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Speaking Up For Small Bands

Marty Stamps | December 2008

    My son and daughter both played in the high school band, and I could not be prouder. Though I know little about music, I have come to know how bands operate and what it takes to keep them going.
    For the last seven years my wife and I have been actively working with a  mid-size high school band. My wife was president of the band boosters and currently has the harder job of treasurer. I have carried props, hauled trailers, cooked burgers, and currently announce for the band’s halftime shows. My wife likes to arrive at band competitions before the first group takes the field, and we never leave until the last award is given.
    Having attended three band competitions a year for the last seven years, I have learned that big bands usually win the competitions, a conclusion that will not shock many directors. I do not claim that small bands never win, but I have never heard of a class A band winning the grand championship. I have also observed that as bands get bigger, their scores go up. Generally smaller bands receive twos and threes, midsize bands earn ones and twos, and the large bands earn the highest scores. The band I am associated with generally earns all superior ratings.
    Because I do not understand all of the nuances of band competitions, I spoke to Doug Overmeier, director of bands at the University of West Georgia, about how he judges a group. He cited consistency, both in marching and playing, as the essential ingredient.
    I asked him about bias against small bands and he replied that although there is no conscious bias, “the eye is drawn to the inconsistencies, such as a student out of step or positioned incorrectly, a horn at the wrong angle, or incorrect or overdone cues by a field commander.” He also said there is a impressive quality with large bands that inevitably influences judges. He added that he uses specific criteria, but the evaluation process is inherently subjective.
    I conclude from his comments that because small bands have incomplete instrumentation and tiny mistakes are more obvious, the larger bands have an easier time masking errors and producing an impressive overall effect. In my view there are several changes in competitions that would reduce the bias against small bands. I recognize that these views may produce howls of protest from directors.
    First, I propose that bands perform at competitions in a random sequence instead of starting with the smallest groups and progressing to the largest. At the Olympics athletes know that performing last often leads to higher scores. Under my approach a large band might appear first instead of last. Even if this doesn’t counteract the grade inflation in favor of large bands, it would certainly make students in small groups feel more equal and the results might be surprising.
    Second, I propose having competitions between groups of similar size. A lightweight does not step into the ring against a heavyweight and similarly it does not make sense for a 50-piece band to go against a group many times larger. I understand that marching competitions are also fundraisers for music programs and that large bands bring more supporters to watch an event, but here the pursuit of money should be secondary to the fairness of competition.
    My last idea would be harder to implement, but it might be the most acceptable to directors. In horse racing  some entrants carry extra weight so that every participant weighs the same. In scoring for marching competitions, there should be some handicapping system to adjust and counteract the bias again smaller groups. I leave it to directors to figure out how this might be implemented fairly.
    Overall I believe band competitions should be fun for the participants and audiences. The truth is that some bands expect to win every time and are disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Doug Overmeier told me that “the purpose of a band competition is to perform to the best of our abilities. Sometimes criticisms will be brutal, sometimes the results will be amazing, but in the end it should always be a presentation of our art.” I believe there are inequities in band competitions, and that a major goal should be to foster teamwork, perseverance, and respect. Most of all, these events should be a presentation of art, with all of the skill students can demonstrate.