Marching bands sustain injuries, require as much physical skill as traditional sports, experts say

by Amanda Hutchinson and Sally Young

“We run, we do stretches, push-ups, sit-ups; a lot of toning exercises.”

Mike Nave and his team train to take the field each week. When they get the call from the head coach of the football team, they gather their gear and walk out to applause from the crowd.

But instead of footballs, they play with instruments, and instead of football uniforms, they don marching band uniforms. For members of the Baldwinsville Marching Band, a group based near Syracuse, being athletic is a key to being successful, according to Nave, who helps run the band.

As marching band members cross the boundary between music and sports, they are prone to the health issues of both, such as the tendonitis common in musicians and the musculoskeletal issues of athletes. Studies have shown that hearing loss, dental problems and lower back problems are among the common injuries that result from being in a marching band.

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Dr. Nicholas Quarrier, professor of physical therapy at Ithaca College, said different ensembles are subject to different types of injuries. For example, drum corps performances are more athletic and result in more sprains and pulls than a parade band. However, he says, members of both types of ensembles should be treated as athletes.

“It takes coordination, skill, endurance, cardiovascular and muscular strength, fine motor dexterity, and pretty much all the components of an athlete,” Quarrier said.

Both holding an instrument up for long periods of time and the marching movement itself place a physical strain on the students he coaches, according to Nave. He says that the students in the Baldwinsville Marching Band undergo similar physical training to that of traditional athletes.

Members of high school marching bands in Texas receive a one-half credit physical education waiver each semester for their participation in the band, according to the Texas Education Agency. Even more widespread recognition of marching ensembles as an athletic activity is one of the goals of Drum Corps International, which serves as the premiere league for these groups. Laura VanDoren, chairperson of the Drum Corps Medical Project, said that the lack of recognizing an injury often creates trouble when a marcher is injured at a competition.

Doctors with backgrounds in athletic training don’t always know how to treat marching injuries, she said, and they may not understand that having a patient rest a sprained ankle for four weeks may not be compatible with an ensemble’s program.

The project also works with the staff and administration of marching programs to ensure the safety of their members through research and seminars.

To alleviate the disconnect between marching bands and member safety, music schools across the country are required to have courses on music-related injuries, such as the one that Quarrier teaches at Ithaca College. Dr. Kris Chesky, who serves as the director of the Texas Center for Music and Medicine at the University of North Texas, said no one wants the participants of marching band nor athletics to get hurt. However, unlike in physical education teacher requirements, there is no health training for marching band directors, and the UNT program research is helping to fix that.

“We want to make sure our teachers are prepared just like they are when you’re going to engage kids in athletic activities,” Chesky said. “We want to make sure we’re making music in ways that are healthy.”

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