It was not uncommon for more than 100 high school students to be in the marching band and many will recall the yearly corporation wide music festival that easily filled the high school gym with spectators.
Dave Blackwell, band director for the Wawasee Community School Corp. 35 years, including 21 at the high school before retiring in 2003, said during his tenure the high school band had anywhere from just slightly above 100 to as many as approximately 150 students.
In recent years, though, particularly the last two or three, the band’s numbers have been nowhere near the peak years. This year’s total, for example, is estimated at just 40.
But accounting for the dip in numbers is not a simple explanation and involves more than just lacking a full-time band director. Fred Elliott resigned as band director in September 2010 and was replaced for the remainder of the 2010-11 school year by Matt Sitts, a student teacher. During the 2011-12 academic year, Dr. Joyce Dubach, orchestra director, was the band director.
Wawasee Superintendent Dr. Tom Edington said Ken Brower is a paid staff member for leading the marching band and also the pep band performing at home basketball games. Brower had been a volunteer, but does have some music experience, Edington said.
WHS still offers a band class, but not a marching band class. “Marching band is considered extra curricular and meets before or after school,” Edington noted.
The decision to make marching band extra curricular was made a couple of years ago, Edington said. Initially, marching band students could practice songs during the school day in a situation described as “co-curricular,” but then eventually marching band activities were moved to only before or after school.Edington said scheduling for many students became a problem as there were too many other classes they wanted to take in addition to band. “We were trying to make things as flexible as possible for students,” he said. “We were trying to find every way possible to help kids succeed.”
He was quick to add that a student who wants to play an instrument can still do so without having to be in the marching band.
In addition, compared to the past there are “so many more things students can be involved in today,” not just in school, he said. There are also more church and other activities and students are using technology more outside of school.
A weaker economy, he added, has also meant more students are working at jobs after school to help their household financial situations.
A couple of years ago was also about the same time a major budget cut for the school corporation exceeding $1 million occurred. “Mr. Elliott was not replaced as a full-time band director, but others have picked up the slack and we do hope to build up the numbers,” he said.
Edington said increased participation in the band will help justify more resources being applied. “We will look at how we are structuring the music program,” he said. “The more kids who come out for band (and other music programs), the more resources we can put toward that.”
Some point to the sizes of bands for surrounding high schools and wonder why Wawasee doesn’t have something similar. Edington said Wawasee simply can’t compete body for body with Warsaw, Concord and Goshen. Those schools are nearly double in size. NorthWood is about the same size.
He was quick to point out the same questions being asked outside of the school corporation are also being asked internally. He said an effort has been made to work with the music departments at the middle school and high school levels. “We know we are at a low ebb and we are trying to improve our feeder system to the high school,” he said.
Blackwell said he believes the number of band participants is closely related to who fills the band director position. “It rises and falls on the personality of the band director,” he said.
Another factor is the level of commitment required for a successful marching band. “It takes a lot of time to do the marching right,” he said.
He stressed music is a serious intellectual study and is a “brain heavy activity.” He noted scientific studies have shown there are as many as six cognitive functions occurring at the same time when a student is playing music because they are constantly thinking.
Blackwell said the number of required high school classes had increased even while he was still teaching. Newer Core 40 high school diploma requirements implemented within the last year or two is also a factor to consider.