A good friend of mine was diagnosed with liver cancer when we were in high school. She was 16. Some time later, upon hearing that a surgery had not gone as well as hoped, I sat down with my guitar and wrote her a song. A few other good friends of hers strung together some photographs to make a music video and we sent it to her to watch from her hospital bed. When those same friends gathered together less than two years later to sing the song at her funeral, the dissonance was jarring. This was meant to be a work song, to see her through the hard days when the task of healing was tiring. It was not supposed to be a funeral hymn.
In June of 2015, we as a band decided that our LGBTQ community deserved a new song for Pride Week. This was days after the Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriages were in violation of the Constitution of the United States, and it felt like the whole country was celebrating.
But as we began to write, I couldn’t help but think that although we had won this particular battle, the hatred and fear ailing our nation seemed as malignant as ever.
I knew this because people were still dying.
At least 21 transgender women were murdered in 2015. A disproportionate percent of our country’s homeless youth were (and are) LGBTQ adolescents, forced to reckon with the impossible task of staying healthy and safe without a home or proper health care.
We knew that if we were to make a song that truly spoke to the American LGBTQ community in 2015, it would need to address both victory and violence.
With “I Know a Place,” we chose to imagine a place where none of us would need to be afraid. In honor of Pride and the rich LGBTQ history of turning bars and ballrooms into safe havens, the space we imagined was a dance club:
I can tell when you get nervous You think being yourself means being unworthy And it’s hard to love with a heart that’s hurting But if you want to go out dancing I know a place I know a place we can go Where everyone’s gonna lay down their weapons
At the time, we intended the dance club to serve as a metaphor. Then, on June 12th, 2016, a gunman walked into Latin Night at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida — a queer space, a brown space, a safe space — and shot 49 people to death.
“I Know a Place” was never supposed to be a funeral hymn. It was meant to be a work song, like Yoko Ono’s full-page ad in the New York Times that proclaimed, “War Is Over!” in December of 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. We wrote our song to be the voice in your head that tells you to celebrate peace during wartime, because our battle is only just beginning, and one day our war really will be over.
It was also meant to serve as encouragement for our community to remain vulnerable and kind and hopeful in the face of violence. We cannot build a better world without first imagining what that world might look like, and by creating that space inside ourselves first.
After the Pulse shooting, the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus led a crowd of two thousand people outside City Hall in song:
We are a gentle, angry people And we are singing Singing for our lives
We sang with a unified voice that cried out, “We do not accept that this is what our world will look like.” And that night, people all over the country went out dancing — not just because it was Pride Weekend, but because they felt it important not to give in to fear in the face of hate.
People came together in dive bars, bedrooms, and places of worship to celebrate and to grieve, to love and protect one another, and this gentle resilience was nothing less than radical resistance.
Today, in this post-Trump America, many of us feel badly bruised. We, as a band, understand this. We believe it is a mistake to see this incoming Administration as anything other than a threat to the livelihood of our brothers and sisters; the LGBTQ+ community, the Muslim ummah, women, POC’s, indigenous Americans, undocumented people, the working class, and beyond. At the same time, we believe it is a mistake to say that a man whose best assets are hate and fear truly represents America. We say this because America has always been an idea, a utopian concept of a multiethnic, multicultural democratic republic, and therefore its home lies in the imagination, not in the House or the Senate or in a Trump Tower. In the bridge of the song, we implore:
They will try to make you unhappy; don’t let them They will try to tell you you’re not free; don’t listen I know a place where you don’t need protection Even if it’s only in my imagination
Let us push ourselves to imagine a peaceful America where no one has to live in fear. Let us continue to build spaces with our humble means that reflect the America of which we dream. Let us keep up the fight.
I gave the list to the Char-rnn neural network framework, and it was soon producing unique band names for a variety of genres. Below are examples of its output at various temperature (i.e. creativity) settings.
This is about as high as the creativity setting can go before most of the band names are unpronounceable jumbles. These are some fine band names, highly suitable for whatever the heck their genres are supposed to be.
Spice Green Robinson Gloome Schronnana Boofpas The Freights Nighty Daggers The Loveburners of Internal Watch Foxettes Ratimot Secret singer band The Dougloco The Theps Choconard Leach Rhoudemsquat Terrerssky? Flemz Mighty Chipping Baker Bop Gray (band)
With the creativity turned down a bit, the band names are still weird, but a bit more plausible. Their genres can sometimes be identified.
Dr Overhard The Arce (band) The Tree Misters Reilling Ef (rapper) Flim Brothers Ching Mage Nan Edwards (folk singer) Nittle Bizzy The Dinlakoposseps Skins of Space Michael Porker The Lost singers The Nutlet Band The Rogue Orchestra The Fuman.A.I.((band) Vervoly Brown (urtist) Boohalloid (group) The Ballening Birds Lice Stepley
With the creativity turned down a notch further, the band names become even more plausible. You could probably convince me that these exist.
