By Ripley and Diana Forbes, Alexandria
To the editor:
One of the most common explanations for why talented Alexandria musicians drop out of band before high school is a little-known — but antiquated — school mandate: In order to participate in the T.C. Williams band programs, students must join the marching band.
For a high school of its size, T.C. has one of the smallest band programs in Northern Virginia. It doesn’t have to be this way.
In fact, T.C.’s band programs are significantly smaller than those of George Washington and Francis Hammond middle schools. The drop-off occurs after eighth grade, when statistics show that many talented students leave band — sometimes forever, sometimes to pursue their love of music outside of high school.
Although some students love marching, it’s common knowledge among Alexandria’s band families that the marching band requirement is responsible for smaller numbers of musicians participating in high school concert band, wind ensemble and jazz band. Remove the mandate and the numbers of students joining the school’s seated bands would swell.
What does marching band have to do with the ability to play an instrument? Very little.
The requirement is not a state Board of Education mandate based on objective curriculum standards. The origins of the requirement come from a state association of band directors. The requirement reflects a feeling that students of band instruments must learn to march in order to receive a comprehensive education in their instrument.
This is largely a subjective and self-serving judgment by high school marching band advocates. Few colleges require marching band experience as a condition of acceptance to a music department.
Several years ago, the school board addressed part of this problem. The board exempted student athletes participating in fall athletics from the marching band requirement. Under this exemption, which still exists today, band directors were prohibited from excluding students from seated band if they participated in a fall sport.
This exemption worked fine for our son and the school’s band programs. He lettered in cross-country for four years and graduated earlier this year as team captain. He also lettered in band without marching and went on the earn all-state honors in jazz and band, the first such accomplishment by one of the school’s band students.
The exemption allowed him to support his school through athletics while fostering his love of music. These days, he’s pursuing a degree in music.
At no time did any of his prospective colleges ask about his lack of marching band experience. Indeed, what the schools of music wanted to evaluate was his proficiency and poise as a musician, which was revealed through challenging auditions.
We believe the athletic exemption doesn’t go far enough.
There are talented band students who are fully engaged in year-round sports, training for such activities as crew or swimming. This work is a necessary part of preparing to represent their school community in winter and spring sports. There are others who eschew marching band to pursue opportunities to participate in local youth orchestras, which expose students to symphonic music not offered in T.C.’s band programs.
The simple point is that marching band is not an experience that’s objectively necessary to be a successful musician. Even if this policy were changed, students who decline to march would still need to pass skill-based auditions to win placement in a seated band.
Recently, a concerned group of high school and middle school parents pleaded with Alexandria City Public Schools to address this longstanding problem. The efforts met strong resistance from the faculty members who have, for too long, relied on the mandate as a crutch to guarantee a minimum quota of student marchers.
In an email dated November 20, Shawn Thorpe, the arts coordinator for the school system, admonished parents: “We need to remember that band is a skill just like crew, swimming, volleyball and dance. We do not want to change a structure around ‘time on task’ that would affect the overall performance of a child in any of the programs.”
What Thorpe fails to appreciate is that participation in a variety of sports is voluntary for aspiring athletes, unlike marching band for aspiring musicians.
It is time for the school board to get involved in this issue. In Alexandria, we pride ourselves on offering students greater — not fewer — choices.
It is time to end the marching band mandate and embrace the musical talents of all students based on auditions and skill. If students have the talent to perform in T.C.’s top band, the wind ensemble, they should be welcome whether or not they choose to march.
Going forward, students should be recruited for marching band the old-fashioned way — voluntarily. Those who teach marching band should recruit students by promoting what they see as the value and fun of performing in a marching ensemble, not by threatening the denial of musical opportunities. And for those musicians who prefer to study their instrument in the traditional, seated ensemble, their contributions would be similarly valued, encouraged and welcomed.
Let’s end the marching band mandate and allow all students the choice to follow their musical dreams.