Why Band Kids Get Responsive

I encouraged my daughter to join band when she was in fourth grade and to stick with it at least through high school because I thought she would enjoy it. I was a jock, and I was always jealous of the band kids. They seemed to have more fun and be closer friends. As she entered her senior year, I realized that there is more to band than I thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed football and other sports. I believe I learned a lot about perseverance and team work. In football, I played offensive line and knew that if I missed my assignment, my quarterback got hammered. The cause and effect was very clear. I miss my block, he feels it. These lessons are important in the simplest terms, but the lessons band kids learn are, in my humble opinion, much more applicable in the new reality.

As I was watching the marching band perform at half-time one Friday night, I marveled in the complexity of the performance. One hundred and fifty kids moving all over the field making shifting designs, interacting with props, flag teams and each other all while playing three very intricate pieces of music. The show all comes together in a flawless rush of order and design that at the end breaks down and marches away until the following week.

What is amazing to me is that on the performance night, it is all up to the kids to make it work. Up to that point, the teachers and volunteers help, but when it comes to executing, the kids do it all. Considering it is so complex and they are between 15 and 17 years old, this is quite a feat.

Here are some key observations I have made over the last eight years of watching my daughter and her peers progress and why they are able to apply a Complexity Lens:


Kids in band are not there to be popular (though many are) or to get a scholarship (though some may). They participate because they love music, and they want to have a memorable experience in school. Their sense of purpose is from their heart. Considering the years of practice to become good at their roles and the number of hours all of them have to commit each season to learn their routine, their sense of purpose has to be strong or they would simply fail.


Emergence is the idea that something is different than the sum of its parts. A marching band requires everyone to play a part, but the individual parts, or just a portion of them, would not sound the same as the whole. All parts must all be played and played well to not just be noise. Add to that the designs they create while marching, the addition of a color guard, the sets and the props, and the result is much more than just a bunch of kids playing instruments.


The primary rules for marching are “Feet in Time” and “Equal Distance.” Marchers must start with the same foot and end on the same foot. They must also maintain a measurable distance with the people around them so they don’t run into each other and the individuals are evenly spread. If they can do these two things, everything else is manageable. If just one of them does not follow the rules, there is potential for chaos.


In marching bands, like symphonies, the leaders are conductors or in this case drum majors. Their job is to ensure that everyone knows when to start and stop, what the tempo is, and when to play louder or softer. They provide feedback on the resulting sound and make adjustments where necessary. They do not try to command every movement or interaction.


While the band instructor is hired by the school, the leaders on the field are chosen by the band members based on a combination of skills, respect, and ability to communicate. They may not always be the best musicians, but they are usually the right people for the role because they have an understanding of how it all works together. There is little tolerance for ineffective leadership in marching band as it means the difference between order and public humiliation.


The difference between a marching band and a symphony is that there are usually three drum majors conducting. This is because the band members are moving and looking in different directions. From time to time, one of the drum majors will climb down from his perch and run across the field so he can better be seen. The secondary drum majors focus on the primary one and keep pace with him, and so they form a network of interactions between the primary, the secondary, and the band members to ensure everyone knows what to do and when. In addition, the success of the band also depends on the social networks that are formed between individuals, sections, and the entire band. They amount to a support network that is, from what I can see, highly familial.


Marching bands have immediate feedback loops. The show is either enjoyable or it isn’t. The crowd reacts either way, as do the instructors. The band has feedback from those around them on the field (sometimes getting knocked about). In addition, like in sports, they watch film to see how they can improve. Finally, most bands also participate in competitions where they receive scores from judges that allow them to adjust throughout the year.


While people in the band may have specific capabilities (e.g. playing a trumpet), they are flexible depending on the role required. Some members move between instruments, or they may play a solo part, or be part of a smaller group that plays a movement. During the off season, they may play in the jazz band, an orchestra, or a quartet, or all of the above using their skills in many different ways.


Marching bands have a number of variables that may affect their performance and require them to adapt. During preparation, the number of kids in the band and the skill sets can be quite variable. Some members might get sick or be injured on the performance day and the number of personal challenges of 150 teenagers is hardly imaginable. When they perform, the field conditions can be quite different depending on the place and time. They may play indoors or outdoors, on grass or on AstroTurf, on wet ground or on dry ground. They may be called on to do a special performance (as they were this past week acknowledging the anniversary of 9/11), and they often play in the stands before and after their field performance. No matter the circumstances, a band can conjure up something to listen to.

Overall, marching band is a great opportunity for kids to learn to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It also provides us a lens into Complexity. So, if you are not sure you get it, ask a former band kid.

Post Script: I was a bit self-conscious about this article because band routines are designed, taught and practiced in advance. But then I was fortunate to talk with complexity expert and former band kid David Sweetman MBA, PhD at University of Michigan who pointed out that when marching bands are in parades, they do have to adapt all along the route. So, there we go band kids. You get it!