As a female alumna of the Ohio State Marching Band (1989-1991), I find myself compelled to join what I’m sure is a large chorus of voices you have heard recently regarding the firing of Jon Waters. I find his dismissal to be a short-sighted decision, and one made based on a sensationalized and one-sided view of an organization.
I'm saddened by all of the conclusions that people and the media are jumping to. In an effort to sensationalize the story, the band is being referred to as “hypersexualized” and “misogynistic”. There are implications, if not outright assertions, that female students were routinely made to do things they felt uncomfortable doing, and that they were treated poorly by other ensemble members and by the staff. That was absolutely not my experience in the marching band.
In my three years in the marching band, I never once felt pressured to do anything I was not comfortable with. The first year I made the band, I was told about the Midnight Ramp tradition, and told that if I chose to attend, I could wear whatever I was comfortable with. What I chose to wear provided as much coverage as if I was wearing a tank top and loose-fitting shorts. It was a celebration and bonding experience with the 224 other people with whom I had just spent two grueling tryout days. Nobody forced me to go, and there were members of my row who, for their own reasons, did not attend. I also never felt as though the environment was anything other than what would normally happen if you put 225 healthy, intelligent, and creative 18-22 year olds together in a group.
I enjoyed my time in TBDBITL immensely; I learned discipline, teamwork, and responsibility in that band. I was given the opportunity to work on arrangements for the band, and for some of the small ensembles, and that helped to foster a love of music in me that led me to eventually get my Ph.D degree in music theory from Stanford University. (I now am an Associate Professor of Music Theory at Michigan State University.) I have said many times that I am actually prouder of trying out for and making the OSU marching band than I am of my Ph.D. degree.
A culture cannot be changed overnight; it takes time, and most importantly it takes the members of the culture having respect for the leadership. It is my understanding that Jon Waters was successfully addressing some of the elements within the band culture. The band members respect Jon Waters, and given time and the proper support from the university, I believe he would have been able to enact changes in the band culture that would have preserved the unique character of the ensemble and brought it into line with 21st century sensibilities. Instead, Jon is being punished for a culture that was in place far before he was even a member of the ensemble, much less its director, and is not being given the opportunity to continue to raise the level of excellence of the ensemble. I believe the decision to fire him was short-sighted, and is not in the best interest of the ensemble or of the university.
Leigh VanHandel, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Music Theory, Michigan State University