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.
My son Ian is one of those marching-band kids with autism. He spends every eighth period, Friday evening and Saturday afternoon on the marching-band field between July and November. And, over the three years that he has participated, he has become less and less “autistic.” While there is no cure for autism, he’s definitely less stressed, more independent, physically stronger and more engaged with classmates. We’re convinced that his marching-band experience has been an important factor in his improvement. More than that, we think marching band has rewired his brain.
A great deal of scientific evidence supports our observations.
Marching band brings together various activities — music, dance and exercise — each of which has been proven to benefit students with autism. Music instruction has been shown to increase communication skills and brain connectivity for children with autism. Percussion instruments, which emphasize movement and rhythm, may be particularly beneficial. Researchers found that students who participated in a 10-week music instruction program, where they drummed for an hour each week, had enhanced communication with peers and adults as well as improved concentration.
Children with autism have difficulty synchronizing their movements with others. In one study, researchers found that children with autism will not rock in a rocking chair at the same tempo as an adult in a nearby rocking chair, while typically developing children will. Researchers believe that the instinct in children to synchronize their movements with others is an important step in developing social reciprocity, and its absence in children with autism might explain their social and communication deficits.
Lining up one’s steps with others is an essential element of marching band. Participants spend long hours perfecting their movements, so a group of 100 musicians will move as one. This activity teaches synchronicity to students, who don’t naturally possess that skill. With a high standard for synchronized movements, marching might be even more effective than dance, which we know improves social communication and motor skills for children with autism.
People with autism frequently struggle with sensory disorders. Marching-band kids are expected to wear scratchy uniforms on hot, sunny, mosquito-covered fields next to extra-loud drums. All of this is a challenge to someone whose sensory system is more highly calibrated than the average person’s. But those challenges, particularly in supportive environments, might be one of the best ways for people to overcome sensory issues. Occupational therapists often use methods like this in clinical settings to help children overcome their sensitivities. In marching band, this therapy happens naturally as part of the larger activity.
Marching band takes kids away from therapists and special-ed silos, where artificiality, isolation and low expectations can be the norm. Instead, skills are developed in natural settings. Children learn social and behavioral skills organically from watching typically developing peers. More and more evidence shows that inclusion of kids with high-functioning autism is far better than isolating them in a special-ed silo.
My son was lucky enough to have a band director who not only included him and overlooked his social gaffes, but who also held him to the same high standard that he held other students to. He’s our hero.
Marching band offers hope to all kids, not just those with disabilities. Studies show that a high-quality music program can have wide-ranging benefits. Research on college marching bands reveals academic and health benefits for participants. There is a correlation between academic success and playing a musical instrument throughout high school. Research from the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont found that music training aids emotional and behavioral maturation in children. And with the modern plagues of anxiety and depression in the teenage world, perhaps a tuba march would help with those, too.
That’s why music education, and specifically marching band, needs to be a priority in all schools, rather than the first thing on the cutting block during budget crises. According to a 2017 study from the Give a Note Foundation and the Country Music Association, over 90 percent of U.S. high schools offer band class, but only 38 percent of those provide specific instruction for marching band. The report found that all music programs continue to be under-funded, particularly in urban areas. However, more schools are offering music today and hiring more full-time music teachers than 20 years ago.
My son continues to experience little wins every day. Just this week, we learned that his PSAT score was high enough to exempt him from the entrance exam for the local community college. A computer science program at another local college is within reach, too. These achievements were unthinkable before he started high school. We credit the magic of marching band for these wins.
This story on marching band and arts education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
A former teacher, academic and policy analyst, Laura McKenna is a freelance writer specializing in education, parenting and politics.