Leapin’ Lizards: Three Lessons I Learned in Marching Band

by Bill Benzon

Girl marchingLike many musicians, I was in a marching band in middle school and high school, the Marching Rams of Richland Township in Western Pennsylvania. We were a very good band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. in 1965.

That experience was a rich one. But it was also complicated and fraught with anxiety and ambivalence.

These lessons are about the lizard brain and its problematic relationship with civilization. Not merely Western Civ, mind you, but any civilization whatsoever.

Lesson the First: It’s the Groove, Baby

Those aren’t the words he used, but that’s what he meant. It’s the groove that tells the story; it’s the groove that moves the feet.

I’m talking about something told to me, though not to me personally, by Richard Cuppett, director of my high school marching band. Cuppett was something of a taskmaster and worked us hard. Because he did so, the band was an excellent one, so good, rumor had it, that some people came to football games—we’re talking Steeler country, folks, the coal mines and steel mills that fed the fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers—as much to see the band as to watch the football game.

Cuppett was talking to the band about excellence. How can you tell that a band is really good? If kids march alongside the band when it is on parade, the band is a good one. He passed that on to us as a lesson, though I forget whom he attributed it to. Perhaps some bandleader he’d worked with, or perhaps some legendary figure, like John Philips Sousa.

It sounded strange when I first heard it, gathered there in the band room along with the other bandsmen. It didn’t quite make sense to let little kids be the judges of band quality. But Cuppett was the director, so it must be true—I was just a kid then, and so inclined to believe things told to me by someone in authority.

His point, of course, is that when music is really grooving, it’s infectious. It will attract those little kids and get their fidgety feed to move in time with the music. For that to happen, two things are necessary: the musicians have to play together, and they have to play with passion. Not just one, or the other, but both at the same time.

Everyone, together, passion.

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