Directors’ reasons for wanting a state of Illinois marching band championship

In the Illinois Marching Online-Voxitatis poll about the possibility of an Illinois High School Association-supported state championship series in marching band, we now consider the responses from directors who answered “yes” to the question, Should Illinois sponsor and sanction a state championship series for marching band?

Of the 60 directors who responded to the poll, 35 answered “yes” to this question, and 17 of those directors gave some reason for their support of a state championship series in marching band.

The word cloud above, generated by the little toy at, shows words in bigger fonts that were more prominent in the reasons given by directors as to why they would support a state championship.

Dominant reasons among directors’ “yes” responses

We next consider some of the important reasons directors listed for supporting a state championship series in marching band. The actual responses are printed below, but we thought a summary listing, with our brief analysis of each point, would help understanding.

No. 1: An organized state championship would advance the cause of consistency in judging, classification, etc.

Some directors hinted at the fact that the current system is a disorganized collection of festivals, each with their own judging and classification criteria. They expressed hope that an organized series would bring some consistency to marching band adjudication.

However, consistency in the judging of artistic expression has eluded our culture since the first cave paintings. All we have to do is consider the list of movies that have won the “Best Picture” Academy Award. With this list, the application of any single set of judging criteria would fall apart within one or two movies. What works to define one movie as the “best” would not work for too many other movies on the list to say a single set of criteria could be applied to judge the artistic expression in movies.

We know, therefore, that consistency is difficult to achieve. In support, we analyzed the scoring for Bands of America after the 2009 Grand Nationals, producing the single most popular page on our website, and we found that even a system of rules that some directors held up as a gold standard is fraught with errors, bias, and just, well, problems.

Still, directors seemed to say consistency is a worthy goal, especially when it comes to our schools. The last decade has seen the explosion of standardized tests, which are all about consistency, national curricula, and even a “criteria-referenced scoring system” for the Bands of America organization.

In other words, directors have a sense that some consistency in standards is needed, a set of rules they can work toward and guide their students to achieve. With marching band, as Bands of America has found, this may require that concepts like “musicality” and “meaningful” be defined. That can be difficult, but the sense among “yes” respondents in the poll seems to be that some standardization, however good or bad, would be good for Illinois students.

No. 2: An organized series would motivate a majority of band students to achieve higher levels of performance excellence.

Motivating students is a tall order. We try grades, online badges, and a host of other devices to motivate them to learn. Purists argue that learning should be its own reward, but anyone who has ever taught in a real classroom knows that the purists’ viewpoint is wishful and probably a little naïve. Grades motivate some students to achieve, and grades are just as extrinsic as any other reward, such as a state championship.

We have documented this year the idea that a statewide series, with big participation levels, motivates students and school sports teams to increase their level of performance far beyond average levels. For example, Althoff Catholic, a 2A football team that made the playoffs with a No. 15 seed out of 16, is playing in the state championship game today, having beaten our mathematical model’s odds in all four first-round playoff games.

In addition to Althoff, though, an increase in performance during the playoffs compared to the regular season was demonstrated, clearly and plainly, by Downers Grove North and Notre Dame high schools.

Some directors expressed the idea that this same boost in performance would occur in marching band if a state championship were organized. Based on our findings in football and some good, recent research, we would tend to agree. Psychologists who study learning and student motivation have known for some time that different things motivate different students. For some types of students, extrinsic rewards get in the way of learning; for others, those trophies are strong motivators, adding to the effect of good rehearsals and complementing or at least sustaining the learning.

The above shows a representation of current educational psychology theory regarding student motivational patterns. In practice, in actual students, extrinsic motivation is not necessarily antagonistic to the intrinsic value of learning or of performance excellence. Of course, for many students, performance excellence is its own reward, but the addition of extrinsic factors—a state championship in this case—will add to the learning for some students and interfere with it for others. The effect the extrinsic reward has depends on each student’s motivational pattern, as found on the two axes on the graph above.

