OPINION: Marching band sets the right tempo for many special-needs kids

With plumed caps and braided epaulets for miles, marching bands are a staple of the high school football game. Students stride purposefully around the field with piccolos and tubas, and synchronize their steps to Billy Joel medleys, homages to Mary Poppins and even a snappy march or two from John Philip Sousa. Girls in flared skirts and knee-high boots triumphantly wave flags or twirl wooden rifles. 

In some ways, marching bands are anachronistic today. The frozen smiles and stiff-legged choreography of these bands harken back to a 1940s Esther Williams technicolor movie. The twirling rifles feel vaguely sinister in this post-Sandy Hook era. Yet they hold a certain magic, too — a place of innocence and sincerity not found elsewhere in the dystopian world of the modern American high school. They hold a different kind of magic for the kids who participate in this activity.

Along with the A/V club and the stage crew, marching bands have long been safe places for kids like the socially awkward girl, Michelle, from the 1999 cult flick American Pie, who annoys everyone with tales about band camp. The typical participant is not a super star on the football field or in student government. 

Marching bands also draw in kids with various learning differences, including those with high-functioning autism. For these students, marching band is an activity in which they can participate with peers. With its unique combination of exercise, dance, music and rigor, it also may be a place where they heal.

More here.

4 thoughts on “OPINION: Marching band sets the right tempo for many special-needs kids

  1. love the article and the updates on Ian. Congrats to him! I like the seamless interweaving of the personal and the research you accomplished in the article. And, I love marching bands. I also love theater and newspaper. I used to follow a blog by a professor whose son was profoundly gifted and on the autism spectrum and this dad used to detail the role that theater played in his son’s life for similar reasons you described about marching band. I think there are a number of people who benefit from these kinds of collaborative, group activities where roles are still defined. The professor used to complain about group assignments in which an individual could accomplish the task better than the group (math sometimes falls in this category, especially when done by a highly gifted child). The group just adds noise, sometimes. But, marching band, orchestra, theater, newspaper are all activities that require collaboration. Even if an individual person might be the best violinist, clarinetist, flutist, drummer, they can’t play all the parts. The group must contribute.

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    1. bj said, “The professor used to complain about group assignments in which an individual could accomplish the task better than the group (math sometimes falls in this category, especially when done by a highly gifted child). The group just adds noise, sometimes.”

      That’s a very good point.

      Yearbook, too, I suppose?

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  2. Good article, Laura!

    I grew up in Piscataway in central Jersey. From the late 1970s until the late 1990s, our high school marching band was one of the best in the region, arguably because it was the most popular activity in the school. At its height there were 200 to 250 kids in the band, and when they marched silently onto the field, turned toward the audience, and belted out their opening notes, there wasn’t a soul in the stands who didn’t get goosebumps.

    The music directors made it very clear that they could teach absolutely any kid to march and play an instrument, and not even the most difficult kids ever proved them wrong. I wasn’t in the band, but looking back I can appreciate how many skills it allowed the kids to cultivate. It kept quite a few kids from delinquency by keeping them too damned busy to get into trouble—and it occurs me to now that it was also a socioeconomic leveler. It also enhanced civic pride because tons of parents were involved as chaperones, drivers, vendors, festival organizers, fundraisers, and advocates. They knew where their kids were, what they were doing, and who their friends were; in turn, the kids learned to interact with adults and not see them as alien beings.

    It’s heartening to hear that some version of that experience still exists, and that your son is benefiting from it.

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