Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Have We Learned Nothing From “Drumline”?

[ABSTRACT: It figures … the big story of the first day of March Madness 2012? One of the bands makes national headlines by screwing up. Great.]


While I’ve been a playing member, assisting instructor, and director of high school and college bands, I’ve had a decent amount of experience with the question of “how should we behave?”, specifically while wearing any apparel directly identifying us as band members.


During my freshman year with my college band, on one early-season game day, I overheard a member of the band’s student staff quietly reading the riot act to another marching member about profanity in uniform … i.e., there is none, please. Read the handbook.


Same band, same year, in Washington, DC, for Ronald Reagan’s second Inauguration: as I have chronicled previously, we observed a member of another band smoking in uniform. Setting aside whatever you think of smoking, and whatever your particular band’s controlled-substances policy happens to be … either everybody smokes or nobody does, gang: it’s the definition of “uniform”. It didn’t help that the smoker was on his own, with his uniform jacket hanging open. Sigh.


While serving as grad assistant for bands at a member school of the America East collegiate athletic conference, I got to observe the behavior of another band, which I was quietly pleased that we did not emulate. Our men’s basketball team made it to The Big Dance, so we traveled to Kansas City with them, to root them on to victory. We were involved in the second game of the afternoon at Kemper Arena, and while the first game was going on, we sat in the stands behind one of the other bands and watched – politely scouting not just the two hoop teams (for use when our team, we were sure, would meet one of them in the second round) but also the other two bands.

To kill the suspense: our team froze in the headlights. They got beaten mercilessly. Welcome to the world of national-level basketball competition. We went home the next day.

But by the end of that first game, a lot of us were shaking our heads: the band sitting in front of us, from the University of Southern Northwest Eastview [names have been changed to protect the guilty], had done nothing but make awful remarks about everyone and everything around them, except of course for themselves, and sometimes those remarks didn’t feature strictly the King’s English. What we took from that tournament experience was: well, there’s a band we don’t want to be like, no matter how well they play.


During one football game early in my first season as director of a small college band from central New England, the action was getting pretty suspenseful – a close score, the other team (in our view) benefiting from a couple of cheap shots not flagged by referees, and our team getting flagged for fouls they of course did not commit! In frustration, one of our low brass guys (a fine gentleman) expressed his view of the officiating somewhat loudly and very profanely. Instantly I ran halfway up the stands to where his section was and described for him exactly how often I ever wanted to hear anything like that. “I don’t care if you’re right – and you probably are – but you’re in uniform. Never again.”

To his credit, he immediately (before I finished my first sentence) turned all kinds of colors, apologized, and indeed, he uttered not one more word outside the dictionary for his remaining two and a half years with the band – although his enthusiasm never dimmed. For the rest of my time with that band, my formerly-profane friend and everybody around him were people with whom I was happy to travel anywhere, any time.


So, yesterday, during the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, at a game between Kansas State University and Southern Mississippi University, which was nationally (or at least regionally) televised, a Kansas State player of Puerto Rican origin named Angel Rodriguez stepped to the foul line and was greeted by several members of the Southern Miss pep band chanting, “Where’s Your Green Card?”

Take a moment on your own to imagine how many things are wrong with that utterance. I’ll wait here till you get back.

Yeah. Me too.

From a distance, it might be easy for almost any of us to righteously declare, “here’s what I’d do in that situation, if I were in charge of that group.” I don’t know all the details about this incident … or details about this band that I would probably know better if I were among the band’s leadership: were all the kids chanting? Just some of them? Is it a student-led pep band with an advisor, or do they have a faculty or staff-level conductor? What’s the band’s history with regard to public behavior, or more secluded on-campus/off-hours behavior, or even hazing? Do they have a good or bad reputation? …

But it may be that none of that matters. The chant was ridiculous on its face … even if it wasn’t a full-band chant … even if it was an isolated incident (as the president of Southern Mississippi University has asserted in her official apology to the world).

Reportedly, the Southern Miss athletic director either has dragged or will drag the SMU band director in front of the Kansas State player (and, presumably, other KSU officials) to offer his/their own apology, and this is at least what ought to happen. I don’t want to spend time preaching about what else the school “should” do about all this – I wouldn’t want the whole Internet world to be telling me what to do if I were in that band director’s shoes, because as I said, the whole world doesn’t have all the information it needs in order to make the right decision about that particular situation. And I don’t want to be the equivalent of an Internet commenter/flamethrower, all knee-jerk righteousness and long-distance pontification. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, and it ain’t no fun.