The so-called “success-seekers” are students motivated more by intrinsic rewards of the performance, how it makes them feel (the Approach axis), than by a strict avoidance of failure or any extrinsic recognition, like grades or a state championship, that they are incompetent (the Avoidance axis). For these students, a state championship would tend to be not an antagonistic trade-off but a way to focus them on the task of achieving that personal satisfaction from a good performance. Since the championship would tend to support that task and the achievement of personal satisfaction in a job well done—and, more importantly, provide feedback from additional expert sources—a state championship would support this group of success-oriented students. Feedback and continuing to rehearse would tend to enhance these students’ personal feelings of satisfaction in an excellent performance, and so a state series, which would bring all these things into view, would be highly effective for these students.

On the other hand, consider the the polar opposite of success-seekers, the “failure-avoiders.” These students tend to be motivated more by a fear of failure than by any intrinsic rewards. The only value in a state championship for these students is that it would serve to aggrandize their ability status. It would define success for these students as the absence of failure, and even if these students won the state championship, it would mean very little, since the very small amount of positive pride they feel in their own accomplishment cannot offset the feelings of simple relief from not being labeled a failure. During the course of the year, these students tend to set irrational goals, such as a state championship, simply because it temporarily avoids a feeling of failure, not because it gives them something to work toward—recall that these students are very low on the “approach” axis on the graph. For them, a state championship might actually hinder their ability to appreciate learning and performance for its own sake, since it would tend to reinforce the feelings of relief from not being labeled a failure.

Over-strivers are characterized as much by high hopes for success, like success-seekers, as by an excessive fear of failure. They feel pride in accomplishing a good performance, but they tend to see it as a way of demonstrating that they’re better than others. Their work is not so much “supported” by the temporary relief from the negatives as it is “sustained” by it. They feel pride and take great personal satisfaction in the performance itself, but they’re motivated to keep working toward excellence in performance by their strong desire to feel the relief from not being unmasked as a failure. For these students, a state championship would provide both positive and negative reinforcement, helping to keep them working hard.

Finally, the “failure-acceptors” would be characterized by motivation that lies clearly outside the competitive ethos that permeates the traditional meaning of approach-avoidance learning theory. They’ve basically given up the struggle to maintain a sense of dignity because they repeatedly fail to meet their self-expectations, which can be irrational. A state championship will do little for these students, because they’re indifferent to both the positive aspects of rewards (a personal sense of achievement) as well as the negative aspects (fear of losing a grade or trophy). Note that very few students who participate strongly in extracurricular activities in high school are in this quadrant of the motivation continuum.

No. 3: A state championship would encourage schools to develop more diverse band programs and keep band programs in our schools.

In their comments, many directors said an organized state championship would encourage directors at schools that don’t have a marching band or have one that doesn’t work toward excellence in performance to take steps to develop their band program. Please refer to our discussion under reason No. 2 above for our analysis. Directors aren’t much different from students when it comes to why they are motivated to do certain things. However, the end goal of better developed and diverse music offerings for Illinois students must be considered a worthy objective.

For example, given the opportunity to win first place in college-sponsored parade competitions, one Virginia high school developed an all-percussion ensemble for marching, using wind players from their concert band, the Virginian-Pilot out of Norfolk reported earlier this year.


We need to summarize approach-avoidance theory as it applies to a state marching band championship in Illinois. Students fall on a continuum in terms of their approach tendency and in terms of their avoidance tendency. These axes are independent of each other with respect to the theory. Students in any given band should be considered to fall somewhere in the square on the diagram above.

Students who fall closer to the success-seekers quadrant of the square would be motivated by a state championship because it would provide another source of feedback for them to improve themselves. It is self-improvement that this group seeks, since higher excellence in performance will provide them with the intrinsic rewards of pride in their accomplishments, self-esteem, confidence in their own competence, etc.

