State Marching Band Festivals and the Death of Arts Funding

601522_10151873059493361_1431919273_nThere was a time, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and yours truly was in high school, where the marching bands used to march several score strong.

Naturally, there were exceptions; my mother and I still talk about the St. David marching band, all dozen and change of them, standing under a tree after their performance at the state marching band championships back in 1983.

(And I still remember standing at the top of the stands at Mesa Community College, holding the hand of a Marcos de Niza clarinet player named Becky who I had met when we went to watch ASU band day. Not sure what happened to her, now that I think about it. If you happened to play clarinet at Marcos and graduated in 1987 and were a very cute blond with glasses and you’re reading this … howdy.)

Those exceptions now seem to be the rule, thanks to the GOP-dominated Arizona Legislature and its two-decade assault on school funding, which has trickled down almost universally at the district level into cuts in the arts.

It’s not a new concept. Hell, Mr. Holland’s Opus was devoted the concept of administrators, forced to prioritize the pitiful dollars that come from the public, slashing at programs that weren’t related to the core subjects of reading, writing, math, history … not that those classes seem to be what they were in the day, either.

Horizon High School in the Paradise Valley School District has more than 2,000 students. Fewer than 50 are in the marching band and color guard.

McClintock High School in Tempe has more than 1,800 students. The band has about 50 members.

Cactus High School in Glendale is shrinking – it’s down to about 1,300 students. Fewer than 40 are in the marching band.

I could go on but, frankly, it’s depressing.

Perhaps marching band isn’t the most important subject when looked at strictly as music education. However, participation in band – just like in athletics – teaches students invaluable lessons about cooperation, teamwork and leadership.

Take, for example, my own child.

She joined the color guard at Sunrise Mountain because she didn’t want to take p.e. classes. Can’t much blame her there, as I hated p.e. with a passion.

During summer band camp, as she was put through calisthenics and aerobics and yoga and, oh by the way, instruction on how to twirl a flag, she vowed this would be her only season doing this since the p.e./arts requirement will be filled.

Two weeks into the season, her feelings changed. Suddenly she was going back to her old elementary school to talk to eighth graders about color guard and pigeon-holing her friends to help fill a squad whose six-member squad features four seniors.

Yesterday, she talked of being what seems to be a rare four-year member of the color guard and of serving as captain or co-captain in the not-too-distant future.

Why the change?

She has learned that the band is a family – dysfunctional, yes – but a family none the less.

She has learned to lead among peers, saving the expense of purchasing leadership books like First Break All the Rules.

She has learned that neither the credit nor the blame belongs to anyone person but to the group as a whole.

And she has learned the value in surrendering one’s self to something bigger.

Those lessons of themselves are not arts education for arts sake. Those lessons are education for the future’s sake.

So, with that in mind, all I ask is this.

Members of the Arizona Legislature, check out video of state marching band festivals from back in the 1980s and even into the early 1990s. Look at the size of the bands and see the number of lives being impacted positively through participation.

Then pick up this year’s DVD and see how many fewer students there are with the opportunity to learn the life and leadership lessons we so desperately need these days from high schools to the halls of Congress.

Then, once you’ve done that, hang your head in shame.

Jonathan Dalton

Jonathan Dalton is a 40-plus-year resident of the Valley and has been helping folks buy and sell homes since 2004. He can be reached at 602-502-9693 or info at