Marching Bands: a uniquely American institution with an ancient past

Spirit of Saginaw Marching Band performs at halftime (Photo: Stella Ballard)

FORT WORTH, September 4, 2014 — Brightly colored hues will soon replace green leaves as jackets are about to emerge from storage once more. The school year has started. That means one thing in this household: Marching Band Season.

The period actually starts with Band Camp the first of August. At Saginaw High School in Texas, over two hundred kids in the Spirit of Saginaw Band gather in the 100+ degree heat each eight-hour day. They have less than a month to prepare for performances during football games and two months to ready for band competition. Each year is a brand new show. They also accompany the Saginaw High School dance team, Starsteppers.

One Friday evening while pondering all this from the stands in the stadium two thoughts came to my mind: Where do marching bands come

Starsteppers Dance Team and Spirit of Saginaw Band backing the Rough Riders in the stands (Photo: Stella Ballard)
Starsteppers Dance Team and Spirit of Saginaw Band backing the Rough Riders in the stands (Photo: Stella Ballard)

from? And why do they perform during football games?

According to The Bandhead Social Network, a blog on everything about these performers, the 21st Century marching band can trace its roots to traveling musicians who performed at festivals and celebrations throughout the ancient world.

Over time the groups increased their organization and precision. With this came sophistication. And from there marchers started to lead troop movements on the battlefield. Eventually these ensembles became ceremonial.

In the 1830s Lowell Mason established music programs in American public schools. They didn’t really develop despite his efforts until massive urban growth sparked a substantial increase in secondary school enrollments from 1885-1910. This led to the call for music and arts in schools in addition to already required subjects.

Many universities in the U.S. had marching bands before the Twentieth Century, but the first to perform at a college football game was the University of Illinois Marching Illini in 1907. Purdue University’s All-American Marching Band was the first to march in a pattern on the field with their Block P Formation the same year.

The idea of formation marching came from Purdue’s band director Paul Spotts Emrick. He got the idea when he noticed a flock of birds flying in a “V” formation and decided his band could do the same basic maneuvers on the field.

Stephen L. Rhodes of Lipscomb University says that secondary schools formed bands to cheer and encourage football teams during the game. High school marching bands didn’t gain prominence though until after World War I. Many veterans that had played in military bands went on to teach music after the war and brought their disciplines with them. From there, state and national contests developed and spread marching bands’ popularity across the country.

The name most identified with the marching band is the legendary John Phillip Sousa. He got his start in music as a child studying piano and

John Phillip Sousa marches in uniform, 1917
John Phillip Sousa marches in uniform, 1917

most orchestral instruments, but the violin was what he loved to play most. At thirteen years old, he received an offer to play his violin in a circus band. His father, however, enlisted him as an apprentice musician in the Marine Band. He stayed until he was twenty. One would argue that the world would be a lot different now if he had joined the circus instead.

In 1880 Sousa became the 17th leader of the Marine Band, where he remained until 1892. He had already written several of his famous marches during this time, earning him the nickname, The March King. From there he formed his own civilian band and led it for the next 39 years until his death in 1932.

Of the 136 marches he composed, the American favorite, Stars and Stripes Forever became the U.S. National March in 1987. The tune of another famous Sousa composition is familiar to many people, but not the title: The Liberty Bell. At least not until one mentions Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The famous conductor is also responsible for the instrument named in his honor: the Sousaphone. In a 1922 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Sousa recalls how he was not happy with the sound of the Helicon during concert performances since its report reached the audience before the rest of the melody. He asked the instrument manufacturer J.W. Pepper for help. The result was the Sousaphone, which, with the bell turned upright, complemented the music much to the maestro’s delight.

Purdue University's Block "P" Formation, 1907
Purdue University’s Block “P” Formation, 1907

In time the marching band grew through the addition of the color guard, baton twirlers or majorettes and dance teams. Another change was the development of “the pit.” It used to be that all participants actually marched together but not anymore. The name refers to orchestra pits that perform next to or underneath the stage during musicals, plays, operas and ballets. It consists of xylophones, keyboards, kettle drums, marimbas, vibraphones, bells, chimes, congas, bongos, cymbals, triangles, tambourines and shakers. Their position is at the field edge extending from the 50 yard line both ways.

With the exception of the drum majors everyone else marches in formation on the field.

In the stands the band is also like a pep club that encourages spectators to participate in the revelry to support the football team as well. One of the ways they do this is through the school song. Here in Texas, school songs are slow with thoughtful lyrics. Fight songs are upbeat and boisterous, usually without words. When yours truly attended Thornridge High School in Illinois however, the school song was the fight song. Different parts of the country have developed different traditions.

For anyone who thinks marching band is for the weak or athletically-challenged, nothing is further from the truth. These kids are tough, talented and smart. Not just anyone can do it. It takes not only talent, but dedication and discipline. And they are in good company.

Some celebrities who marched:

* Halle Berry

* Stephen Spielberg

* Tom Selleck

* Steven Tyler

* Ewan McGregor

* Tony Stewart

* Julia Roberts

* Aretha Franklin



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Claire Hickey
Claire has held a Texas Cosmetology License, Certification in Surgical Technology and has decorated cakes professionally. She believes that life is a banquet to be experienced and wants to learn and do as much as possible while she’s here. This Stay @ Home Mom has always loved to write and thanks to the Communities Digital News has got her chance. Her curiosity and writing lead her to create her column based on “garbage in garbage out” theory to provide interesting and thought provoking pieces that enrich her readers. A proud member of the Greater Fort Worth Writer’s Group she is currently working on her first novel.