Football, Band and I

Last night was our first home football game of the year at Somerset Academy Canyons. This means football, band and I are spending time together again. Football, band and I have a long relationship and if you are a band director, you better like working long Friday’s in the fall. But, why spend all this time together?

My first experiences with band and football

In 1976 my Dad took me to the University of Pittsburgh Panthers home football games… ALL of them! We had a great running back by the name of Tony Dorsett who just ran all over everyone. Pitt won all of their games that year and were awarded the National Championship. Needless to say, the football was fantastic to watch!

The half-time shows were attention grabbing. I remember a group of marching band members coming out with herald trumpets and playing this intense fanfare and as they reached the peak of their musical line, the entire Pitt marching band came charging out of the tunnel playing their faces off! My 11 year old mind was fried and I got goosebumps and over! It was like falling in love for the first time.

High school marching band

I’ve written in a previous post about L.J. Hancock, my high school band director. He worked us hard on our half-time show and we performed at every football game. Fridays meant football and I enjoyed spending time with the rest of my band friends which was important because watching our football team play was like watching the Bad News Bears play. But, not as funny.

I recall playing the National Anthem for a game with very few people in the bleachers. During the first half of the game a stream of cars was filling the parking lot. By the time we took the field for half-time, the stadium was packed with a standing room only audience. After our performance, we paraded back to our seats and a stream of cars was leaving the parking lot. People had come just to watch us perform!

Half-time show competition

For those of you who are unaware, there are competitions for half-time shows. Our high school band, Norwin, had been the state champion for years and had also begun competing with Bands of America (BOA). In my senior year we won the BOA Grand National Championship. This explains why people would come to a game just to see the marching band. In essence, we were the 1976 Pitt Panthers of high school marching bands.

Being in Norwin band taught me that working until things were perfect could be personally rewarding.

College and the Marching Royal Dukes

After high school, I was accepted at James Madison University (JMU) to study music education. JMU has one of the largest marching bands in the country. We had hundreds of musicians and visual performers covering the field. We were fun to watch and obviously, very loud! College marching band didn’t focus on perfecting one show, they were more tuned into the audience and giving everyone a thrill.

We played an away game at the University of Virginia (UVA) in my first year. Dr. Rooney, our director, had this creative gimmick that called for each of us to set off a flash bulb at the audience during the start of our half-time show. I remember the UVA crowd not being very receptive to us when we took the field, but we hit those first notes and popped those flash bulbs and the place went nuts!

Because of our proximity to Washington, DC, we were given the opportunity to play for an NFL game… Redskins v. Giants, a BIG rivalry. We sat in folding chairs on the sidelines which were terrible seats. I couldn’t see anything but that didn’t matter because I just wanted to perform for this enormous audience. We blew our brains out. Honestly, I don’t remember much about it. A friend of mine said that he was listening on the radio and the guys were trying to do a half-time report, but they had to scream into their mics!

Playing for the Federals

Some of the band members from JMU were asked to be a pep band for the newly formed (and short lived) USFL football team called the Washington Federals. We would get into a van and drive to DC, play the game and drive back to campus. The stadium was nowhere near full and the football was terrible but they paid us a few bucks and they gave us something to eat. (We also were on field level next to the cheerleaders! That set many of our hearts to thumping!)

My college experiences taught me that making the audience happy made me happy.

First job

My first job was as a middle school director but that didn’t mean that football, band and I didn’t have any experiences. Our school had a football team and I was determined to get the kids playing for home games. It was a far cry from any other band experience that I’d had but we were at the games. My biggest memory is of the kids trying to keep their music stands from being blown over. I was frustrated, but they seemed to be having a good time.

My few years at this school taught me that things didn’t need to be perfect in order for the students to have a rewarding experience.

Getting serious

1990 was the year I became a high school director. I pushed hard to achieve a great half-time product that we could use in local competitions. We achieved a great deal of success within our class size in that area but I was hungry to compete on a larger stage and set my sites on BOA Regionals.

We never did extremely well at that level. Our greatest success coming in 1997 in Johnson City, Tennessee. I’ve written a bit about the experience here. In 1999 we took our show to the BOA Grand National Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana. The kids played confidently and we had a good experience.

Ten years at this school showed me that a small group of musicians that are focused on working hard could make an excellent product. But, I was restless and felt that I could achieve at a higher level if I went to a school with better resources. This led me to South Florida.

Florida marching band

My new position landed me in a situation where money wasn’t much of a problem. We had an excellent new facility and I had a full time assistant director to help me. The next 16 years saw seasons of great growth. Our half-time shows became more complex. We added props and sound reinforcement. We attracted quality staff and could even afford to bring in guest consultants.

Most years concluded with a trip to state championships. I wish I could say that we won a few, but we didn’t. We came in 2nd frequently and most times were recognized as being very good, but not quite good enough.

My 16 years at this school taught me the value of having quality staff and a well designed product.

Another move

My time at this school came to an abrupt end and I found myself working in my current school. It is a young school and their band was in bad shape when I arrived.

Instead of pushing to create a marching band, I focused on improving the kids overall band experience. The goal was to get them to play better and enjoy the fruits of that labor.

I took on a marching band staff position at a local high school with a great director. I hadn’t been on staff for a band since the 1980’s and it was a strange experience not being the overall leader. But, I enjoyed working with the group and their director was a good friend. We achieved the goal of winning a state championship in the first year and then a few second places (again).

Back to last night

This leads me to last night and our first home game. We played simple songs and didn’t have a uniform. We didn’t have a competitive half-time show, in fact we didn’t have a half-time show at all. The weather was South Florida brutal. The humidity felt like you were swimming in warm water all night and the bugs descended on us like a plague. What a terrible experience, right?

Well, … no. Towards the end of the game I took a picture of the band. When I got home I looked at the pic and was immediately struck by the expression on one of the kid’s faces. This young man was smiling like someone who just won BOA Grand Nationals. I have never seen this kid smile like this in the two years that I’ve worked with him.


I’ve participated in National Championship programs and had the time of my life. But, I’ve also had a great time in a college program just blowin’ my brains out.

I’ve directed high performing ensembles in flashy uniforms who performed to near technical perfection. But, I’ve also directed groups in t-shirts and shorts who played simple songs that were far from perfect. In all of these scenarios the kids loved being part of the group.

My conclusion? Football, band and I have this relationship because of the platform that it provides. We use this platform to allow kids an opportunity to be together in a safe environment and enjoy each other’s company. This platform allows everyone to be themselves and let their guard down. It is a catharsis for a life filled with stress. It’s all about the smiles.

3 responses to “Football, Band and I”

  1. MY experience with HS Marching Band was through my son’s sophomore through senior years experience at that private school in South Florida. Those same members now range in age from 28-32 (band) and 23 -30 (colorguard). The evidence is clear – a committed, knowledgeable passionate Director who demanded respect from parents and students alike is what creates the special environment that band students thrive in. Many students of these particular years have been working hard toward life goals, careers, raising families, and achieving their own goals. They were shown what can be achieved through hard work and focus and a BAND DIRECTOR who brought fabulous performances, creativity, drive, teamwork , Friday nights and Saturday afternoons to their lives of fun and marching band. Thank you from this parent for the fun, costumes, working with The Colorguard, and spending extra time near my son. Thank you Eric Dunn. Those were special years at TKA because YOU led the way.

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