The Michigan Marching Band, from any point of view

November 5, 2011

Political Theory


The Michigan Marching Band is a much more complicated and political organization than an outsider may expect.  Current band members, alumni, fans, and rival institutions scrutinize every decision that is made regarding the band.  However, despite all of this, the directors of the band are still very open to any feedback or new ideas that are suggested to them.  In John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” he states that all opinions are valid and of equal importance.  If Mill were to observe the band today, he would be extremely proud of the efforts that the staff goes through in order to make sure that every voice is heard.

There is a saying in the band that is frequently used during rehearsal: “It’s not the way we’ve always done it!”  If anything is changed at all, the band often jokingly chimes in with a chorus of this phrase in protest.  The thing is, many of the members aren’t joking when they voice their concerns.  The Michigan Marching Band is proud of their many longstanding traditions, and often immediately brushes off any new ideas that come up, however good they may be.  One thing that must be remembered is that these traditions could have never come to exist if they weren’t new ideas to begin with.  When I was little, the Drum Major did not consistently execute the backbend without a hat during the band’s pregame.  I remember people in the section around me would become confused and yell out complaints when the Drum Major would take off his or her hat.  It was only after a couple of years that people started to acclimate to this new tradition and take pride in the flexibility of the Drum Major.  Now, it is an unwritten expectation that the current Drum Major be able to perform this trick.  Without the openness that the band has, the backbend would have never become another iconic image associated with the University of Michigan.

Backbend

Former Drum Major David Hines Jr. does the backbend

The staff of the band is not only open to thoughts and opinions, but they also make efforts to seek them out.  The evaluations that all classes have are a simple way to make changes to the band.  In the three years that I have been a part of this musical ensemble, I have seen the strides that the staff has made to make the experience more positive for everyone.   They have even read these evaluations out loud to students asking for their input on how to fix the system.  Beyond the evaluations, when deciding what shows to do for the next school year, or how to make a particularly big show go over well with the crowd, the staff allows anyone to participate in a meeting to help decide what to do.  They are genuine when they say that they want to hear everyone’s opinion, because they, like Mill, believe that all opinions are valid.  Outside of this, the directors encourage students to make personal appointments for anything they may want to express.  This open environment is part of what enables the Marching Band to feel like a tight-knit family, because everyone feels that they have an important role in the ensemble.

The biggest criticism that Mill would have for the toleration of opinions in the Michigan Marching Band would be that the students aren’t quite as open as the staff.  It is sometimes difficult for students to deal with opinions that are not their own in high stress situations.  Because the Michigan Marching Band is so important to all of its members, even when it comes to trivial matters (like what socks to wear with our summer uniforms), people make their views extremely clear.  The largest obstacle in hearing everyone’s voice is that of the student leaders.  Within each instrument group, the Marching Band has several student leaders in charge of running the section, while also serving as a liaison between the members and the staff.  Sometimes these leaders believe that because they were chosen to oversee their section, their own opinion is more important than that of all other members.  As Mill would argue, no person’s opinion is infallible, and just because someone was put in charge, doesn’t mean that they are exempt from criticism.  Mill and I agree that every member’s opinion is important, from the Drum Major of the band to the first year that has not marched in a single game.  Although the Drum Major may have been around longer, the first year may have a fresh perspective on whatever matter may be at hand.  In a band of almost 400 people, the many varying opinions are what help to make the band the unique experience that it is.  If members were not able to express their views, the band would not be able to adapt with time and each incoming group.  Mill’s “On Liberty” states that every opinion must be heard, and the atmosphere of the Michigan Marching Band emphasizes this concept.  From student leaders all the way through the staff, Mill’s ideas are strongly supported and taken to heart.

Mill, John Stuart. “On Liberty.”  Chapter Two.  1859.

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4 Comments on “The Michigan Marching Band, from any point of view”

  1. andgoldberg Says:

    Naturally, organizations such as the Michigan Marching Band have an element of “seniority”. The upperclassmen have more say than that of a first-year freshman. With this in mind, the upperclassmen should still listen to the opinions and views of the underclassmen. Criticism is the key to improving. The only way for the band to improve as a whole is to not only listen to what the drum major or band manager has to say, but to listen to all of the underclassmen who have a say too. By taking into account the entire organization’s view on a certain issue, the leaders of the band will develop a better understanding of what is the “right” action to take.

    Since the decisions of the marching band directly influence how the band will function in the future, the leaders have way too much influence. Placing decision making in the hands of a couple of individuals (all in college) would be too much responsibility. Simply take into account the thoughts of everyone. This would improve the decision making of the organization and also take pressure off the upperclassmen.

  2. ianbaker2041 Says:

    As a member of the marching band, I can say safely that it is an organization characterized by great unity and pride. While I do not play the same instrument as the person who wrote this, I can say that my section has a lot of unity-we often have social events on Thursday nights, we watch away football games together, we go to a corn maze every year, and we watch the superbowl together, to name just a few. As all other band members know, there are plenty of other thing that band members do together when not performing, and that’s part of what makes the experience memorable. Since I spend so much time in the fall with the same people, I trust them for so many things and rely on them to help me when I need it most. Not many other college students can profess to have that.

    To address the theory part of the post, I agree that the band is generally averse to change. Some members recently have brought forward proposals to modify the way the band manages the reserve system (the place where everyone not in the performance block for a given week works), and, according to those behind this movement, there was a generally negative reaction from the staff regarding these changes that would probably have made the Michigan Marching Band a better experience for its current members. Sometimes we make changes, but they are usually slow (which may be better), and the danger of being generally change-adverse is that some good ideas that seem a little too radical get passed up in favor of the status quo.

  3. jps3520 Says:

    I am also in band, and I agree with this post. We are united, they are my family in Ann Arbor, and I’m sure they would do anything for me just as I would them. Also, it is pretty open to suggestion, and people generally aren’t afraid to share their thoughts. However, as you stated, we are almost certain to side with tradition in any decision. Why do we do this? Michigan is a school with great tradition and the band has its own tradition too. Tradition is just something you do. There doesn’t need to be any grand reason why you do it if it’s tradition. I think that it develops unity throughout a group, and I feel like by not following the traditions of the past we would lose part of our identity. I’m sure this holds for other organizations as well.

  4. albosco Says:

    I agree with andgoldberg about the natural “seniority” of the thing like the marching band. Although everyone’s opinion matters, most people are going to be more inclined to listen to the members that have been around the longest and have the most experience. Just as with every type of organization, it is hard to be taken seriously when you are new to the team. For example, in the business world, most CEO’s would not want to change their longstanding way of running their company because the new college grad that just started working there thinks they have a better way of doing it. People get comfortable with things and it makes it hard to be innovative, because that requires taking a risk and testing out something new. Most people would think, why change what you have if it is working?

    You mention that it is very easy to make suggestions and voice your opinion, but sometimes people just don’t listen. As Mill argues that every opinion is important and needs to be heard, your information about the band makes me believe that this takes place. Personally, I am not a member of the band so I am really not positive about how everything works. However, it seems like the band is doing the best possible job to make everyone’s opinion valued. That can be a very difficult thing to do within an organization with so many people that have different opinions.

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