No Andrew Newson Fuzion (band) The Wurfywinders Clay Fights Berry Stitcher Something Rothers The Awl The Thingsons Switch’s Rich Lug Pond Billy The Hums (band) Northern Prince (Indian band) Staff Killer
Turn the creativity down another notch, and we start to edge toward the neural network’s idea of the most quintessential band names. Note that they’re still pretty weird.
Dub Arts Sheet Rose Heart Coil Elliot Horse Big Love The Mothers (band) The Time Stars Hulls of Girls Sucken (band) Electric Sing Show The Pans Symphony No. 3 (Dinish band) Hell Staple (band) Peter Parker Bad Head The Out Cookers Flower Shankar The Hat Coles
Now at a creativity setting of only 0.3, almost all the band names are variations on “The [Noun]”.
The Shines The Deaths The Dance (band) The Livers (band) The Stone Choir The Shake Man (band)
Another strange thing happens, which is that the proportion of sharks goes way, way up. Apparently the neural network thinks that if you’re going to name a band, you can’t go wrong with sharks.
Johnny Shark The Shark Charles Shark Rander The Shark (band) Nicole Shark Shark Gordon Shark Taylor (musician) The Shark Singers Tony Shark
And now we come to the lowest temperature setting, where the neural network’s output consists of the most-quintessential band name, repeated over and over. Throughout most of the training process, this name was “The Stars” and occasionally “The Brothers”, but there was one generation where the neural network repeatedly insisted that there was nothing… nothing more fundamental to music than the banjo-playing skills of:
Steve Martin (musician) Steve Martin (musician) Steve Martin (musician) Steve Martin (musician) Steve Martin (musician) Steve Martin (musician) Steve Martin (musician) Steve Martin (musician)
we have this one student teacher in our band who usually works with the mellophones and altos and she told us, as we were practicing the melody of a song, “you guys are only here to blend the music together. your instruments aren’t important like the others.”
This is the story of a kid who had no idea what they were getting into. But it’s also more than just that. They went to band day in seventh grade and got to play pep band with the local high school. It was amazing, and they fell in love immediately. How could they not? The high school had such an amazing show and treated them great. Two years later, this kid started high school and was so excited for marching band. They were shy and timid, but still excited. Throughout their first season, they dealt with so many things. They dealt with anxiety, depression, devastation, and disappointment. But they also woke up.
What this kid ended up realizing was the importance of marching band, why it really mattered, and the great things to come out of it.
Marching band is not just a group of kids running around with instruments on the field. It’s musicians who are coming together to do something they love. Music is something that fills us all with passionate emotion that nothing else can. Being able to make something like that is amazing. But then add in a physical aspect. You have a story to tell now. You have formations and movements and a color guard and props and suddenly band is so much more.
The time commitment required for marching band is greater than any extra curricular besides maybe football. Hours upon hours are spent on the field, running the same set, the same music over and over. Revising and relearning and reinventing over and over. You’re constantly improving and constantly pushing yourself. Band is an every day thing. Musicians put in hours of practice on and off the field, they have to physically train themselves, and they work so hard. Harder than anyone gives them credit for.
Over this time, all the rehearsals, the late night practices, the early morning rehearsals, the time consuming fundraisers, you grow closer with your band mates than you could have imagined. You spend hours working with them, joking with them, creating something amazing with them, and then you get to your first competition and you perform with them. That’s when you know it’s worth it. And all the late night bus rides and singing your show and falling asleep watching the lights flash by is something you could never forget. Marching band becomes a family. It’s full of people who will be there for you quicker than you could snap to attention.
Through all of this you make the most amazing memories, but you also grow the most.
You become stronger as a person. You learn more about yourself, you learn your limits. You learn to push them. You learn to go farther than you’re comfortable with. Marching band is more than just an extra curricular, it’s a home, a place of growth, a safe haven.
So this kid ended up changing so much. They were pushed farther than they had ever been before. They went from being that depressed, anxious, shy, and confused kid to a confident and outgoing leader. They figured out their passions and met their family. They finally found a home they knew was right.
Don’t ever tell me that marching band isn’t important.
I have had so many problems with public schools putting all the emphasis on athletics. When a school’s budget is cut, they don’t choose to take a little from each program. No. They choose to completely eradicate the arts programs, usually starting with the marching band. If you don’t play sports, you’re not a valuable asset, you’re not qualified for scholarships, and you mean nothing. Marching band? Why would we be impressed that you’re in marching band?
Anyone can do that.
Okay, fine. Anyone can do marching band. Anyone can spend hours on the field doing the same forty-second section over and over and over and over. Anyone can hit over 75 precise dots on the field with the correct step sizes, the correct amount of steps, the correct timing, without being so much as an inch to either side, in order and without looking at the yard line markers or the field. Anyone can memorize all of those extremely specific points on the grass and varying counts for steps and then execute them with a shako visor pulled down over your eyes and looking up at the press box the whole time. If you look down at the yard line markers to see where you are, congratulations, you just lost points for the group.
