Marching Band has sure changed in the last 30 years!

This fall, I’ve had the pleasure of watching some marching band competitions. It has really changed a lot since I was in band 30 years ago! I was curious if anyone has seen the whole transition, and could comment on how it happened, etc. Maybe provide like a history of marching band performances, or something? Or maybe it was just the area I grew up in, band wasn’t as big as in others?

Then: Our band did football games and maybe one “competition” during the year. This competition, if I remember, was more like a “grading” of your band, you’d get a score of “Excellent” or “Outstanding” or whatever.
Now: The local HS band has 6 competitions this year, everything from local ones to big national ones in other states. Most weekends in the fall seem occupied. Football games seem like an afterthought, really, not the primary focus.

Then: The show was primarily based on movement of the band members into different formations on the field. Players stood there and played their instruments, then marched to a new spot while playing, or whatever.
Now: Players don’t just play their instruments. They are dancing, doing various poses, choreography, etc., while playing and between parts. Sometimes setting down their instruments to dance and/or act.

Then: No electronic amplification. If you were a soloist, you had to be loud enough to hear. Note this means not too many flute or clarinet solos. Therefore, most solos were brass.
Now: Soloists are miked and play through speakers on the field.

Other observations:

  • Music seems to be custom written for the show, by what I presume are professional composers. In ours, we did play some music from popular movies, etc., and would be edited, but it was done by the band director himself.
  • Almost all bands have pre-recorded music, like to “set the scene” for their performance, before they start playing. Might be sound effects, there might be speaking, etc. None of this existed back then.
  • There are props! I don’t remember anything in the way of props other than the drum major’s stand. Now there are platforms dragged onto the field for soloists, background signs to set the ambiance, mats laid on the ground that match the theme, all kinds of stuff.
  • Drum majors! Man, we had 1 or some years 2. Decent size band too. Now it seems all the schools had 4 or 5.

I’m sure I can come up with more. I’m not saying these changes are good or bad, just that it seems so much different than when I was in high school, that at the first competition, I almost had to wonder if I was in the right place!

Overall, it seems WAY bigger. Tickets for the national show in Indianapolis in a few weeks go for up to $135 a seat for the best seats in the finals!

How and when did this all happen?

Many historically Black colleges and universities have had marching bands such as you describe for many years. It is not new.

My son was in high school marching band 20 years ago. Even then we could see the beginnings of the split between “competitive” bands and bands which focused on school and community events.

Well, looking back at my high school band career in Indiana, 1983-87, we had a competition most weekends in the fall leading up to sectional, regional, and state competitions to wrap up the season. There would typically also be a trip out of state to perform in a parade somewhere. We had a certain amount of choreography, but nothing too elaborate, something like waving a stick with a streamer on it or something like that.

It wasn’t until after I graduated that I became aware of competitions past the state championship level.

At least from what I remember, there were no amplified or pre-recorded parts at any of the competitions I saw.

I see it going kind of the other way, from more rigorous back in the day to less rigorous now. When I was in HS band (late 70s) we were military style, always marching forward with pinwheels and to-the-rears to change direction … none of this sissy walking backward stuff. Double-timing onto the field pre-game. Knees were to be raised high (with the band director threatening to go around whacking ankles with his clipboard if they weren’t) and “chairing” on the 5 yard lines - nowdays they just kind of shuffle around. Competitions existed back then but we didn’t do those. We did a few band shows per season on Saturdays after doing the football game the night before. Practice 1.5 hours after school M-F and 2 hours in the stadium Thursday evening.

There is definitely a difference. I was in a “competitive” marching band in the 90’s.

The changes in high school marching band are directly a result of the changes in Drum Corps International, as far as style and also things like amplification. One is stylistic, the other is due to rule changes.

I was in a drum and bugle corps in the 90’s as well. Funny, I was just telling my parents yesterday how much things had changed. 90’s had G bugles, no electronics or amplification. Very little body movement other than marching, though that was definitely beginning to change the year I marched. Some props, but nothing like today.

Now, B-flat horns, electronics/amplification, TROMBONES (gack. Not a bugle) and French Horns (gack, also not bugles). Tons of props. Tons of body movement including the percussion (gack. Why.)

But while we’re at it, any other DCI fans or alumni around here? I might have asked before but it would have been years and years ago if I did.

