Unknown Menaces to Civilization #2: Marching Bands
I am referring, of course, to marching bands.
Oh, I know, you have probably been deluded into believing, like most people, that participating in a marching band is an admirable, character-building, all-American pastime. You have watched the musical and film The Music Man, which propagandistically promotes marching bands as a wholesome alternative to playing pool and other reprehensive indulgences likely to lead youngsters to lifetimes of crime and degradation. Like almost all Americans, you have bought into the grand illusion which has so long maintained this atrocious phenomenon in virtually every community of our great land.
So, allow me to lift the veil from your eyes, and discuss why this reprehensible institution came into existence, and why it is long overdue for extinction.
Before the twentieth century, one must acknowledge, there was a legitimate need for marching bands. The instruments of the day, perfectly audible to large audiences within the confines of an indoor chamber with suitable acoustics, were often difficult to hear when played in the great outdoors. True, amphitheatres might be located or excavated where crowds could sit and listen to certain forms of music, but people wanted music that could be heard in any outdoor location, even music that could travel from one place to another.
There was only one solution: first, to gather together all of the loudest instruments one could obtain—mostly blaring horns with a few massive drums for an accompaniment; then, one instructed all of these instruments to mostly play the same notes all at once. The resulting noise was never particularly pleasing to the ears, but it was music, of a sort, and people could easily recognize the tunes and unproblematically listen to every emphatic note. If one made all the musicians wear boldly colored uniforms, and trained them to step and move in unison, an element of visual spectacle could be added as well. Thus was born the marching band, which soon became a standard feature of virtually every high school and college in the country.
When electricity emerged in the twentieth century, however, people developed electrified instruments with sounds that could be amplified to any desired volume, as well as systems for amplifying the sounds of other instruments that could not be adapted to electronic versions. The later invention of portable generators eliminated any barriers to production of pleasant, loud music at all places both indoors and outdoors. Finally, schools were able abandon their arrays of tubas, trombones, and big bass drums, purchase better instruments, and train their students to perform in different sorts of bands to provide music that audiences would actually enjoy listening to. Inexplicably, they did not, forcing generation after generation of Americans to regularly endure the shrill, cacaphonous blare of the marching band.
What's that, you say? You actually like marching band music?
Sure you do.
Then, show me your vast collection of CDs of marching band music, which you listen to on every possible occasion. Show me some of your many DVDs featuring your favorite marching bands playing all your favorite marching band songs. Show me your car radio, with all of the buttons preset to the numerous radio stations which play nothing but marching band music.
All right, you concede, you have no particular desire to listen to marching band music in your home or car, and nobody else does either. Ah, but when you're standing outside on a crisp autumn afternoon, eagerly anticipating a homecoming football game, there's something soul-stirring about listening to the music being played by the home team's marching band, leading the town's homecoming parade.
If that is the case, then you are simply a person with a special fondness for slightly cold temperatures, football games, and watching marching people wearing uniforms, and like Pavlov's dogs, you have come to associate these genuine pleasures with the horrendous, ear-jarring clamor of marching band music, and you imagine that the music itself is a source of pleasure. However, even Pavlov's dogs must have eventually figured out that the bells making them salivate were not doing anything to satisfy their hunger, and it is high time for you to figure out that the music you think you find enjoyable is actually anything but.
But why shatter the illusion, you might next respond? If the people who play and listen to marching band music believe that it is genuinely harmonious, and if they imagine that they are enjoying it, what's wrong with allowing them to indulge in the activity?
Well, in the first place, it's important to note that there are many desirable employment opportunities in the field of music, and one function of our high schools and colleges, presumably, should be to prepare young people for such professions. There are lots of jobs available in classical orchestras, jazz bands, country bands, and rock groups. These are the sorts of musical groups that schools should be forming and training young musicians to play in, so that they could learn to play music that people will actually pay money to listen to.
In contrast, there are absolutely no jobs available for people to play in marching bands. None. Ignorant volunteers attending high schools and colleges provide more than enough musicians to meet the extraordinarily limited demand for such music. Indeed, the only job that being in a marching band prepares someone for is becoming the teacher / conductor of a marching band, and to say the least there are very few openings in any given year.
In these times of financial uncertainty and constant shortfalls in spending for education, one must also consider all of the things that our tax dollars are now being wasted on. The necessary instruments, of course, are not cheap. Every school needs dozens of expensive uniforms that must be cleaned, maintained, and replaced when worn. And since marching bands cannot keep playing the same chestnuts year after year, they must constantly purchase new music; even as I speak, some poor soul is hard at work listening to the latest hit song and painstakingly arranging it for a marching band, their work to be eagerly purchased by high school and college marching band leaders in the hopes of somehow making their antiquated sound seem contemporary. But to what end? So that people in the audience, noticing that the droning blare of the marching band is moving in a slightly unexpected direction, can be driven to listen with painstaking care to the horrific music until they finally groan, in shock and dismay, "Oh my god! They're playing 'Hey Ya!' "
Finally, everyone today agrees that high school and college students, often distracted by the need to work at a part-time job and many options for enjoyable leisure, need to spend more time on their studies—but there is no extracurricular activity that eats up a student's spare time like a marching band. When my music-loving son was briefly in a marching band (until, with preternatural wisdom, he recognized the folly of his ways and quit), it was not unusual that he would have to come to school at 8 AM on Saturday morning, spend all day and all night participating in some marching band competition (an insane activity devised solely to fill the time of marching bands which, for some reason, find that there are innumerable weekends when nobody is clamoring to hear their music), and arriving home, bedraggled and exhausted, at midnight on Saturday night. Sometimes there were extended practices on Sunday and weeknights as well. What kind of academic performance can one reasonably expect from such abused, overworked students? And while similarly oppressed athletes can at least hope for a profitable career in professional sports, those who master the art of playing in a marching band cannot console themselves with such dreams.
And so I say, to paraphrase President George H. W. Bush on the war on drugs: this scourge must end.
Somewhere, sometime, some school principal or college president must have the courage to stand up and say, having a marching band at our institution is absolutely idiotic. That person must have the perseverance to withstand the cries of protests from those misguided enough to believe that something of genuine value is being eliminated, and the stubborn determination to force underlings to purchase appropriate new instruments and create new sorts of bands that can provide pleasant, enjoyable music at the school's outdoor events. And, when audiences briefly disconcerted by the absence of the familiar spectacle and cacophony suddenly recognize that they are, for the first time ever, actually enjoying the music that is being played during a parade or a football game, the battle at that institution will be over, and the word will spread that, when it comes to providing outdoor music, there is indeed a better way.
Then, when the trend spreads across the country, and "Stars and Stripes Forever" and its ilk start marching toward extinction, the music of marching bands finally will be blissfully relegated to those who still cook over open fires, travel on horseback, calculate with slide rules, and otherwise willfully resist the tides of human progress.
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