Anyone can memorize eight pages of notes, rhythms, dynamics, phrasing, and tempos. (But of course, before you do that you have to learn an instrument with hundreds of different fingerings and learn how to make slight changes in your lips to change notes and stay in tune.) Memorize all seven and a half minutes of music and then marry it to the seventy-five pages of drill you memorized. Do them both perfectly and at the same time. But you can’t just do what you memorized. You have to do it in perfect sync with everyone around you and know how to make the slightest adjustments to fit perfectly within the group. If you’re an inch to the right or barely a thousandth of a step sharp, it’ll throw everything off.
But anyone can do that.
Then add in the fact that you don’t get any individual credit for doing this. The closest you’ll come to recognition is your identity lumped into “The Such-and-Such Marching Band” as you all march onto the field looking exactly the same. You don’t have a number on your back. You have a uniform intended to erase you and turn you into dot T14 and nothing more.
But, for some reason you can’t explain, you love it. You love throwing everything you have into this ridiculously precise pursuit and then not getting any credit for it. You start thanking people when they call you a band geek. You start taping pictures of marching bands into your locker. You start wearing your band shirt everywhere you go. Because you look at the person in an identical uniform next to you and you know that you’ve done this for them and they’ve done this for you. This is more than just a team, this is a family; and if one person is missing from the form, the show can’t ever be the same.
It costs so much money, so much time. You’re out there on the field in the blazing sun for fourteen hours a day during summer band camp, out in the street getting frostbite on your fingertips during the holiday parade. If anyone knew what you went through for this, they would wonder what made it all worth it.
And the truth is, what makes it all worth it cannot be described. It’s the camaraderie between you and the center snare, the colorguard newbie, the tenor sax player in the set in front of you. It’s the sunset behind you lighting up the back of your plume. It’s the hazy nostalgia that racks your chest with emotion. There’s something about the family you’ve chosen and the experience you’ve internalized that gives you the passion to throw everything down onto that field like nothing else matters in the world… because in that moment, it’s true.
Your nerves are damaged from the cold. Your skin is damaged from the sun. Your joints are damaged from marching and marching and marching. You’re physically and mentally drained, your body is irreversibly compromised, you’re broke as hell, and all you have to show for it is a polyester jacket and a couple of blurry photographs.
But sports are what require hard work and dedication, not marching band.
Even though you complained basically the entire time you marched and even though you’re done with it, you pull out those photographs and you remember. You remember your first day of high school band camp when you had absolutely no idea what you were getting yourself into. You remember your first final retreat when they announced your band’s name as state champions, and you wanted to cry with happiness but you weren’t allowed to move, so you just clenched your fists so tight that your fingernails dug white crescents into your palms. You remember coming back the next year and thinking you knew everything as a sophomore, only to realize there was still so much to learn. You remember the band trips you spent months fundraising for, all the lame tourist attractions you visited between performances, and how you wouldn’t trade those memories for all the money in the world. You remember being a junior and getting nervous because people looked up to you now: as an upperclassman, as a section leader, as a friend. And then you were a senior and you cried on the final day of band camp. You remember how your life became a series of lasts. You had to decide which of the freshmen would inherit your band cubby, your lucky bottle of valve oil, your bus seat. You went to graduation but it didn’t mean anything because you still had one last band trip coming up. You didn’t shed a tear when you tossed your cap but you cried like a child after your last parade. You remember on the plane ride home, you expected to feel devastated and heartbroken, but you just felt… empty.
You remember printing out what seemed like the most difficult solo in the world. You remember driving up to your college and entering a room with a chair and a stand and a couple of people giving you skeptical looks. You remember getting an email from the college marching band with your audition results and reading it with tears of joy in your eyes because you realized it was starting all over again.
But marching band doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t matter.
Tell me that it doesn’t matter. Tell me as many times as you want. You could scream it in my face and I still wouldn’t hear because the music we’re making is too damn loud to let anything else in.
Tell me that it doesn’t matter when I’m standing on the field for the last time, knowing that everything behind me will last forever and that nothing will ever mean more to me than this… and all you’ve got is some money and a jersey with a number on the back.
Do not ever tell me that marching band isn’t important. It is everything to me, and it is everything to millions of other band geeks across the world.
When you refuse to support kids because they participate in the arts rather than athletics, you’re no better than the football player who takes lunch money from nerds.
To all of my fellow band geeks… keep marching, even if the world tells you it’s not worth it. It is. God, it is worth it, in ways no one else but you will ever understand. Continue your band career in college. Audition for a drum corps. Stay active in your high school band as an alumnus supporter. You are all my family.
like ppl always talk about how miserable they are and how gloomy their lyrics sound but when you have thousands of people singing along at the top of their lungs to a song that came out 20 years ago and is being played by a band that’s been around for 30 odd years and like every person in the field and on the stage and watching from their laptops around the world is smiling so wide their faces look like they’re gonna split open, that is what a feel good band is. and it’s radiohead. doesn’t matter what they sing about, it’s how it makes you feel.