The context of National Anthem protesting in marching band

I have a tendency to keep my personal political beliefs out of my online life when it comes to mainstream topics such as our current presidential election, black lives matter, etc. etc.  I do this primarily because I feel like my opinions on those mainstream topics, despite sometimes being nonmainstream, are represented easily enough by my actions and personality and echoed well enough in our currently connected society that my voice doesn’t add significant impact or meaning at the social media platform level.  If i do post something of a political nature, it tends to be about something niche or something that I’m particularly passionate about and/or invested in.

I never intended to make any commentary about the national anthem protests that started happening as a result of Kaepernick, but recently the ripple effect of this has bled into my profession in the marching band arena. (For those not aware of what i’m talking about, members of the ECU marching band and the SMU marching band have recently created headlines due to individual members deciding not to play and/or kneeling during the national anthem.)  Because of that, I feel a responsibility to voice my opinion in that context as a representative and potential influential voice for band directors, members, athletic fans, and marching band fans.  I preface this with the caveat that this is not meant to disrespect views contrary to my own beliefs on the matter; I respect any organization’s choices for how they run themselves.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my personal opinion about Kaepernick’s protest is that regardless of the reasoning behind the protest, he is in his rights to protest and express that protest however he damned well pleases within the context of what is permitted in the NFL and his franchise. To me, the protest draws parallels to Tim Tebow’s public expression of his Christian faith, something that I as a non-Christian always found annoying but still respected for similar reasons to this current protest, and it’s clear that in both cases, both players have enough conviction in their reasoning and their beliefs that they are and have always been prepared to deal with any potential backlash. Both forms of expression started important conversations at a national and somewhat global scale, and i give them kudos for being bold enough to risk such a potential negative spotlight because of the strength of their conviction.

I should also say that the idea that all americans should feel pressured to represent their patriotism by standing for the national anthem and to assume that someone who opts not to do so is therefore unpatriotic, unamerican, or anti-military/police makes me immensely uncomfortable. I am a strong believer that one of our country’s strengths is the diversity of our opinions and our ability to freely express those opinions no matter how controversial, and controversial expression does not equate to something quantifiable regarding patriotism.

That said, there’s a fundamental equivalency disconnect between football players who choose to express their individuality by kneeling for the national anthem versus a marching band member or even me as a director.

I got my degree in composition and I consider myself a politically active contemporary art music advocate – my passion for wanting to expose and educate more people regarding contemporary music is why I started nienteForte in the first place.  As the primary music writer and show designer for the Tulane University Marching Band, I could opt to use the TUMB as a vehicle for that political position by incorporating that into my show design – Mark and I had always joked about the idea of doing 4’33” on the field, but more seriously, it wouldn’t be completely outside reason for me to have the TUMB do a classical music show every now and again for my own personal agenda of educating my audience to my field and my passion.

By doing that, i end up placing that personal agenda ahead of the agenda of the TUMB, an organization that I strongly believe belongs to the members and the community more than myself, and that is therefore simply the wrong choice for me to make. This past year, a fan committee expressed about the game day experience that they wanted the stadium and the band to embrace the culture of New Orleans more in their style and their musical choices.  While the TUMB is never going to convert to a show-style band over a corps-style band, we, along with the athletic department, made some executive decisions that fall in line with that desire in our programming choices.  I am a strong advocate for that sort of conversation and that sort of change because I recognize that college marching bands as a collective single entity are a strong brand that belongs to a large body of individuals and entities collectively and equally.

Therefore, my own sense of individualism even as the director of the program is always a lower priority to the brand that I represent for Tulane.  To do a classical or wacky avant-garde show would go against the primary mission of my job, which is to provide excitement and entertainment for our athletic events, to hopefully be the best educator I can be for my students, and to help continue a legacy that will sustain the organization beyond my tenure here, serving the needs of the organization before I serve myself.

As an individual who generally breaks a lot of stereotypes in weird ways, I strongly celebrate diversity and individualism within the members and the staff of my organization.  But the fact of the matter is that the public performance output of the marching band is about the group as a single entity and not about them as individuals.  That’s where the equivalency disconnect between the football player versus marching band member comes into play: the national anthem for a football player is a part of a game’s opening ceremony.  They are preparing to perform.  The national anthem for a marching band member is their performance.  If a marching band member protests the national anthem during their performance, the equivalent for a running back is to decide that he has the right to stop running in the middle of a play if he was crossing over a painted American flag on the turf as a part of his route.  At the point when the helmet goes on and the game starts, individual beliefs – both positive and negative – always come second to the play performance and execution.  And at the point when a marching band member puts their uniform on, they should be held to that same standard and understand the distinction between what is “performance” for a marching band versus a football team.

Is there any place for individualistic expression in the context of a college marching band performance?  I don’t believe so.  The Tulane football program has a had a long standing history of losing records since my tenure here, and even when we’ve been down by 40+ points, the charge I have for myself is that we are Tulane Football fans through and through and we’ll keep cheering, playing, and supporting our team no matter what. I instill that philosophy in every individual that is a part of my program both on and off the field.  You’re not a football fan?  You are now.  You think that the coach sucks?  Keep that to yourself, or spin it in a positive way that’s still supportive of the program.  For me that’s a 24/7 mentality – i’ve been recognized more than a handful of times by random strangers in the New Orleans community as being associated with the Tulane Band program, so I’m always careful about how i approach any commentary I make about anything related to the TUMB or Tulane brand.  It’s only in the past year or so, for example, that I’ve felt comfortable stating publicly that Bob Toledo was a horrible coach for our football team, and his last year here was over five years ago.  Anything that I say or do, anything that the band says or does is under potential scrutiny, and that demands that everyone associated with the program who wants to take advantage of the privileges of being a part needs to fall in line with the TUMB’s brand even if it is contrary to their own.

I think that some would interpret this approach as a position of extreme conformism and compliance; i’d like to instead believe that it’s more about what I feel is a standard of professionalism within our performance art activity and how that links to something that is much bigger than we are as a single entity.  I’m fairly confident that many TUMB members past and present know how much respect I have for their individual lifestyles and life choices. I allow a lot of freedom for individuals to discover themselves, express themselves, and be themselves in a nurturing and fostering community environment whether Trump or Hillary, normative or alternative gender lifestyle, Marvel vs DC, whatever.  But the organization as a whole can only support that level of diversity and individualism long-term when it can rally that diversity together as a unified and cohesive singular when we are representing the TUMB, Tulane Athletics, and Tulane University.  “Roll Wave” is not just a declaration, “non sibi, sed suis” is not just a motto; both are beliefs down to the very core, and i’ll defend the vigilance of those beliefs and everything that they mean in the contexts that I believe best.

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