Music

With the Band

What I learned when I learned to play an instrument.

Illustration by Dylan

About a year ago, my friend Shelby and I visited my birthplace, Columbia, SC, to participate in a feminist panel. While we enjoyed lots of adventures during our trip, I’ll most cherish the moment we met the Marching 100 Band, from the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, in our hotel lobby the day before they flawlessly rocked out at halftime at a football game at at a game at South Carolina State University with a diverse repertoire including “Flight of the Bumble Bee” and “Rolling in the Deep.”

When I was a kid, my parents taught at that same historically black university. In the American South, people take football seriously. Students, fans, and alumni flock to games with an almost religious devotion. I always rooted for my home team, but the grandeur of this band from the competing team, this 104-year-old musical tradition, floored me. I couldn’t help celebrating them, because their talent was true to their motto: “Often imitated, never duplicated.”

For me, meeting the FAMU musicians was what most people would feel if they met their favorite rock stars. I had the same reaction that I’d have if I met Bieber, or my celeb crush Idris Elba.

My infatuation with the Marching 100 was born when I was eight years old. Unlike the rest of my family, I was not a fervent football fan. I often squirmed in my stadium seat, read The Baby-sitters Club during games, and gorged myself on popcorn and peanuts while everyone else focused on kick-offs and touchdowns. When I saw my first Marching 100 show, I realized that the half-time show was my consolation prize for sitting through the actual sports.

The Marching 100 showed me that music has the power to unite people who might otherwise be divided. I wanted that power. I wanted to be able to captivate crowds and bring people together. The band’s ability to mesmerize fans of both teams with bold costumes, creative arrangements, and seemingly effortless swagger got me to attend games even though I didn’t care who won. I was impressed by their ability to hold the attention of hordes of sports fans because their music was so resonant, so powerful, so deliciously danceable.

As a teenager, I often felt self-conscious for not being sporty in a family that celebrated athleticism. I was born with a visual impairment that impacted my coordination and depth perception, so I was wary of contact sports. I avoided all sports-related activities except for gymnastics and swimming, the only athletic areas where I shined. I concentrated on finding other activities where I could express my creativity and demonstrate my dedication. I fell in love with this band because they were recognized for their unifying artistic talent rather than for any competitive sportiness.

The Marching 100 inspired me to learn to play an instrument. I wanted to create infectious harmonies and thundering beats, too, with a community of folks invested in their personal craft.

Sadly, none of my schools had a marching band for me to join. But I did end up playing a lot of instruments, and watched movies about marching bands on the side.

Contrary to pop-cultural lore, being in your school band does not have to be dorky or weird. At least it wasn’t at my Saudi Arabian junior high, where everyone was actually required to take at least one music course. As a bonus, since it was an international school, our band was able to compete in music competitions in places like the Netherlands and Dubai.

From sixth grade through high school, I studied trombone, much to the dismay of my parents, who asked me to choose a quieter and more “peaceful” instrument, like flute or viola. I ignored their pleas and stuck with my horn; I hadn’t seen many girls playing big brass instruments, and I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to be heard.

In a way it felt like the trombone chose me. It was the most awkward instrument ever, with its long, slippery slide, robust sound, and occasionally leaky spit valve. Still, it seemed very fitting for a quirky tween coming to terms with the sound and the force of my own voice. Besides, I found it kind of amusing to be playing in a musical section affectionately called “the boners” by our band mates.

For several years, I clocked long hours practicing reading and playing all of the marches, ballads, blues, and pop film scores we learned in school. Unlike my other academic courses, the technical side of music didn’t come easily for me, and I struggled to play an instrument that presented real physical challenges for asthmatic me. But I think this is one of the many reasons I loved band—it was something I was less than perfect at, but enjoyed doing anyway. Those things are important, especially if you happen to have a perfectionist streak.

Participating in band also gave me time and space to practice and improve, without the consequence of total failure if I didn’t get good enough fast enough (unlike Algebra 2 in my particular case). When I showed up for music class, performed in recitals, and practiced drills, I always felt content just making a sound and enjoying the pure bliss of creating music with other people.

A couple of days ago, when I was having a super stressful day, my childhood sweetheart reminded me that he always knew me to be a woman who liked a good challenge. He said, “I’ve known you since you were four years old, and I’ve never seen a mountain too tall for you to climb.” Even though we were chatting about our career goals and personal aspirations, his comment brought me back to my experiences learning to play music.

