What Marching Band Taught Me About the World

In 1979, I finally made the transition into high school band. It was something I’d been looking forward to, ever since I transitioned from trumpet to drums in sixth grade. I went in and auditioned for the leader of the drum line; a guy named Roger, aka “Hefty.” After my audition, I was ceremoniously welcomed into The Hefty Patrol.

The left arrow is me, standing next to Roger, aka “Hefty.”

It felt like I had joined a club, and it would be the last time I would have that sensation in my life. The handful of guys in the drum line were respectable.

What I didn’t yet know was that things were about to change in a major way. Most of the drum line graduated, leaving only a few of us behind. Then, two guys decided that they were going to quit band. After all, sticking around looked like a losing proposition.

It ended up being just me and two other people. The band was VERY small, and taking the color guard into account, the band had approximately 23 people when we went to march at the Indiana State Fair in the summer of 1980.

Summer 1980: Me [Left] with my younger brother on Turmpet.
It’s weird to think that we made up 8% of the entire band, including color guard.

Of course, it was too late to find other students who would want to march. To the Band Director’s credit, he found someone to march with the bass drum, and another person to march with cymbals.

It was a 3-person drum line.

At around 3:38, I can be seen at the front of the 3-person drum line [in the middle] driving the drum break. This was my first time marching at the Indiana State Fair, in front of 14,000 people. No pressure.

This is a competition that occurs every single year at the Indiana State Fair. Bands from all over the state sign up to march in competition. The bands then march during the daytime in competition.

The Lone Snare Drummer, getting ready to carry the band for the 1980 Indiana State Fair Marching Band competition.

Out of the bands, the judges will select 16 bands to advance. They are known as “The Sweet 16.” They march in the evening, and then the judges make a decision on the winner.

We worked hard to deliver a great performance. It seemed that no matter how hard we worked, we were not even close to winning.

There were a few times where we marched “exhibition.” In this situation, we got to march in the evening with the Sweet 16, but we were not in the running to win. It was a case of the judges thinking that we did good enough to be there, but not really good enough to be considered.

Or so I thought.

To say that I was frustrated by our lack of wins would be an understatement. I expressed my frustration, in no uncertain terms, to anyone who would listen. I did not understand why we were not ever making it to the Sweet 16. Because at this point, I would have even accepted that.

I don’t want to say precisely WHO told me what I am about to write, because the purpose of this is not to generate drama, but to share a life lesson that I learned from my experience with marching band.

Summer 1981: Rockin’ it during the break-down for the song “Light Up” by Styx.
This is how the photo was published in the paper. In the yearbook, they cropped out the bass player’s finger gesture.

Someone I shared my frustrations with asked me to meet with them in the Band Room office. We went in there, closed the door, and had a talk. It wasn’t really a discussion, so much as the person telling me how things go in this situation.

We will not EVER win the Indiana State Fair marching band competition. When a marching band registers with the State Fair to join the competition, they have to pay a PER-PERSON ENTRY FEE for the privilege of marching.

He continued.

Our band is very small, so the total we pay is not that much. Meanwhile, there are other bands that have 300-400 people marching in the band. The total they pay is significantly higher than what we will ever pay.

Then, the death punch.

Now, what do you think would happen if a band with 400 members got beat by a band with 40-50 members? Will they get upset? Yes. Might they refuse to march in subsequent competitions? Yes. So, politically speaking, we cannot EVER be allowed to win, because another organization that pays more money might withdraw, and it would harm the State Fair.

It’s NOT personal. It’s not even musuical. It’s political and financial.

I got precisely what was being told to me. It would not ever matter how hard we worked. The idea of it being an honest competition, with a winner being chosen based on performance, was NEVER the plot in the first place.

The lessons that I took from this were harsh, especially for a teenager.

It doesn’t matter how hard you work.

It doesn’t matter how good you are.

The ONLY things that matter are money and politics.

So much for the Meritocracy and the virtue of hard work. Still, I put forth my best effort every single time.

I also learned that the State Fair Band Committee had learned a lesson the hard way, and they wanted to avoid another screw-up.

The two biggest bands there were Anderson and Highland. My dad went to Anderson, and mom went to Highland.

Anyway, one year Anderson won the Indiana State Fair. In their repertoir, they performed the school theme song from Highland. Talk about insult to injury!

When this happened, Highland decided that they would NOT ever return to the Indiana State Fair. This cost the SF Band Committee thousand and thousands of dollars in lost registration revenue.

After that, they were extra cautious, to the point that they would NEVER let a small band win.

It’s corruption. It’s also a perfect representation of the evils of Capitalism. But I digress.

I learned that talent and hard work are meaningless when it comes to achieving in the real world. Politics and money take precedent over everything else.

I learned that it is possible to work hard, do a great job, and still get nowhere. THIS is the story of my life.

Indiana State Fair, Summer 1984: That’s me in the yellow shirt, directing. After my first year of college, I returned to the high school band to go to band camp as a counselor, and to lead the drum line toward success.

Although I learned early on that we would NEVER win, I still stuck around. I still worked hard. I still put my best forward. I stayed for four years, marched after graduation, and returned after my first year of college to guide the drum line toward a path of fun and success.

The average person does not realize that you can be very talented, work hard, and get absolutely nowhere. I have seen HUNDREDS of cases of this, in the form of great bands in LA that will never, ever get a major record deal. They will NEVER have a ton of fans. And they’re incredible!

With all of that said, I still work as hard as I want to get as good as I want, so that I can make the music that I want. And in that regard, I was successful.

Summer 1984: This is the face of a man who knows that he’s going to lose, but also knows that his work is about to kick major ass.

As for marching band, I stayed for my four years of high school. I could have quit right after graduation in 1983, but instead I stayed and marched. Not only that, but I marched with the drum I liked the least: bass drum.

And after my first year of college, I returned as a Camp Counselor, guiding the drum line to success and handing the keys over to a drummer who studied under me.

It could be said in a fair way that my high school marching band was born to lose. We were GUARANTEED to lose. But that did NOTHING to stop ANY of us from working hard, putting on a great show, and having a ton of fun in the process.

I don’t work hard for your corporate interests. Hell, I don’t even work hard for money. This is where most people will assume laziness, with the false assumption that money is the sole motivator.

I work hard for MYSELF.

At the end of the day, I am the one who must feel good about my performance. I am the one who has to live with how the gig went, or how the song turned out, or anything else.

If I happen to get money or win a prize, then it is a bonus, but it is FAR FROM THE MAIN POINT.

I have to live with myself, AND I have to look in the mirror and be able to honestly tell myself that I did my best.

I certainly did.

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Published by DrumWild

Writing about drums, music, and philosophy.

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