Students closer to the over-strivers would also benefit from a state championship series in marching band. The tendency of these students to avoid failure would not fight against their desire for intrinsic rewards, but rather, it would keep them going when things don’t look so good. I can imagine students who will eventually feel pride in performance excellence encountering the band at the beginning of the marching season, when things don’t look so good. More than any other group, these over-strivers will stick with it, motivated primarily by not wanting to finish anywhere lower than first place in the state contest.

For the failure-avoiders, the extrinsic rewards provided by a state championship will dominate their motivation. The negative reinforcement that comes from avoiding failure will interfere with these students’ ability to feel pride in their performance or appreciate the intrinsic rewards from learning and performance excellence.

Finally, failure-acceptors aren’t usually found participating in marching bands. These students tend to disengage from their education. However, if failure-acceptors are in marching band, the motivational effects of a state championship are uncertain. These students aren’t driven to achievement by intrinsic rewards or by extrinsic rewards, and we can’t know what motivates them even to join marching band.

The lingering question is, Assuming our goal is to serve our students, not just our best students but our students in general, where do our students fall on the approach-avoidance model? The behavioral model above might put a classical pianist who gives recitals and makes $25,000 a year teaching 8-year-olds on the high end of the approach axis and on the low end of the avoidance axis. Since this lifestyle offers little extrinsic reward (money), it must be true that he feels a strong personal satisfaction from performance excellence. And since he makes no effort to have the status symbol of a six-figure salary, he must be considered low on the avoidance axis.

On the other hand, a rock star who uses technology to make his singing in tune must be considered low on the approach axis. It’s not even his own work that’s being produced. On the other hand, this rock star would be considered high on the avoidance scale, taking elaborate steps to prevent people from recognizing he’s actually incompetent. His success is marked by the absence of failure: nobody knows he can’t sing in tune, so no one considers him a failure. Plus, the money is an extrinsic reward.

Where are our students today? Are they motivated more like the classical pianist, the rock star, a hybrid? My recommendation is to use the approach-avoidance model to allow you to better serve them in your music programs, whether or not the state organizes a marching band championship.

Actual responses to why directors want a state championship

Directors who answered in the affirmative gave the following reasons. Each response is in its own paragraph, and some spelling has been corrected.

With as many major marching programs as the state of Illinois has, it is unbelievable that we do not have an organized circuit for this activity

If it set-up correctly (as in Texas).

If they count other music events as competitive, why not marching band

I don’t know that it needs to be a “competition” per se, but an organizational style evaluation would be motivational for students.

Help encourage keeping band programs in our schools.

But only if BOA rules are adopted

Although we have a “State Championship” I believe it needs to have more organization, similar to Indiana School Music Association

Yes but it should be in conjunction with Illinois State University for the finals, and the University of Illinois for the regionals

Currently many bands think that either ISU or U. of I. is the “state” competition. When in reality, neither really is because they both have different bands (or at least mostly different) competing. If a contest is to be a “state” contest, it should truly be THE state contest.

They do for everything else.

It’s past time! What we currently have in Illinois is silly.

To set rules and guidelines across the state.

For an even “playing field” (pun intended).

It is the best way to bring good publicity to marching programs that are really doing well. It give music programs something they can compare to sports programs.

There is a state champion in nearly every other school activity so why shouldn’t there be an official state champion in marching band.

I answer yes, but that is mainly from the standpoint of a standardized set of rules in regards to classification and judging. Right now, it is not uncommon for a band to attend 4 contests and deal with 4 different classification systems and judging sheets.

Consistency within judging system, classification system and rankings. Would hopefully allow the organizers to combine the best aspects of the various local competitions and make a solid, educational system that benefits the students.

Next …

This is the second chapter in the report. The previous chapter (link) was entitled “We expect an IL marching band championship,” and the next chapter (link) will deal with directors’ reasons for answering “no” to the question of whether or not Illinois should develop a state championship series in marching band.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.