Musicians as Athletes

Marching musicians face many of the same physical demands as top-notch athletes, often with the same potential for injury but without medical oversight. researchers, doctors and schools team up to improve conditioning and safety for marching students.

In its Aug. 10, 1987 issue, Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine quoted college basketball coach Bobby Knight in an article regarding, of all topics, drum corps. “If a basketball team trained as hard as these kids do,” says Knight, “it would be unbelievable. I like to take my players [to watch drum corps] to show them what they can accomplish with hard work and teamwork. Besides, once they see them practice 12 hours a day, my players think I’m a helluva lot easier.”

The same SI article called Drum Corps International World Championships “one of the biggest sporting events of the summer.” And that’s not the only time that SI has covered the marching world.

Like basketball players, members of marching bands and drum corps are athletes, due to the physical demands under which they operate. Marching in sync, into formation after formation, while playing an instrument or spinning a rifle or flag takes physical strength, agility and stamina.

“The physical demands of marching band members and drum corps are most similar to track athletes; additionally, so are their injuries,” says Dr. Craig Bales, who has worked with several drum corps.

Heart of an Athlete

A 2005 ESPN2 broadcast also demonstrated the athletic demands of a drum corps member. Dr. Jeff Edwards, then department chair of physical education and athletic training at Indiana State University, hooked up Jordan Thomas, who played tenor drums with The Cavaliers. “We put a device on him that allowed us to measure how hard he’s working, his metabolic rate,” Edwards explained. “What it actually measures is his oxygen consumption, his carbon dioxide production, the amount of air he breathes and his heart rate.”

Thomas’ heart rate shot up to 180 beats per minute while merely watching from the sidelines. Essentially, this evidence points to the idea that being in performance mode creates an “adrenaline rush” similar to when athletes hear the gun go off. Thomas’ heart rate was more than 200 beats per minute, and his oxygen intake was 13 to 14 times higher than his resting metabolic rate while performing the drill on the field.

“The oxygen consumption is generally about what it would be during the middle of a marathon for a well-trained runner,” said Edwards in the broadcast. “If you look at the heart rate, though, you would think that you were looking at someone who was running a 400- or 800-meter dash maximally. So he’s working very hard out there.”

Even high school bands have the heart— and the strain—of an athlete. In 2009, Dr. Gary Granata of PerformWell surveyed marching band students from Avon (Ind.) High School, the reigning Bands of America Grand Nationals champions, about their physical wellness and injuries as related to band. He presented his findings at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual conference. More than 95 percent of students polled reported sore or stiff muscles after practice, and more than 38 percent said they had suffered injuries on the field. A multitude of students also experienced tiredness, nausea, faintness and heat-related illness.

Like at many top-notch bands, Avon runs a rigorous program. Conditioning begins one week after school lets out in June and includes half-mile runs, which later turn into two-mile runs, according to Jay Webb, director of bands. Band camp also includes push-ups and 10- to 12-hour rehearsal days.

This fall, Avon’s members will be able to count marching band for physical education credit. Avon is only one of many schools that recognize band as physical education. “Thirty-two states permit districts or schools to allow students to substitute other activities for P.E., such as JROTC, marching band, interscholastic sports, and cheerleading,” reported Erik Robelen in Education Week’s “Curriculum Matters” blog.

Similarly, rehearsals at the James Bowie High School Outdoor Performing Ensemble in Austin include jumping jacks, lunges, push-ups, sit-ups and a lot of stretches, says Bruce Dinkins, director of bands. Members are also encouraged to “run or walk a lap around the field at the beginning of each rehearsal, so that their bodies get limbered up,” Dinkins says.

Dinkins says that he puts great emphasis on his students’ health and safety, providing plenty of breaks. “Kids don’t know when they’re overworking themselves,” he says. “We spend a lot of money on fruit. We spent $2,000 this year on fruit—oranges, apples and a lot of bananas for potassium. The kids get two to three fruit breaks, and we use about four or fi ve [containers with] eight to 10 gallons of Gatorade per rehearsal.”


