Close this search box.

The Lazy, Hazing Days of Summer

Trey Reely | September 2014

    Filthy, freezing, and shirtless, I was huddled in the trunk of a car. During the previous three hours, I had been blindfolded, tied to my fellow freshmen pledges, and dragged through a cold Arkansas swamp.
    This led only to an involuntary reward of a hand-fed snack of coffee beans and other similar fare. And that was after an exhausting week of waking up at the crack of dawn to make beds for my pledge masters and other silly but exhausting tasks. Now all that remained was a good hose-down at the local car wash, and I would have proven myself worthy to be a member of Chi Sigma Alpha, a university social club.   
    There was a peculiar sense of pride that my fellow pledges and I had made it. I had displayed a good sense of humility and humor throughout the ordeal, as well as a willingness to expend every ounce of energy that I had to prove I was worthy to be a Chi Sig. At the same time I realized that everything I was experiencing was not so much an opportunity to prove myself as it was a chance for upperclassmen to entertain themselves at our expense.
    The experience led me to one burning question: what compelling reasons could a bunch of basically good-natured guys have that would justify inflicting these things upon someone else? After reported incidents about several different clubs (not ours, however), the university asked that same question after pledge week and decided that there were not any good reasons. The next year hazing was greatly curtailed and replaced by activities designed to be more encouraging and less abusive in nature. This seemed to make sense, particularly as it was a church-affiliated university.
    Many students decried this as an invasion of the fun police and the elimination of the bonding that only joint suffering can bring. Interestingly, in our club we found that pledge masters and pledges became much closer friends the following year. It is amazing what can happen when you throw in more friendliness, respect, and encouragement.
    I recount the experience because, as happens from time to time in the band world, the subject of hazing in its various forms has come once again to the forefront of the news. In fact, recent reports have probed a little deeper than hazing and examined the overall band culture of a well-known university. Without pointing fingers and going into details, I think this is a good time to step back and examine our respective band programs and make an honest assessment of the culture and environment associated with them.
    When I accepted my first high school position many years ago there was no tradition of hazing. Rookie students were expected to perform silly skits of their own making the last day of summer practice and were sometimes asked to be in a skit created by the upperclassmen. All was good-natured and fun, so I decided to continue the practice but added an adopt-a-rookie program where upperclassmen helped first-year members in any way that they could, whether it be with music, marching, transportation, or basically anything that would make their introduction to marching band better.
    Another tradition of marching through Walmart evolved over time, and that was all the rookies did in the way of silly things. However, the skits devised by the upperclassmen eventually evolved into a situation where the seniors would line up ten rookies who performed the worst skits and dumped platefuls of whipped cream and other food items onto their heads (they wore trash bags poncho-style to protect their clothes). I often ended up almost as messy as the kids when they would attack me afterward. Even though this was all in good fun, and no one was required to take part, I decided as time went on that it could be misinterpreted and discontinued the practice as fun as it was. I knew it would only take one parent complaint or one misleading video, and everything could come down. Unfortunately, even what most would consider as good fun and craziness is not always the wisest course of action.
    As for a band’s general culture and environment, matters may be more complicated. Directors should certainly set the correct tone for the band, but it is hard to really control everything that goes on within it. At my age I find it hard to keep up with the meaning of teenage language, particularly when it is something shady. Sometimes I overhear things and can only tell by a muffled, sinister laugh that it must be inappropriate. I have had students coach me not to say certain things – things that years ago were perfectly fine to say, but are no longer. I take their word for it.
    Sometimes, I am so absorbed by my job that I can be oblivious to things going on around me. Dealing with problems within the band can be such a headache – I just want them to go away so I can teach music. However, recent events suggest that directors will be held accountable for the environment surrounding our programs more than ever. It is certainly a constant challenge. Our American culture is certainly no help and is clearly hypocritical, as evidenced by the entertainment industry. I am not sure what our culture expects from bands when movies like American Pie fare so well that Hollywood even produces sequels of it.
    As for college bands, I don’t even pretend to have all the answers for a 300 member marching band if it is largely or even partially characterized by things like hazing, alcohol abuse, sexual humor, and racist and sexist language. I cannot solve all of these issues in one article, but I think a strong central philosophy may help guide decisions that have to be made in this regard.
    As a high school band director, one of my purposes is to prepare students for life after high school, whether it is joining the workforce or going to college. I hope that after they leave my program some employer or college will find my students dependable, hard-working, and professional in every way.
    College bands should be a continuation of this process. Some, perhaps many, college band members may see college band as their last chance to go crazy before becoming a responsible adult, as opposed to viewing it as an avenue of growing maturity and responsibility. It is the director’s job to convince their charges that it is the latter purpose that prevails in a program and then back it up with clearly-stated policies that reinforce this idea. There may be no simple answers here, but the goal should be clear: a non-hostile and supportive environment that exhibits the highest standards of class and professionalism. Anything that detracts from that, whether it is in the band room, on the bus, or an out-of-town trip is unacceptable. It sounds boring I suppose, but there is no doubt in my mind that music and music-making are certainly fun and fulfilling enough in and of themselves and need no help from questionable practices.
    I have always wondered what would happen if the students in college bands were scrutinized in the same way as players on a college athletic team. For better or worse, that time may be here. I’d plan accordingly.