To be honest, I am not a big fan of the semester theme of Sports and the University. I don’t know anything about sports, and they do not interest me. So at the beginning of this semester, I found myself in a predicament: how do I relate to this theme so I don’t become insanely bored and apathetic towards the class? Upon pondering this, I made the realization that there is one group of which I am a part at this university that actually parallels athletics quite a bit, and that is the Michigan Marching Band.
My experience as a part of the MMB has been one that will stick with me for life. To preface this discussion, you can learn more about the MMB on our website, and because it is my second year in the program and it is no longer extremely overwhelming, I can take a step back and analyze the program and all of the many connections that I can form to this course.
Many people don’t know this, but the performers that you see on the field every Saturday during pregame and halftime are actually only about three-quarters of the band. The rest of the performers remain in the stands; they are what we call “reserves.” The reason that we have reserves is because, unlike other college marching bands, we do not have just one audition process and then you’re in for the
entire season. Every member of the band actually re-auditions before every game by what we call the Challenge System. The student leaders in the band decide every week whether or not to “challenge” the members of their rank in order for them to keep their spots in the performance block. If you are challenged, you have to march a portion of the past week’s halftime show in order for your halftime marching technique (glide step) to be judged, and then you have to march a portion of pregame in which your traditional and lock step will be judged. These challenges become a score, and each member’s score determines whether they make the performance block or not every given week. Each section of the band only has a certain amount of spots open for their instrument on the field.
So other than being complicated and stressful, how does this Challenge System relate to political science? The purpose of the system is to keep the band fair and in tip-top condition for every performance. If one member is on the reserve field for a week and he practices very hard, his score will likely improve during the challenge, and this member will replace a member in the performance block who has not been working as hard; hard work in the MMB is rewarded. In our program, we endorse a system of meritocracy in this way. In class, we discussed the theories of education by Menand, viewed here. In his first theory, Menand claims that the purpose of education is to separate the intelligent from the average from the undeserving in the classroom, and by this process college serves as a sorting mechanism so that the most deserving will earn the best jobs. The marching band at this university is like this because although many students join the band, not all of them perform at every game; the Challenge System separates the best from the average from week to week, although no one in the band is undeserving to be there.
Another topic which has endured much discussion in class is the debate between what is play and what is work. For example, we discussed Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise in which he claims that the ideal of human existence is to do things for intrinsic value, and that everything we do, even work, is really an elaborate game. Along these lines, we also discussed Homo Ludens by Huizinga, in which he tries to define play and how it is distinguished from work. His definition of play is that the activity is free, separate, uncertain, autotelic, governed by rules, and make-believe. Something can be play, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious.
As a member of the Michigan Marching Band, I can attest that we do indeed take it very seriously, and it is also a lot of hard work. We practice every single day of the week, rain, snow, or shine, and on Game Day Saturdays, we practice for hours before the game even begins. We bear the responsibility of preserving the honor of our school and its athletics by, for example, playing loud chords in the stadium whenever the student section begins its “you suck” chant so it is not heard on tv. Because we are always representing our school, we are never allowed to say anything incriminating about the athletic department on social media or do anything incriminating while wearing anything that bears the name of the band. We are recognized around the globe for our excellence, our fight song has been voted the number one college fight song in history, and we are essentially the face of the football program. Based of all of these factors, you may call what we do “work.” However, I would argue that our program fits perfectly into Huizinga’s definition of play as well. Although all of these readings that we have been assigned refer mostly to sports (and you can find an argument for why marching band should be considered a sport here-try to look past the fact that it is about Ohio State), the same concepts apply to a vigorous, Big Ten marching band program. We do what we do because we get intrinsic value from it, regardless of the fame and recognition. Pregame is way too difficult to endure for any other reason.