Classification systems for marching contests are never the same from event to event. Some contests organize be the number of performers in the woodwind, brass, and percussion. Others use the total number of performers on the field. And still others classify solely on the size of the student population at the school. In some states, there is a governing body that establishes one system to be used in all contests. Other states (Illinois, for example) allow each contest to set their own system, which means one week an ensemble could be in Class A then Class AAA the next. While each of the systems incorporated have their benefits, balance is never achieved.
Classification by Instrumental Members
Pro: Focused on musical/instrumental performers, allowing for consistency in volume
Con: Neglects the importance of auxiliaries and drum majors to the performance; Classification can be changed if members of the color guard or drum majors perform on an instrument at any point.
Classification by Total Band Size
Pro: Accounts for all members of the ensemble. Equal consideration for music and visual members.
Con: Some programs audition members to keep within certain classification levels. Additionally, larger classifications tend to have a large disparity of band sizes (for example, Class 4A in Kentucky use to be 120+ members, meaning groups of 120, 164, 225, 300, and higher could compete against each other), and resources available to programs can be widely different.
Classification by School Size
Pro: Programs from schools of a similar school size often draw similar financial resources.
Con: Bands sizes can vary dramatically. In some cases, bands of 40 members total can compete against those of 140 or more.
How can we achieve balance?
Each of the above systems are established and utilized regularly. But, what if there was a way to create a system that took the benefits of each and diminished their weaknesses? Is there a way to take the best of these systems and merge them into something that is more balanced?
While I was Assistant Director of Bands at Eastern Illinois, running the Panther Marching Band Festival was one of my main tasks. During my first year, I kept with the standard “Band Size” classification system already in place. What immediately worried me was the fact that bands from schools of 400 students were competing against those with 2000 students. The amount of resources (whether financial or talent) in which the schools could pull from were not equal. This is not saying that the bands did not perform well, because they did. However, when you see a band with three staff members and one with 14, the imbalance is apparent. For my following years at EIU, I incorporated a hybrid system. The structure was as follows:
Small Division (School Size of 799 or Less)
Class A (Total Ensemble Size of 40 or less)
Class AA (Total Ensemble Size of 41-79)
Class AAA (Total Ensemble Size of 80+)
Large Division (School Size of 800+)
Class AAAA (Total Ensemble Size of 89 or less)
Class AAAAA (Total Ensemble Size of 90+)
This system worked really well during the years it was implemented. Band directors enjoyed that fact that their ensembles were matched with other programs from more similar backgrounds. Adjudicators enjoyed the fact the bands flowed better together without large jumps in size, allowing for more even comparisons for scoring. Each class held 6-7 ensembles, which provided a balance for the entire event.
Was the system perfect? No. There were still bands of 140 (there was a band in which 40% of the school population was in marching band!!!!!!) in a class with a ensemble of 90, but the disparity was less apparent. The goal was to diminish the difference and generate a balanced contest. That goal was reached. Directors and adjudicators (including those with DCI and BOA experience) enjoyed the system. This could end the Band Size v. School Size debate.