With sports often comes the risk of injuries. When asked about frequency of injuries in his marching band, Dinkins remarks: “One girl has a knee problem. Sometimes the kids will get shin splints, but that’s rare.”

But other marching members don’t get off so easily. Just recently, Carolina Crown’s mellophone player Ryan Brannan fractured his left tibia during Drum Corps International finals competition.

According to Bales, most of the marching injuries “start with the foot. However, these injuries can also be evidenced in the back, knees and ankles in addition to the feet.”

Furthermore, it can be “difficult to analyze what is actually causing the injury because the drill is continually changing,” Bales points out.

Bales believes that there is a longstanding philosophy among professional musicians that is a leading cause of bad habits. This philosophy dictates that a musician must simply “put up with and work through the pain,” says Bales. This philosophy seems to be a common misconception among artists, such as dancers and gymnasts, and athletes alike.

This philosophy of “putting up with the pain” is further fueled by a short, time-consuming marching season—one that involves a high degree of repetition, which can itself cause stress-related injuries. This idea also compounds the fact that too often marching musicians “become conditioned by going through the season,” as opposed to actually going through a conditioning program, states Bales.

Granata believes that most high school marching bands are being “reckless” with their members’ health, especially with regard to heat-related injuries, which can be a cause of cardiac arrhythmia.

After Granata’s study at Avon, he educated the parents and band staff regarding injury prevention. Webb says that he and his staff “gained a lot” from what Granata had to say about properly fueling and hydrating the members of the band because, as Webb says, they have “seen a lot of injuries—not necessarily all band-related”— within their band members.

These include injuries involving the knee, ankle, and those that are heat-related. Whereas most athletic teams are equipped with some sort of medical staff, the majority of high school marching bands is not outfitted with such personnel. At Avon, the band “receives a great deal of support from the school and even has access to the school’s athletic trainer,” Webb says.

And Dinkins overcomes lack of medical personnel by bringing in a trainer to discuss injury prevention. “The trainer talks to the kids about wearing light-fitting clothes and hydration,” Dinkins says. Additionally, Dinkins and staff send out emails in the middle of July, encouraging his band members to go outside and “get used to the heat.” Even more remarkable, at the beginning of the season, Dinkins sets up voluntary cardiomyopathy screening for his band members.

Injury Prevention

What else can be done to prevent injuries within marching musicians? Webb says, “Although it is easier to rehearse earlier in the day because it is cooler, [I have] started making rehearsals start later in the day, so that the band members can get the necessary amount of sleep” that a high school student requires.

Bales recommends “sufficient rest breaks.” Even a short break can allow the heart rate to decrease because it takes the student out of performance mode.

Also, conditioning is key. Instead of being conditioned through hundreds of drill repetitions, it is better to build stamina prior to the marching season actually beginning.

A thoughtful program under the direction of sports medicine personnel, such as the Drum Corps Medical Project under Bales, could be beneficial to most marching bands, especially the top groups. The Drum Corps Medical Project, which was actually started in 1991 but became more active in 2006, is still not yet fully functioning.

“Our main focus, at least originally, was to get medical professionals to work with the corps for most of the summer,” Bales says. “Out of that, we hope to get a group of professionals that would see all of the different corps.”

Also, it would provide a network for “drum corps medical personnel to share treatment modalities,” says Bales. Each corps medical professional would design that corps’ specific conditioning program because “each corps is different to some degree—some corps don’t tour all summer,” explains Bales.

The physical demands under which most marching bands and drum corps operate seem to necessitate some sort of conditioning and injury prevention. “If I didn’t take care of my amazing kids, I wouldn’t have an amazing program; it is just like training an Olympic athlete,” Dinkins says.

About author

Haley Greenwald-Gonella

Haley Greenwald-Gonella is a certified registered yoga teacher (200 RYT) with Yoga Alliance. She began dancing at the age of 3 and played flute and bassoon while growing up. She graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with degrees in dance and English. She has her master’s degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from the University of Southern California. In addition, Haley is a director focusing on technology and innovation in the beauty sector.

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