It’s Elementary, My Dear

A growing number of communities are introducing students to the marching arts in grade school. Find out why and how.

Each fall 5th graders at South Seneca Elementary School in Interlaken, New York, get together twice per week to rehearse for the local homecoming parade. Strains of “We Will Rock You” can be heard from the practice field. Children 4 feet tall hold instruments comically large in comparison to themselves. Come show time, the 6th graders will join them for a performance that no one is likely to forget.

Marching programs with elementary students often have different focuses. Some communities, like South Seneca, have a full marching band; others focus solely on drumline or color guard.

Local Involvement

Especially with programs serving low-income communities, access is important. To ensure that the program is accessible to all students—especially those that rely on the school bus to get to and from campus each day—it may be necessary to hold rehearsals during the normal school day.

But while a program may take place during regular hours, teachers like to get their students involved beyond the school grounds and out in the greater community. In addition to the homecoming parade, the South Seneca Elementary School Band performs during the local high school’s football games during the fall. In the spring, it performs in numerous community events such as the Ovid Strawberry Festival and Craft Fair.

Meanwhile, Winding Springs Elementary in Charlotte, North Carolina, has a drumline that participates in parades and performs at nursing homes.

The Miamisburg (Ohio) Elementary Color Guard, known as the Miamisburg Sweethearts, does not compete in the WGI circuit, instead opting to stay more local and competing throughout Southern Ohio. For students interested in competing more, two older ensembles compete at the Scholastic A and World levels through both WGI and the Mid East Performance Association.

The Blue Devils, one of the most storied drum corps, also appeals to young marchers with its C Corps for students ages 8 to 14. Unlike the more advanced ensembles that make up the larger organization, the C Corps doesn’t go on the traditional Drum Corps International summer tour across the country.

But just because it isn’t a full-time gig doesn’t mean that the members aren’t busy. Based in Concord, California, The Blue Devils C Corps rehearses one evening per week and travels locally throughout Northern California to perform in parades and shows.

While all of these programs are different, they all provide unique opportunities for young students to expand their horizons and perform with people and at events they would otherwise never experience.

In the words of Rick Odello, director of The Blue Devils C Corps, “Where else does a young person get to perform at Stanford Stadium?”

Academics Before Extracurriculars

Anyone involved in school athletics as a child has probably heard the spiel that “You’re a student before an athlete,” and the sentiment is the same with extracurricular music activities. Being involved in a marching program at such a young age is not easy, so it’s especially important to make sure that the participants prioritize academic learning and don’t let their grades slip.

The Winding Springs Upper Elementary Drum Line, directed by Karl Stolz, has strict academic requirements for its members. Students must have passed the previous year’s end-of-grade exams, must be on the honor roll, cannot have any discipline referrals, and must be recommended by their third grade teachers.

Meanwhile, the Miamisburg Elementary Color Guard checks its students’ grades weekly. “If they have two D’s or any F’s, they are not allowed to participate … until their grades are improved,” says director Suzy Deis. “We understand that school comes before extracurriculars.”

Unique Challenges

Although it’s adorable to see children 4 feet tall donning full marching regalia, working with younger marchers presents music educators with a unique set of challenges.

Equipment and instruments are amongst the largest challenges that music instructors face. Children, after all, are much smaller than teenagers. Over-sized equipment is often difficult for children to navigate, making much of the standard marching equipment unusable.

With color guards, weight is less of an issue than size. The Miamisburg Elementary Color Guard members, ranging from 2nd grade to 5th grade, spin a standard 36” rifle and saber, but the flags are a different story; imagine a girl in the 2nd grade trying to spin a 6-foot flag! To correspond to their different heights, kids have the option of using 4-foot, 5-foot, or 6-foot flags.

But even more important than unwieldiness, safety is imperative when working with young children. If forced to use equipment that is too heavy for them, the long-term health consequences could be serious.

