The day the music died: EKU cut marching band

Aug 10, 2021 | Entertainment

By Brooke Wright

Dalton Bates, a 21-year-old junior at Eastern Kentucky University, recalled the days he spent practicing with his high school marching band in Whitesburg, Kentucky. He dreamed of the day when he could experience marching on a “grander level” in college.

When he attended EKU, Bates registered to be in the Marching Colonels his first year. This year was his third year being in the marching band and second year as the section leader of the mellophones and alto saxophones. For his last year in the band, Bates planned on auditioning for drum major, but he will no longer get that chance.

EKU has experienced a $25 million shortfall with recent budget cuts, according to the EKU budget information website. To alleviate this deficit, the university decided to eliminate its marching band.

“I can’t put into words how important this program is to me,” Bates said in an email. “We learned together, we grew together, sometimes we failed together, but we more often persevered and succeeded together. These are all lessons and experiences hard to come by outside of a community like the Marching Colonels while in college.”

Recent budget cuts to higher education in Kentucky have triggered worry for college music departments across the state.

According to the Kentucky operating budget for fiscal year 2018, postsecondary education suffered a loss of just under $11 million from last year’s budget.

Michael Benson, president at EKU, said on the budget information website that the EKU Budget Advisory Committee developed a strategic plan to close the university’s Danville, Kentucky campus, eliminate some administrative roles, and suspend some academic programs to help with the $25 million loss.

EKU’s School of Music recently saw these changes to their department with the loss of the marching band.

Timothy Wiggins, associate director of bands at EKU, said the university is trying its best to keep the core beliefs of the program in mind.

“The university has taken thoughtful and deliberate steps to preserve the core mission of its different units that produce quality and career-ready majors,” he said in an email. “Our School of Music is a vibrant community of professionals that support its primary mission of supplying excellent music educators to the commonwealth and region.”

A letter was sent to the music department faculty and students on April 10 about the elimination of the marching band. In the letter, Jeremy Mulholland, music department chair at EKU, said the marching band would no longer perform at football games and the athletic department would oversee the music. He also said EKU’s athletic bands would be restructured similarly to another university, The University of Tennessee at Martin.

According to Julie Hill, music department chair at UT Martin, the marching band requires little time commitment to accommodate students as practices are once a week and help them prepare a halftime show for home football games. (UT Martin is not experiencing a budget deficit like many Kentucky colleges, though, according to their proposed budget analysis.)

Wiggins said marching band requires a lot of funding EKU is unable to provide.

“The reality of the Marching Colonels is that it needs significant funding to operate and replace capital equipment that is at the end of its lifespan,” Wiggins said in an email. “In addition, we were requiring each music education major to participate in marching band for three full years, which limited other activities for those students and restricted our curriculum.”

Wiggins said EKU’s goal with the elimination of the marching band was to still preserve its mission within the School of Music.

“This decision will provide new opportunities for majors to obtain more specific instruction regarding how to teach athletic bands in Kentucky high schools through coursework and clinical partnerships with local high schools,” he said.

According to an article by Jason P. Cumberledge in the online journal “Update: Applications of Research in Music Education,” regarding the benefits of marching band for students, “band participation provides a means for social interaction and self-expression at a critical period in students’ lives.”

The article also states students gain educational benefits from marching band, “such as lessons in cooperation, leadership, responsibility, and mental discipline by enabling students to assume leadership roles and practice teaching and decision-making skills.”

Wiggins said marching band lets students extend their reaches to others as well as other majors.

“This is the purpose of “arts” in my mind,” he said in an email. “To help us feel, and build connections between humans on a level that extends beyond words.”

Jeff Bright, associate director of bands at Western Kentucky University, said he believes marching band allows students to get to know themselves.

“It takes a lot of discipline to practice and patience to stick with it,” he said. “Marching band gives students the ability to collaborate with others in a fun environment. I think it is very cool to see the growth of students in this activity.”

Bright also said he loved seeing the camaraderie between students.

“My favorite part is when rehearsal is getting started,” he said. “Seeing students coming from different parts of campus bring so much energy­– I don’t know how to describe it– is a unique experience,” he said. “Seeing everyone come together for a musical activity is the coolest thing ever.”

The EKU School of Music was not the only music department to suffer a loss of funds. Bright said WKU lost some funds due to the university’s current budget deficit.

“We have two revenue sources for the marching band,” Bright said. “We have a spirit fee where every student pays $1 to $2 for WKU bands, cheer and dance, and we get $100,000 from Conference USA, which is supposed to be directed toward academics. We lost that this year, but I don’t think anything else is going to be cut.”

The WKU Big Red Marching Band provides its members with a semester stipend based on their year in school. Despite the loss of funds, the stipend recently increased due to a request from the budget director at WKU for Bright to write a proposal for this increase.

“The whole idea behind it was if we up the scholarship a little, that will bring more students to campus and bring more tuition dollars,” Bright said. “Over 70 percent of people in the marching band major in something other than music. We have over 60 different majors represented. This kind of activity doesn’t just affect the marching band. It affects other [majors] across campus, too.”

Dana Biggs, director of athletic bands at the University of Kentucky, said the university is fortunate to have not received cuts because of their band’s funding sources.

“We have a strong alumni base, a very supportive athletic department, and an administration that sees the value of fielding a marching band, not only for the university and the community, but also for our students,” he said.

Despite EKU’s loss of the marching band, Wiggins said the university supports the music department fully.

“We are not reducing the number of faculty,” he said in an email. “I believe that while change is difficult, it does provide opportunities to provide the university and music education students with a model that can better align with the mission of preparing Kentucky’s workforce for the future.”

Wiggins said if budget times were better, the department would like to have a stipend for the marching band students. Wiggins said the stipend would “offset the time [students] give up on evenings and weekends, when they might otherwise be working.”

The EKU Marching Colonels have started a fundraising campaign to raise $250,000, which would allow the marching band to function as its own entity. They have raised $5,949 so far.

Wiggins said the funds will help the marching band acquire new uniforms as well as equipment, which are in need of replacing.

“The fundraiser will help in setting up the Marching Colonels to do the job well and succeed as an organization that supports its members, as well as the university,” he said.

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