Hello. I am a retired Texas high school / middle school band director. I taught band in classes 2A-4A in five school districts in four different regions of our state over a twenty-eight year career. I believe I can offer a bit of expertise with this question.

I must also say that I graduated from high school in Austin in 1986. I was in the marching band at (Southwest) Texas State University and I began my teaching career in 1992. I am also a percussionist. It is important to note that I am in Texas. Marching band is somewhat different here than in other states. Mainly, we get LOTS more funding and staff than comparable schools in other states. A 6A high school (the largest classification) may have five or more full-time band directors, an army of technicians (college kids looking to get into the profession), a stable of private lesson teachers (ranging from renowned college professors to college students), and budgets that may be well into seven digits.

So, what has changed in my career?

  1. Budgets. Budgets are mostly much larger than when I began. This allows for more students, better music, better drill (the instructions for the marching around), all those props, and electronics.

  2. Community expectations. Gone are the days when the marching band is simply an adjunct to the football team. Friday Night Lights (which is a real thing in Texas – lots of people don’t realize what a big deal it is) is still important, but the community expects that the band will do other things. People recognize now that the band is a legit activity all on its own, with its own rules, competitions, and traditions. The drum major may not quite have the social status of the quarterback, but it’s getting there.

  3. DCI. The increased visibility and popularity of Drum Corps International has led to school bands emulating what they see from DCI. Part of my summer training for students often included a trip to see a DCI show. Certainly, my bands do not look like a Drum Corps – we have woodwinds – but we play to the box like a Corps and not to the end zone like the Aggies (Texas A&M Univ. Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band).

  4. Constant flow. The OP is correct in that the 1980’s saw shows in which the band would “park and bark” for 32 counts, move 16 into some new formation, and park and bark some more. Being in the drumline, we called them Otis drills, after the famous elevator manufacturer. We (the drumline) simply parked on the fifty and moved forward and back like an elevator moving up and down. Today, the entire band is moving for every count of the show and the drumline is included in the drill with everyone else. This evolution began with DCI and spread to the schools.

  5. Complexity. When I was in high school, our contest show was just one of several shows we did in a single season. Today’s high school band typically begins preparing a show in August and performs it through early November. But, that show is far more complex than anything we would have done when I was in high school.

  6. Contracting. Even in a modest program, the music and drill will be contracted out to specialists in those areas. When I started my career, the music was bought off the shelf and the drill was created by the band director. That is rare today. The last show I did for a 2A band cost $1000 for the music and $750 for the drill. The drill was so cheap because my band was very small and the drill writer was a good friend of mine. He gave me a break on the price. My kids got to know that they marched drill written by the director of a very prominent university marching band.

  7. Diversity. I’m not saying this about ethnicity. What I’m getting at is that today’s kids are BUSY. When I was a kid, you had athletes, band kids, choir kids, kickers (think FFA), and so on. Today, kids do all of those things. One year, my drum major was the head cheerleader and president of the local FFA. Oh, and she was ranked #1 in her class. A band kid might arrive at school at 6:00am and not go home until 9:00pm. I am not arguing whether that is good or not, just that these kids do a lot. So, rehearsals have to be squeezed in amongst everything else. And we have a more complex show than ever before and less time available in which to prepare.

  8. Contests. This may be somewhat unique to Texas. In the Lone Star State, almost all extracurricular and cocurricular activities are governed by the University Interscholastic League. A while back, the UIL decided to hold the State Marching Contest every other year. (It is actually held every year with some classifications one year and the other classifications the other year.) This opened the door for operators that were popular in other states to get a foothold in Texas. So, now we see Bands of America and others holding contests here. This is also a function of increased budgets being able to afford these contests, too.

  9. Technology. The tools I had at the end of my career either didn’t exist at the beginning of my career or was cost-prohibitive. Technology today is cheap and tiny. And, in some ways, simply miraculous. When the world ended at the beginning of COVID, I was able to have students play their instruments into software on their computers. The software would record them, show them the notes the payed incorrectly, and give them a score. No one could have imagined such a thing in the 1980s.

I could go on, but feel free to ask questions. I’d rather answer to specific questions than continue to extemporize.

I played the trombone in HS and college marching bands from 87-93 or so. We always used the trombones, I wouldn’t know how to play a valve trombone as they called it. We used tubas too and not the sousaphones, they would carry them on their shoulders.
I can’t remember much of what we did, but I do remember the tuba players spinning their tubas around them and one guy dropped his and had to continue the performance without it. We also had a flag corps and one year they laid down and we marched over them. Once in the rain and mud they were quite mad they had to do that.