To ensure safety, schools have found numerous instruments that work better for the smaller stature of their younger students. Winding Springs uses ultra-light drums that are easier for children to carry. The tuba players of South Seneca play ¾ sousaphones.

Uniforms are yet another problem marching programs must solve. While larger programs can afford to use regular marching attire, this expense can be cost-prohibitive for smaller ensembles. To keep costs down, programs might not require traditional uniforms as a means to keep expenses to a minimum.

Take Winding Springs Elementary, for instance. Rather than allocate precious resources to uniforms, drumline members wear regular school uniforms—matching khakis, white shoes, and white button-down shirts—just as they do in the classroom. Asking kids to wear what is already required of them by the school limits costs and ensures that families with fewer resources will not be burdened with the financial costs associated with marching band.

The Early Bird

When working with children at such a young age, the focus is less upon competing and more on teaching meaningful skills that will last beyond their involvement with the program.

The Blue Devils C Corps focuses upon this value. “You can be a complete novice … or you could be a virtuoso,” Odello says. “It’s a melting pot of skills.”

But because young students come from all backgrounds, teaching marching skills and musical technique is especially demanding. “You have to be a better teacher to teach at this level because you’re teaching a bunch of different levels,” Odello says.

While starting young children in the marching arts is no walk in the park, those involved with these programs feel that the experience is worth a little more work.

South Seneca uses its spring marching band, comprised of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, as leadership training for its oldest members. Although Rebecca Sarkis, the program’s director, tries to have two to three parents involved in her after-school rehearsals—mainly to corral the children—teaching is primarily completed by herself and 6th graders who have been in the program since the 4th grade.

Not only does this setup teach leadership skills to the students, but it also gives younger kids something to look forward to as they get older. “Our 6th graders are our nice little saving grace for our 4th graders,” Sarkis says.

Getting students involved in the marching arts at a young age also means that they will have more time to perfect the fundamentals.

“It’s a lot easier to teach a kid at a young level to have proper technique and develop through the stages of life than it is to have someone come in later,” Deis says. “It really makes our World Class color guard a lot stronger.”

But the ultimate goal of any program is to provide a meaningful learning and developmental experience for children, something that Stolz believes marching programs easily achieve. In his time at Winding Springs, countless parents have told him about the benefits their children have reaped from the program. These include a higher level of motivation, academic excellence, and leadership qualities.

In the end, all that really differentiates these ensembles from more standard marching groups is the age of the participants. “Why can’t these kids play drums?” Stolz says. “They’re just small. They can carry it; they’re tireless.”

Youth Marching Popular in Japan

Videos of tiny tots in marching regalia regularly go viral, but many Americans fail to realize that they don’t share a common language with these small performers. Although marching band is commonly considered an all-American pastime, its reach extends beyond the nation’s borders and has become particularly popular in Japan.

According to a paper written by Timothy J. Groulx and published in 2009 by Music Education Research International, Western-influenced bands first popped up in Japan’s military and by the early 1900s had begun to appear in the nation’s school system. WWII momentarily disrupted the growth of these programs, but since then interest has exploded.

Today, ensembles with names like the Doremi Nursery School Marching Band and Ishigaki Elementary School Marching Band are sprinkled throughout Japan, expanding the marching arts beyond the American football field.

While Japan and the United States may be pretty different, one thing’s for sure—both countries know how to put on a good marching performance.

Photo courtesy of Winding Springs Upper Elementary Drumline.
Photo of South Seneca Elementary School is courtesy of Carrie Smalser.
Photo of the Miamisburg Elementary Color Guard is courtesy of Bob Pressel and Ed Diehl.
Photo of the Blue Devils C Corps is courtesy of Peter Villpando.

About author

Emily Moneymaker

Emily Moneymaker is a graduate from the University of Southern California (USC) where she received a Bachelor of Science in Policy, Planning and Development and a minor in marketing. She has played trumpet for more than 12 years. She marched in the USC Trojan Marching Band and served as the organization's recruitment manager.