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The Recurring Dreams of Marching Band Alums

Why is it that, even years after packing up their instruments, many marching band members experience the same anxiety-inducing nightmares?


Even before the Ohio State University Marching Band's jaw-dropping halftime shows made instrumentalists as cool as athletes, young musicians dreamed of stepping onto the gridiron with the nation's elite marching bands. What's surprising is the number of marching band alums who dream about the experience years after they last took the field.

"It's almost game time. I can't find my sax. Or my shoes. Or my hat," says Sue Farrell, who played in the University of Maryland's Mighty Sound Marching Band in the late 1980s. "I know I won't be able to find a spare in the band room, but I scramble around anyway, praying frantically. The clock is ticking, and I am not finding what I need."

Farrell's nightmare, which occurs several times a year and intensifies in the fall, is typical of recurring dreams described by other marching band alumni. Shanda Schlagenhauf, who played saxophone in Western Kentucky University's marching band, dreams she's on the field and doesn't know the formations. Rachel Westermeyer Wright, who played clarinet for the Willowbrook High School Marching Band in Villa Park, Illinois, dreams she's missed rehearsal and doesn't know the music. Cindy Combs, an alum of the Harper Creek High School Marching Band in Battle Creek, Michigan, dreams she's about to march for the first time in 30 years and discovers she can no longer play the trumpet.

"Adolescence and young adulthood is an intense period of life—possibly the most intense—and we frame the world and our role within it during these years."

"Marching band is a highly structured social activity that involves long hours of practice and stressful performances in front of thousands of people, making it the perfect material for garden-variety anxiety dreams," says Ryan Hurd, a researcher, author, and board member for the International Association for the Study of Dreams who maintains the Dream Studies Portal. Hurd, who himself dreams about high school marching band 25 years after participation, adds that recurring dreams are commonly set in the first half of our lives.

"Adolescence and young adulthood is an intense period of life—possibly the most intense—and we frame the world and our role within it during these years," Hurd says.

Audiences might not contemplate band members' anxiety levels as OSU's marching band moonwalks across the yard lines, but the role of anxiety in musical performance is gaining attention within the growing field of musician health. Dr. Jacob Levy, associate professor and director of the Counseling Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, studies performance anxiety in marching band members.

"In my research, I have found that performance anxiety has a great impact on enjoyment and continuation in the marching arts," Levy says. "In a three-year longitudinal study, performance anxiety was the strongest personal factor in predicting marching arts retention. Those lower in performance anxiety were more likely to continue their voluntary participation in their marching arts activity."

Various aspects of marching band tend to increase nervousness. Levy has found that performers who are more exposed—soloists, color guard members, trumpeters versus instrumentalists who blend into the ensemble—report greater levels of anxiety.

The pressure is also higher in bands that perform new shows for every home game.

"You end up underprepared at times," says Jim Bush, a former percussionist with the University of Kansas Marching Jayhawks. "I was always, always, always worried about zoning out, missing a turn and leading all the people behind me either completely out of the drill or into a giant collision with the rest of the band."

Even band members who are well prepared experience butterflies when they start performing on a college field.

"When you're an incoming freshman and you're performing in front of a hundred thousand people for the first time, when you're used to performing in front of a couple thousand, that can certainly cause performance anxiety," says Dr. Brad McDavid, director of the Husky Marching Band at the University of Washington and a former sousaphone player for the Ohio State University Marching Band.

Another Ohio State band alum, Dr. William Hall, vividly recalls his first college performance 50 years ago.

"All the freshmen rushed into the bathroom with the urge to pee. ... Then I remember being thirsty, from the adrenaline, no doubt," Hall says. "At the stadium we lined up in two long files of 60 members each, waiting for the moment to explode onto the field. ... We high stepped down the narrow ramp and out of the dimly lit tunnel in the brightest sunshine I'd ever seen. We filed into our spots on the field, trying to avoid looking at the huge cheering crowd for fear of forgetting what we were supposed to be doing next."

Hall, who is now the conductor of Omaha Symphonic Winds in Omaha, Nebraska, was able to focus that day and found ways to feel less anxious with each performance. His experience suggests that pre-show jitters can be managed.

"Anxiety is not all bad. It can motivate us to practice and help us focus when performing. The trick is to develop skills to manage one's anxiety level so it does not become overwhelming," Levy, the director of the Counseling Psychology Ph.D. program, says.

Levy notes that relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation, can help musicians manage anxiety. Another, perhaps counterintuitive, strategy is to up the pressure during rehearsals.

"Performers higher on anxiety tend to avoid challenging their skills during rehearsals," Levy says. "They just don't push themselves as much as they could out of fear of failure." Levy explains that practicing under pressure leads to greater confidence performing under pressure.

For this reason, Brad McDavid considers it essential for his band to have rehearsal time in Husky Stadium.

"They can get used to the surroundings and become more confident in their performance prior to game day," McDavid says. Learning to perform under pressure, he adds, is one of the benefits of marching band participation.

Jason Pentico, director of the Pella High School Marching Dutch in Pella, Iowa, agrees.

"Our members learn to rely on each other, help one another when they do get stressed, develop teamwork and long-term goal setting and have compassion toward those who struggle," Pentico says.

Ultimately, just as the Ohio State University Marching Band has struck a chord with millions of viewers, marching band members who stick it out have the opportunity to be part of something larger than themselves. McDavid says his band members take pride in contributing artistically to a game-day experience that means a great deal to thousands of fans.

For Charlotte Bradley, another former University of Kansas drummer who has recurring dreams about losing her white band shoes, the positive memories of marching have endured as well.

"There's a part of me that deeply misses being in the drum line. It's like a sports team and theatrical troupe all rolled up together," Bradley says. "To this day, I get really excited when I hear a drum line from afar."