Before I heard about all of the studies that say kids who study music are better at learning languages, working in teams, problem-solving, SATs, and, in many cases, math, I think I innately knew that joining my school orchestra would teach me more than how to read notes or position my trombone slide.

The most important things being in band taught me were how to stare fear in the face while playing a solo, and the amazing feeling of working with a group of people to create something beautiful. Band taught me how to be fully present and, most of all, to embrace the vulnerability of playing in public without being scared of the sound of my own voice. ♦

25 Comments

  • Abby October 2nd, 2012 7:50 PM

    This made me want to cry…. my orchestra is my family… and I’m at college for the first time and I miss them SO much! And I miss my cello so much… I didn’t bring it because I have a problem with my hands that keeps me from playing extensively… it’s gotten a lot better now that I’ve not been playing as much, but I would take all the pain in the world back to be with my orchestra family and my cello again!!

  • suburban grrrl October 2nd, 2012 7:59 PM

    OH MY GOD This piece is perfect! I play trombone in my high school marching band, have played since I was like nine! I chose it for pretty much the same reason (I thought no one else would do it) and after 7 years know WAYYYYYYY too many “boner” jokes. . .

    Great article!

    http://sub-urbangrrrl.blogspot.com/

    • uaresoawesome October 2nd, 2012 10:43 PM

      You all just made me the happiest girl in the world AND convinced me to not quit marching band. It’s required if you take a band class, and I almost did because although all of my friends are in it as well, it was ruining the fun of playing trombone. AND EVEN BETTER, I can totally relate because I’m a girl in 9th grade who’s been playing trombone since 4th.Only girl. I chose it because I’m awkward and thought nobody would do it. There used to be more trombonists, but they all quit and abandoned me. And yeah, I get the “boner” jokes,too. ALL THE TIME. Rookie never ceases to amaze me. Thanks for being perfect. :)

  • plainjane October 2nd, 2012 8:06 PM

    this i beautiful :) i play the flute in the concert band and i march with the color guard. band really is like a family at our school. this article is amazing and so true. :)

  • Sarah.Ashley October 2nd, 2012 8:12 PM

    Band is such a unique group of people. I have been in band since 6th grade and played french horn since 5th. I took up sousaphone in high school for marching band and have the immense honor of being drum major my senior year. I even plan on being a middle school band director. The power that comes from working together on music is a unification like none other. I believe everyone should get the opportunity to be in a musical group.

  • MissKnowItAll October 2nd, 2012 8:13 PM

    I can’t really relate because i’m tone deaf but i get what you mean.

  • Samantha October 2nd, 2012 8:29 PM

    Marching band has been the single most influential class/activity/group in which I’ve ever been involved.
    I still volunteer writing narration for my high school’s marching shows, and there’s not a week that goes by where I don’t use a life skill I learned either playing music or drum majoring.
    Thanks for sharing your story!

    http://poorgoop.com/

  • didja October 2nd, 2012 8:53 PM

    I love this. I’m in 9th grade orchestra, I suck at playing my violin, and am always considering to quit, but this sort of got me a little bit motivated to keep going!

    • Squid_Catcher October 3rd, 2012 3:08 AM

      Please don’t quit violin! i’ve been playing since i was 5 (i’m 16 now). To be honest i’m not overly good at it, however after 11 years of it, i know my stuff. This year i have started teaching, i have one student so far (an adorable 10 year old) and my science teacher recently revealed to me that she has always wanted to play the violin, so i might just have another student soon! i really love teaching violin, and it is such a beautiful instrument, stick with it! i’m sure you won’t regret it :)

  • marimba_girl October 2nd, 2012 8:55 PM

    YESS!!! Marching band is my jam! It was the best experience I had in high school. I became friends with so many amazing and wonderful people and gained an even greater appreciation for music. Here is a video of our Group IV Open band competing at the PA state championships where we came in first place

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNfM5hFZ5b8

    We were having some mic problems in the pit, but my xylo solo came out pretty damn well! Last year we also won National Championships and I will never forget the feeling.

    It was a ton of hard work, our only days off were Sundays and Wednesdays, but it was so worth it.