But yesterday my imagination inevitably went to “what would I do in this case?” – from the perspective of someone who has led similar ensembles which were very much in the public eye, and yes, they were on national TV too.

If it were my band … as much as I would have tried to “set the example” and otherwise lay out codes of conduct for my band (which I’m reasonably sure the SMU director would have tried to do; I am presuming he’s a decent sort of fellow who likely doesn’t deserve to have to deal with this sort of silliness) … I am pretty sure that if my team had won its first-round game (SMU didn’t) and stayed in the tournament’s host city, my band would not have. With the blessings of my athletic director, I hope I would have sent my band back to the hotel, had them collect their luggage, and headed straight to the airport. I hope I would have had the opportunity to instantly, in that moment (with the blessing and presence! of the athletic director) approach the opposing team’s bench and offer an immediate apology to the entire team. I’m even pretty sure I would have considered sitting the band down and having them not make a single sound for the rest of the game; possibly from the safety of our bus outside.  It’s okay: our cheerleading coach would have understood.

I hope I would have done something appropriate, in that moment. Obviously, the only way I would know exactly what I would have done in that situation would have been to be in the middle of it. Happily, with the bands I’ve been associated with, I never had occasion to know.


The official statement from SMU’s president reads thusly:

We deeply regret the remarks made by a few students at today’s game. The words of these individuals do not represent the sentiments of our pep band, athletic department or university. We apologize to Mr. Rodriguez and will take quick and appropriate disciplinary action against the students involved in this isolated incident.”

The problem with this is that whether the chant does or doesn’t represent the sentiments of the band, and whether this is in fact an isolated incident, that’s not the point now. Whatever uniformed members of a school band do – good or bad – affects public perception of that school. Observers of a band’s behavior are not required to do heavy research in order to find out whether they should condemn or admire that organization or that school. The WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) rule applies in these cases, for better or for worse.

And in this case, thank you so much to the possibly isolated members of the Southern Miss band for reflecting poorly not only on their fellow band members, not only on their school, but on pep bands in general, because that’s how the public reacts: with scorn for bands.  All bands.  Yours and mine.  They’re all unruly college kids.

My college band director once made a statement in an article about our band that wasn’t technically one of his Starred Thoughts®, but it could have been, and it may be the point of all this:

There are standards — standards of behavior, standards of how to project the image of the band, which is the image of the university, which is of course the image of themselves.”


March 16, 2012 - Posted by | band, GNP, news, Starred Thoughts, UMMB | , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Nice post Rob. Reminds me of my Freshman year experience, at Northeastern, prior to transferring to the Great State University…was in the pep band, which was only slightly more than an afterthought. The band director had zero involvement…this was strictly a student-led club at the time. I was given a book of cheers, along with the music, and told to be prepared. At the first basketball game (which was televised on Channel 38 locally, and featured a young Reggie Lewis coached by a young Jim Calhoun), during a break in the action, the band broke into a cheer. I hadn’t really learned the cheers yet, and I had the handbook with me, so I just turned and read it along with my cohorts. As a young college Freshman, I got a chuckle of the title “Doin’ It Doggie Style” and the refrain “makin’ puppies”…funny, only because the NU Huskies, both Mr. and Mrs., would come over the band and act out some of the chant.

    Well, two things happened after the break…the on-site producer for Channel 38 came over and reamed us up and down, resulting in us retiring that cheer (and a few others), and now having the new band director in charge of the pep band; and a phone call from my parents when I got back to the dorm, wondering if they had really heard what they heard, and reminding me that I could be seen, and heard on TV.

    The season went better for from there…the hockey team won the Beanpot (how often does that happen?), and the basketball team went to Atlanta (with us in tow) for the NCAA, where we got spanked by Illinois. As the game was ending, one of the chuckleheads in the band said we should break out “Doin’ it Doggie Style” to which the band director replied: “you do, you’re done, and you’re walking home”. Message received.

    Comment by Eric | March 16, 2012 | Reply

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