Not me personally (I mean, I was a cellist) but I had several friends who did DCI stuff over the summers when I was in college 30 years ago. Never mind military boot camp: DCI training may well be the most physically and mentally gruelling activity I’ve ever seen anyone do. People unfamiliar with it may not be aware that it’s not just marching around in fun patterns; the level of precision of movement and steps-per-distance is insanely detailed, and on top of that they’re carrying instruments (arms up!) and playing them from memory, which is pretty physically and mentally demanding in itself. Everyone I knew doing it would drop weight and build muscle like mad during the rehearsal period.

My nephew was also big into marching band at all levels (and he played the marching 5er timptom set, which is all kind of crazy). His high school was the same as mine, and the level of technical complexity and skill were miles ahead of what the marching band was like when I was there. He now has a side gig writing marching band arrangements for a high school literally on the other side of the country from where he lives.

This one time? In band camp…?

Also perhaps of interest, since Drum_God mentioned DCI:

Yeah, it’s a pretty intense physical activity. At the end of that summer, I was the skinniest I have ever been at my mostly adult height (I was 19, so at least 6’6"). I came back weighing 175.

I’m a proud band parent too, one took it to university and was drum major. I enjoyed attending dci shows when the school hosted and the competitions and recognize the amazing community of band members.

I teach high school band in Northern California. I’m not the director, but rather the assistant director, a contractor of the booster club. That right there should show the difference from Texas marching band culture and out here. I understand the upper midwest is pretty intense like Texas, too.

We don’t have money, our booster club has to raise it. I could go on and on about how we fight off the school district from sabotaging our music program, but this isn’t the place for that.

Our marching band is a bit unusual. We don’t compete, and we do a different half time show for every home game. The cross town high school competes and does the same half time show all season.

We don’t use a “pit” of immobile instruments on the sideline. If you play, you march. We can play anywhere. ( I hate the concept of a pit. It turns the band from being a distinct marching band to a rock band with a large horn section. No longer a “marching” band.)

When I was in high school (79-81), DCI was just starting to influence high school bands. PBS started broadcasting the finals on a Saturday and we all watched, marveling in their precision. Elements started sneaking into our shows- abstract shapes and formations, constant movement.

We actually get disqualified from street parade competitions because we high step, not what they call “glide stepping”. It’s a pretty old school band concept, but the director and I like it that way. It keeps old traditions alive. We don’t like to view music as a competition. Competition marching is a sport. If you want sports, go play a sport.

I guess I’m extemporizing, too. This wasn’t designed as the rant it ended up being. I just wanted to show the contrast out there in various band programs. We wish we had the support and resources of a Texas program.

Every band is different, based on what the community wants and what the band can afford. And what the director wants.

When I was in high school in the late 90s we were a competition band, with custom scores and drills. So we had some of the stuff the OP is saying is “new.”

When we went to football games some of the bands were “dance bands” but just lame suburban dance bands meaning they picked a few pre-printed scores, stood still to play and did a dance in the middle.

I still keep up with the band at my old high school (I live across the street. They are practicing as I am typing.) There’s a new director, and tons of money in the band, and it all is very big and bold and shiny. There is still our “legacy” of being a competition band but these kids are so much closer to DCI than we ever were. It’s impressive but also sounds exhausting.

I’m glad to see that the size of the band has grown since I was in school. That means that no matter how much I think this new-styled band program is insane and they’re too flashy and get off my lawn, kids are still attracted to it, and staying in it. Well done, band!

Best of luck to you. Most of us in Texas are well aware of just how good we have it, even if we tend to whine a bit. There are a few booster-funded jobs in Texas, but there is no way I would accept one. I’d rather be a Walmart greeter than depend on the whims of a mad mom. That is not a criticism of the choice you’ve made, but I am sure glad that isn’t a choice I would have to take. I also run away from jobs where the band boosters are on the interview committee. If the moms can hire you, then can also fire you. And they will.

I hear ya. I wasn’t exactly hired by the boosters, but by the director. The boosters just fund my salary. It works well and I’m happy. They’re aware that they’re really only there for four years and we’re going to be around for several years. I’ve been doing this for about twelve years so far. I’d certainly rather maintain my independent status than actually work for this school district and all their red tape.

Boosters on the interview committee? Oh, hell no. They have no business being there.