Bring on the trombones

In honor of Memorial Day and its parades, I am re-posting an essay I wrote this past fall.

I’ll get back to new posts later this week.

I spent about eight hours this past weekend reviewing applicants for a college scholarship program. The objective of this very worthwhile program — I don’t want to reveal further details for the usual reasons — is to identify talented, disadvantaged high school students who would benefit enormously from attending the kind of colleges that are probably not on their radar screens. Of course such colleges are looking for kids like these, too.

I reviewed 50 applications from a central swathe of a rustbelt Midwestern state, and judging by the “batch” numbers I was one of a hundred or so volunteers performing this task for students all over the country. However, I don’t know much about how these students are identified or identify themselves. So the observations that follow are not remotely scientific.

Much of what the applications revealed was unsurprising. Fifteen of the fifty, or 30 percent, were immigrants or children of immigrants, and among applicants of color the percent was much higher. Ten of the fifty attended a religious private high school, all but one a Catholic high school. The many young men with absent fathers almost invariably heaped praise on a coach or scout leader who had instilled confidence (and yes, they appreciated their mothers, too, many of whom were working two or even three jobs to pay for music lessons and soccer uniforms .)

I was more struck that almost half of the students were actively involved in a church, mosque and/or religious youth group, and that most who had traveled outside the United States (not counting immigration) had seen some of the world on a mission trip. Many of their essays were deeply religious in tone and content. I have written scores of recommendation letters for high school seniors, and sat on more than 20 Rhodes Scholarship selection committees. I have never seen such unabashed spiritual outpouring in a set of applications.

As a high school debate coach I was delighted to see that several students were active in high school forensics, but what fascinated me most was that fifteen of the fifty students played in their high school’s marching band. Except for membership in the National Honor Society, no other single activity showed up as often in the list of extracurriculars.

So what is it about marching band that helps kids claw their way from difficult circumstances to school success? (And let me note that these students are VERY successful: The program has high grade and test score cutoffs, as well as a stringent income requirement.)

I never played in a marching band, but I happen to know a young man — Ph.D. scientist, flutist, and preachers’ kid — who had used up most of his precious frequent flyer miles this past weekend flying from California to Massachusetts to join fellow band alums paying tribute to their mentor, the recently deceased leader of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) marching band. So I sent him an email. Did he have a theory about why it was so good for kids to march around a cold Midwestern football field puffing into an even colder trombone?

My ever polite son-in-law fired a response right back. He had several theories. One was that marching bands are “inclusive”: “There are certainly the popular kids and the ones who are a bit out on the fringes, but the grand majority of the time, even the outsiders have their niche in the band. Given that high school social groups can often be quite exclusive, having a large organization where you feel like you belong (and where making friends is usually quite easy) is a major boost.” And maybe that’s even more important if your family can’t afford designer jeans or your fellow students can’t pronounce your name.

Marching bands, he further noted, value teamwork as much as individual excellence, or, more accurately, they demand that students achieve both. It strikes me that while sports offer this same combination, athletic competitions focus a spotlight on star performers. I’m sure that band members are well aware that they display different degrees of talent, but the strongest performances disguise, rather than highlight, these differences. Is it possible that this promotes a kind of selflessness and self-discipline?

Again, my informant seems to think so.”If a marching band is doing things right, there is definitely a sense of discipline on the field and off. You can’t get anything done if there isn’t. It’s really that simple. The trade-off of getting to be part of this big, fun group where you get to go out and perform for a bunch of people in a stadium is that you have to be willing to turn off some of your own ego and contribute to the bigger picture, and instilling a sense of discipline in marching band students is a huge part of that.”
So is self-respect. “When you’re out there performing, you have to project a good self image, and self-respect is a big part of that. Additionally, the sense of accomplishment and excitement you get for what you’re doing helps build your own self-respect, so it’s often a positive feed-back cycle.”
Come to think of it, didn’t they make a musical about this?
We’re all “waiting for Superman,” right? I bore my friends all the time with theories about how we could fix our schools and help our neediest kids succeed. I think I would have always said that faith and mentoring can make a huge difference. From here on I’ll throw in the trombones.

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