  • Madness October 2nd, 2012 9:29 PM

    Its really cool to see an article about marching band on here! I’ve been in marching band since 9th grade and now I’m in college at FSU studying music and I just join the marching chiefs! FAMU is in my same town but unfortunately their band is gone right now because of the hazing. I really hate football and sometimes I wonder why I do marching but I know there’s something really special about it. Its just so absurd. There are so many amazing things you get to experience that you never get to do in real life! Like preforming in front of 80,000 people!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6Y-ub2XSu8

    • emmycait October 2nd, 2012 11:07 PM

      What section are you in? My bf is in Screech! Nice to see a fellow Nole here :)

  • Feli-city October 2nd, 2012 9:46 PM

    This is so perfect! I’m in 9th grade band, and I’m the only girl playing a brass instrument (trumpet to be exact).
    Anyway, this article is just peeeerrrrrfffect and so true!!

  • Harley October 2nd, 2012 10:08 PM

    The power of music can be amazing! I have played the violin for seven years and just started learning to play bass a few months ago. My music definitely impacts my life and it’s something that I like to share with others.

  • sparklybandit October 3rd, 2012 11:29 AM

    yay music geeks unite! i’d love to play a brass instrument but its strings for me !

  • NotReallyChristian October 3rd, 2012 12:04 PM

    As a fellow brass player I have to defend our honour: It’s not spit, IT’S CONDENSATION! At least it is for the trumpet, which I played for … I guess 10 years? Also, well known fact: the brass section parties hardest!

  • Ameliathistle October 3rd, 2012 12:25 PM

    TROMBONISTS FOR THE WIN! We should have a rookie-trombone meetup sometime. Everyone in my family play brass, but nobody chose trombone for a million generations – they all thought I was mad for wanting to play it! But I love that it’s different, and hardly any girls play it, and it’s loud and awkward and leaky and hilarious looking and awesome sounding! Playing since 8 or 9 years old xx

  • CookyKurls October 3rd, 2012 5:02 PM

    Aww, I love this! I’ve never learnt to play an instrument apart from a few lessons here and there but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Maybe I’ll try and pick something up now that I’ve dropped Art. Art was my thing that I was okayish at but I loved despite my perfectionist tendancies. Learning to play the oboe sounds pretty cool, I shall have to start looking into it! Great post xx

  • Lily October 3rd, 2012 7:31 PM

    I love this sooo much! Brass girls unite! I play the trumpet, french horn, mellophone, and trombone. I like being loud and powerful through marching band. (:

  • Grace96 October 3rd, 2012 7:39 PM

    YES more chicks who play trombone!

  • Whatsername October 3rd, 2012 10:03 PM

    So relevant — just got home from a 3-hour marching band practice in sticky humid fog. Thank you for reminding me why I do this.
    {Drumline chicks REPRESENT}

  • Jamia October 4th, 2012 12:30 PM

    Thanks so much Rookies! So happy to hear that so many of us love playing music.

  • sociallyawkwardbutterfly October 7th, 2012 9:12 PM

    This article made me feel wonderfully nostalgic! And it seems weird that I was just thinking about band when I came across this article.
    I feel like leaving my problem here because maybe I’ll feel better about my situation or get helpful advice!
    So I’ve played the trumpet for four years and have been surrounded by the same loud, obnoxious male trumpet players that come along with this role. But once I went into high school I decided to join choir just for a change of scenery. Now in my sophomore year I am considering rejoining band but have some hesitations about it. I have an equal amount of friends in band and choir so that isn’t the problem. I think the main problem is with the guys who play in the trumpet section. I was a pretty good trumpet player so once I stopped it was pretty shocking but they didn’t care because I wasn’t friends with any of them. But since I haven’t played for 2 years I forgot a lot of things and they also advanced way beyond me. I’m scared that when I come back and play terrible they will wonder why I even bothered coming back, and to be honest I find the fact that I will have to sit next to them for multiple hours as very off putting.
    But yes, if anyone has advice or any kind of input I’d love to hear it:)

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica October 15th, 2012 1:51 PM

    This was a fun read!

  • liviggles October 22nd, 2012 9:12 PM

    This article has been the article I have been able to connect to most. I’ve been in concert band for five years now, and it is my life! All of my friends are in band, I have a strange connection to every music geek. Next year I plan on being on colorguard for marching band. I always thought that band was “my place” somewhere I could belong to and call home. Somewhere I could be myself *That sounds really cheesy* But have connections. Band is literally the best time of my life, and I will always be part of the Band Geeks-I’m not afraid to admit I was a geek!