Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once opined, “All politics is local.” Tip was referring to getting votes, but the same can be said of how politics affects competitive marching bands, at least in Michigan.
Competitive marching band is a thing. No, two bands do not face each other in battle like in “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies.” Think traditional marching band meets Broadway show, complete with costumes and choreography, throw in competition, then try to look away.
Last year, the Michigan Competing Band Association (MCBA) held the 2014 state finals to judge which participating Michigan high school had the best marching band. The 180 member Plymouth-Canton Marching Band, led by Dave Armbruster and Jon Thomann, took the top honor with a show called “Don’t Bother, They’re Here.”
About five years ago Armbruster suffered a heart attack. Last year he told this writer, “My health became an issue in 2010 just because the show was so elaborate. It took a toll on my health. Unfortunately, two years later it took a toll on my marriage.” Mr. Armbruster is now divorced, but says he has a great relationship with his ex-wife, whom he called “wonderful.”
Mr. Armbruster says his health is better now and handles the stress by not sweating the small stuff. But funding the marching arts is expensive. Each student’s family is asked to contribute financially to fund the band’s activities, including going to the 2016 Rose Bowl. Mr. Armbruster emphasized no student is excluded for lack of financial resources.
Michigan schools do not consider marching band a “sport” and do not get the same relative funding as some high school sports. High school sports’ budgets make up “approximately 1 to 3 percent of the district’s education budget,” according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
According to Paul Lichau, Michigan State Band and Orchestra Association executive director, 71 percent of the member schools reported receiving less than $5,000 from their school districts. Marching bands struggle to cover the financial shortfall with the help of parent booster groups and outside donations.
Bucking the trend is Grand Blanc Community Schools, which recently gave $50,000 toward the purchase of new marching band uniforms. Underscoring the district’s commitment to the arts, Clarence Garner, Deputy Superintendent, said, “We believe that the arts, in this case marching band, affords our students the opportunity to actualize their own unique genius in a manner that is outside of the traditional academic program, but just as important.”
Last summer, Plymouth-Canton Community Schools also stepped up gave its high school band program $125,000 for “some much needed replacement of band equipment,” according to Mr. Armbruster. He also said the school district currently provides ongoing financial support for “supplies, repairs and transportation.”
Now, back to Michigan’s local politics. Why would Michigan’s Lansing politicians allow an activity that takes skill, stamina, intelligence, talent, teamwork and dedication to be underfunded? Only one obvious answer, many of Michigan’s elected representatives have never seen a marching band show.
Imagine this – a distant drum cadence. Steady, it surprisingly has many of the spectators’ feet tapping in time. Next, 120 high school students enter to that cadence, taking the field during the halftime show, yes taking. The marching band’s collective attitude is “football team, take a break, we got this.”
A show follows in which the students’ hearts race 125 beats per second for about ten minutes. While playing their instruments, the students march, jazz walk, run and walk backwards. Drumline and percussion pit share in the intensity. All of this activity frenzies its way into a final chord bringing the crowd to their feet.
No student was thinking about finances or budgets at last year’s MCBA state finals. Bands who did not even know each other offered “have a good show” or “good luck” to passing marching bands on the way to the field, although they were at a competitive event. That does not happen at football games. Or in politics either.
The next MCBA state championship is Nov. 7 at Detroit’s Ford Field. Note to Michigan politicians – the competition is after Election Day, so attend an amazing show that may convince the legislature to set minimum funding goals for the arts, including the marching arts.
In this era of political, social and cultural animosity and antagonism, maybe marching band nerds have the right attitude about life and competition. Certainly every time these marching artists take the field, they are champions.
To donate to any of the groups referenced in this article, please click on the following links:
The Michigan Competing Band Association
Plymouth-Canton Educational Park
Grand Blanc High School Instrumental Music Department