knocks way. The kind way is explaining what someone is doing wrong, which works sometimes. The hard knocks way is also specific to each instrument. For saxes, our bells stick out in front. If you’re going to back into us, we’ll brace our instrument so that the bell ends up between your vertebrae. Even being a sax player doesn’t make you immune to other sax players doing it to you if you mess up (it might even make you more likely to be on the receiving end) and believe me, it’s a good reminder to pay attention to your co-ordinates.
  6. Learn how to (at least) tolerate everyone. Tour days usually start at 7 a.m. (or earlier) with breakfast, and goes until at least 9 p.m. when practice ends, if not later. You’re practicing in the middle of summer, in very warm weather. We once competed at night, then had to load the buses in Traverse City, Michigan, at 2 a.m. so we could make Chicago on schedule. You’re with these people all. the. time. Everyone gets exhausted. Emotions run high. And you still have to love them.
  7. Be there. It’s not easy, to be at 7:30 a.m. practice and 6 p.m. practice and weekend practice. But people depend on you.
  8. Drink water. Even if you think you don’t need to.
  9. Work hard, play hard.
  10. Hug like you mean it. At the end of practice, we’d often be asked to hug a couple people before we left. One of the drum majors gave the best hugs of all. I’ve had my fair share of fights with him, but even now, I always want just one more hug, because even after everything, he still hugs like he means it.
    Consider all the perfunctory hugs you get – in a day, in a week, whatever. And then tell me the “real” hug isn’t the best thing ever.
  11. (edit, July 2) Wear layers.
  12. Don’t  B (be flat), don’t B (be sharp), just B (be natural).

edit: Ironically, I started “Stumbling” after writing this post and found this. 🙂


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