Halftime Dreams: HBCU marching bands

The sweat behind the glory

On a sunny Saturday in October, thousands of black college students and alumni are gathered to witness the biggest rivalry of the year. Nobody dares to move out of their seat for fear of missing any of the competition. Tensions are high as two of HBCU’s finest square off in a battle to the finish.

Oh yeah, there’s a football game too.

Welcome to the world of black college (HBCU) marching bands. Here you will see drum majors and musicians march and dance to the latest in R&B and hip-hop. Bands perform music that moves crowds to states of euphoria while forming multidimensional designs on the field. Dance girls and majorettes perform moves in ways accomplished dancers would envy. Simply put, HBCU marching bands are some of the most entertaining groups in the country.

Now before you read this article any further, I want to let you all know that if you think that the REAL world of HBCU marching bands is EXACTLY like the movie Drumline, you are in for a rude awakening. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of the movie; most of the movie was true to form, but some aspects of the HBCU band experience weren’t pointed out.

Marching in an HBCU band takes MANY hours of time, dedication, and loyalty. Personally, I have never worked as hard in any area of my life as I did when I was in the band, but at the same time, it was one of the most rewarding things I did in college.

Why march?

I think the biggest reason to join a black college band is the sense of pride you get from being not just part of a team, but also a family. In the band, you form life-long friendships with people from all over. You end up spending hours and hours with these people and begin to think of them as brothers and sisters. And, just like in a real family, while you may not get along with everybody 24/7, when you really need them, they will be there for you.

Not only do you gain a family in the band, but you also share a common bond with members of other black college bands. When my partner, Michael Lee, and I created The5thQuarter.com, we envisioned a place on the Web where past, present, and future black college band members could form a fellowship and discuss aspects of HBCU band life. Mike was a former drum major at Alabama A&M University, and I was a clarinet player at North Carolina A&T State University. Although our schools never played each other, the two of us went through many similar situations while in the band.

When I travel to games throughout the season, I meet people from all over the country who share the same passion I do about bands. Both of my parents marched at an HBCU, and the two of them can sit down and converse with an 18-year-old freshman for hours because they all have gone through similar situations in their bands. The bottom line is that all bandsmen share a common bond—the love of music and entertainment.

What does it take to succeed?

In order to succeed in an HBCU band, you need a combination of physical strength, endurance, musicality, and the ability to work with all types of people.

HBCU band camps are generally held in the early part of August and can run from the early hours of the morning to late at night (don’t worry—the practices decrease dramatically when classes begin). Your body has to be in shape to endure the physical part of the camp.

I marched in a corp-style band in high school, and if you think that you can make it through an HBCU band camp without feeling any physical effects on your body—you are in for a rude awakening!

Every year, I hear stories of freshmen who end up with injuries during the first week of camp due to not getting in shape over the summer. People tend to underestimate how much endurance a band member needs to perform week after week. It takes a lot of energy to perform just one 15-minute show, and if your body isn’t ready, it will let you know!

You also need to develop time management skills.

Learning how to juggle your schoolwork and marching band is very integral to your success in college and needs to be developed early. If you don’t manage your time wisely in the beginning, you will have a hard time catching up later in the semester, and your grades will suffer. It can be hard at times to balance school and band, but it can be done. I majored in engineering and marched for four years; if I could do it, anybody can!

Lastly, you HAVE to keep your ego in check. If you were Mr. or Miss Popular in high school—if you were the band president, the section leader, or even a drum major—it will not matter when you start marching for an HBCU band. The biggest mistake that I see freshmen make is when they brag on their past accomplishments—let your musicianship do the talking. Even if you happen to receive a scholarship, you still are new and you need to prove yourself.

If you think you have what it takes to march in an HBCU band, congratulations! You will join a family of thousands of students and alumni that share your passion for music and entertainment. Although there is a lot of hard work involved, it is all for the glory of receiving a standing ovation on Saturday. You will not only gain knowledge about music, time management, and working with others, you will become a part of black college history.


This article was written by Christy A. Walker

Christy A.Walker marched for four years in North Carolina A&T’s “Blue and Gold Marching Machine” and earned a degree in chemical engineering. She is the co-creator of The5thQuarter.com, a Web site showcasing the talents of black college marching bands. She presently works at James Madison University as an academic and career advisor.


  1. Gabrielle

    I am wondering what a typical band camp at a HBCU is like. Could you give me more details?

  2. james wilkins

    Please send updates, emails or magazine articles on related topics…..
    I attended Bethune Cookman College ( Universty) 1980 -1985. This story is me trying to explain what college band life was like to someone who just doesn’t
    (or may never understand. please add me to your list of well wishers and fans.

  3. james wilkins

    correction : ( or may never ) understand Please….

  4. Fadeke Matthew-Ojelabi

    Good job and good to know that no race holds monopoly over knowledge. To God be the Glory!

  5. Ayrriel H.

    Hello I am a high school student and I too am interested in taking Chemical Engineering as well as performing in North Carolina A&T “Blue and Gild Marching Machine”. I was wondering if you could give me a little incite on how you juggled chemical engineering and marching band at the same time. Thanks.

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