“Old” Kids in the Block

Participating in the marching arts isn't just for the young.
Participating in the marching arts is not just for the young but can also be for the young at heart. Even if you go away from the activity, you might find yourself being easily welcomed back.

As members of the University of New Mexico Spirit Marching Band gathered around the ladder on the eve of their first trip away from Albuquerque, the director offhandedly made a common reference to remind the band about appropriate travel behavior: “Remember, your mother’s not coming on this trip!”

In an instant, every head in the band turned to look at 18-year-old freshman trumpet player Rebekah Gingras because actually her mother was coming on the trip … as a fellow band member.

Certain circuits, schools, or competitions may have restrictions, but marching musicianship as a whole has no age limit. Whether it’s through an all-age group or a non-traditional-aged college student joining the band, older marchers are having the time of their lives while surrounded by bandmates many years younger.

The Right Stuff

At the seasoned age of 45, Ticia Gingras decided to go back to school and pursue a degree in music education. Although the department offered to waive her marching band participation requirement, she had no intention of letting the opportunity pass her by.

“I said ‘Are you kidding me? I want to do this!’” Gingras says. “Who gets a chance to do marching band twice in their lifetime at the university?”

That same year, her daughter Rebekah started her freshman year and joined the band as well. Besides the occasional awkward moment, there were no problems with the mother-daughter marching experience. In fact Ticia, who marched in high school and college her first time around, ended up loving it more than Rebekah, who had never marched before and decided to pursue soccer after one year.

“For me it was marching band by 100% choice,” Gingras says. “I loved it, and frankly I think I had more energy than some of my 18- to 22-year-old colleagues in the band.”

Frank Stanek, who joined the Ashland (Ohio) University Eagle Marching Band at age 65, noticed the same disparity.

“The director was concerned that I might have physical limitations, … but after many years in farming and construction, I felt I could do it, and I said I’d like to try,” Stanek says. “After three days of band camp, the kids were moaning and groaning, and I was having a ball.”

After putting his kids through college and retiring, Stanek began playing euphonium again at TUBACHRISTMAS events, where he learned about taking lessons and then classes at Ashland. When some of his young classmates suggested he join the marching band, he thought they were joking.

“The last time I had marched at a football game was in 1966,” Stanek says. “It was before any of the other band members and even most of the faculty members were born!”

At the University of Oklahoma, Christopher Creger joined “The Pride” three times during three different decades for a total of eight years while working on his undergraduate and graduate music degrees.

“Some of the greatest things I’ve ever done have been inside the marching band, and a lot of the great characteristics I picked up over the years and developed in myself were from people in band and from the leadership,” Creger says. “When I came back as an older student, they still accepted me and made it all inclusive for me.”

Beyond colleges and universities, all-age groups around the country give people a chance to get back into marching. Even though Drum Corps Associates (DCA) ensembles and Drum Corps International’s SoundSport activity accept all ages, it’s still less common to see more mature marching members.

“There were one or two guys that were older than I am, but the vast majority of people were 15 or 20 years younger than I was,” says Rob Puckett, whose brief DCA career began with the Kilties Drum and Bugle Corps from Racine, Wisconsin, when he was 47.

Step by Step

Section leaders, graduate assistants, and sometimes even the band director may be young enough to be the children of an older marcher. Depending on the person’s level of experience, learning to take orders from younger superiors can be either a challenge or a non-issue.

Because Creger held music degrees himself, he felt frustrated at times being instructed by others. “Sometimes I could hold my tongue,” he says. “Sometimes especially later in the year when we’re all tired, I was a little more verbal but always in good intent.”

Puckett had no problem with deferring to more experienced younger corps members. He didn’t march after high school but had stayed a fan of the drum corps activity.

“I’ve always been kind of relaxed as far as things like that go,” he says. “I’m not the one to get your tennis balls off your walker and throw ’em at people because of G bugles or electronics or anything like that.”

When it comes to social events, these band members self-policed their involvement to bond with their sections and bandmates while avoiding age-inappropriate activities.

“I love to cook and feed people, so I would host spaghetti dinners or music history study sessions at my house with tons of food,” Gingras says. “It was like they were coming to mom’s or grandma’s, and then at about 10 o’clock they would start wandering off and hit their … parties or wherever it was that they were going to next.”

When Creger came back to the band at 28, he was finishing an undergraduate degree and looked young enough to blend in. But at 38, he took a more distant approach.

“On the big events, I would hang out with them, but then there would come a point where I felt awkward being there because 18- to 20-year-olds want to have fun,” he says. “They don’t want some old guy hanging around, so I would always just quietly excuse myself. I want them to have their fun. It’s their time to be that age.”

Hangin’ Tough

Being older led to some truly unique moments for these bands and marchers. Gingras discovered there’s no place to hide reading glasses in the marching band uniforms.

“I set them up under my hat and just crammed my hat really, really tight on my head and locked in that strap,” she says. “I would be out there, you know, running across the field for pregame, yelling like I was a coyote, and I could feel my glasses bouncing up and down on my head.”

Stanek was pretty sure he was the first person to list Medicare as his insurance provider on his band enrollment forms. “One nice young man kept calling me, ‘Sir,’” Stanek says. “Finally I pulled him aside and said, ‘Hey, are you a freshman? I’m a freshman too. Please call me Frank.’ And his face just lit up after that.”

With an adult age comes adult responsibilities and health issues. Despite great love for the marching experience, life sometimes gets in the way of older marchers continuing in their groups.

“It was starting to wear down on my old body, and being retired military, I’m physically twice as old as I really should be,” Creger says. “One of the things that comes with maturity is knowing when to bow out, and I felt it was time to … step back to an alumni supportive role.”

Gingras suffered a shoulder injury that initially sidelined her, and later scheduling conflicts prevented her from coming back to band. Stanek left the Ashland band due to the time commitment though his classmates still try to ask him back each fall. For Puckett, the trips from Tennessee to Racine, Wisconsin, became too difficult with his work schedule. He pushed the issue with his boss before being assigned a dot but then left the corps after six months.

“I’m still friendly with the folks, and I still consider myself a Kiltie,” he says. “The first time I played [the corps song], I didn’t get all the way through it. I literally had tears running down my cheeks because it was everything that I had wanted it to be.”

I’ll Be Loving You

The opportunity to march can be the experience of a lifetime, no matter where it falls in your lifetime and that of your fellow marching musicians. If conflicts arise, try to think back in time. “It is hard to put yourself back in that mindset once you moved forward,” Creger says. “Just remember they’re kids, and this is their first time away from home. I had to go back and think this is what I did at 18, so never mind, they’re acting normal—they’re not weird!”

Gingras encourages others to get involved if given the opportunity. “If it’s something that you’re thinking about, obviously you want to do it at some level, and whatever your fears are, set them aside,” she says. “Just buck up, get in there, and enjoy yourself.”

Marching at a later age can surprise you and everyone around you. “If you are that dedicated to something, you can really do superhuman things,” Puckett says. “And even if you’re old, you may not be able to do superhuman things, but you can do things that you never thought you’d be able to.”

Featured photo courtesy of Shevaun Williams.
Photo of Ashland (Ohio) University Eagle Marching Band courtesy of Frank Stanek.

About author

Elizabeth Geli

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor of Halftime Magazine and a journalist/communications professional in Southern California. Her 11 years at the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band included time as a flute player, graduate teaching assistant, and student advocate. She holds a bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and master's degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.