Over 100 years ago, in the fall of 1896, Harry dePont, a 17-year-old University student, marched into University President James Burril Angell’s office and asked that the University grant a new student organization a place to practice. DePont had formed a band of almost 30 students, and while it received no funding, his only request was for a venue where the band could hold practice.
History records that Angell offered assistance, on the condition that dePont could prove that he was undertaking “a sincere venture.” The two agreed that the band would play at the Law School’s celebration of George Washington’s birthday.
A few months later, on Feb. 22, 1897, the Michigan Band played its first-ever public performance. DePont praised it as a success and Angell agreed to allow the band to practice in a University building. The following year, the band began to play at football games and, as they say, the rest is history.
That history is the development of one of the premier marching bands in the nation. One of the oldest bands, the Michigan Marching Band benefits from its great traditions, and with the guidance of its directors, the band has avoided becoming outmoded and has remained at the forefront of college bands.
“I would say that the Michigan band is a nice mix between traditional Big Ten bands and the new modern drum-core style marching,” said Prof. Jamie Nix, director of the Michigan Marching Band. “We have a nice balance between old-school traditional style and a more modern style.”
From its humble beginnings of a few dozen students, to the currently over 350-member band, including reserves, the Michigan Marching Band, like the famous winged helmets, has become one of the enduring symbols of Michigan football. From pre-game to post-game, the band is an integral part of every Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
“It is an essential tradition and it really helps get the spectacle of a Michigan football Saturday going,” drum major Matt Cavanaugh said. “I really see it as huge support for the team. I think that’s a huge importance right there.”
What the fans see on the field is just a small part of the time and effort the band puts into the show. For last week’s game, the band had to learn 20 pages of drill, the choreographed movements and six minutes of new music, in just one week.
“The thing that is hard in one-week prep is that the students have to memorize all their music,” Nix said. “Not only are they learning music but they are also trying to memorize it at the same time. In a one-week show, it takes a lot of hard work on their part to get it right.”
The music and the movements aren’t the only things that change week-to-week for the band. With 100 reserves, the band has weekly challenges on Fridays after rehearsal to see who will be in the performance block for Saturday’s show. The reserves push those in the performance block to be the best they can be, all the while trying to earn a spot on the field Saturday. Some weeks, as few as 10 to 15 people will switch between the two blocks, while in other weeks, between 30 and 40 members will make the swap.
“It is an adrenaline rush because you hope you make it for the following game, but even if you don’t, you can still make it next week,” tuba rank leader and fanfare director Eric Hachikian said.
Regardless of what block a particular band member is in, rehearsal time is very intensive. During the school year, the band practices on Elbel Field from 4:45 in the afternoon till 6:15 p.m., and then practices for two hours before the game Saturday. Hours upon hours of time are spent to ensure that the band puts on its best possible performance. But, this intensive schedule is nothing compared to what the band goes through before school starts.
It may be called band week, but as Nix says, it’s more like band fortnight. During the two weeks leading up to school, before all the other students have arrived and before the festivities of Welcome Week have begun, the marching band goes through what Nix calls a “grueling” two weeks of practice. From 9 a.m. till 9 p.m. the band practices in the harsh Ann Arbor heat. But, as is so often the case, all the hard work is worth it in the end.
“Sure it is annoying having to be here two weeks before everyone else, but after the two weeks you feel, especially after the first football game, that all the hard work has played off.” Hachikian said. “There are rewarding things that go on through the week. As the weeks go on you see the pre-game shows and half-time shows come together.”
Twice during practice this summer, a few Michigan football players, who had already finished their day’s work, wandered over to listen to the band play. In recent years, the relationship between the band and the football team has strengthened, due in part to a tradition that takes place during band week. The band comes to watch the end of the last football practice before the season. After the football team finishes, the band takes the field and performs their pre-game show.
“The football players watch our show and really seem to like what we are doing,” Nix said. “What we do in pre-game is very athletic and they are usually pretty impressed by how physical the pre-game show is. It is also a great opportunity for our students to be able to show what they do to the players, because they never get to see it.”
Not only did the band perform in front of the team, but Cavanaugh also was able to address the football players.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Cavanaugh said about speaking to the football team. “I got to do it last year as well. It was after we had done the pre-game performance. Coach Lloyd Carr gave a talk and said, ‘Now men take a knee, cause someone wants to talk to you.’
“I had to keep walking back and forth because my knees were shaking so much. I basically told them, we are gonna be there for them. We are there to support them and to be there for them. There is a lot of expectations from some people, but no matter what, we will be there to support them.”
While the band wants to see the football team take the field and crush its opponents every Saturday, the Michigan Marching Band has an alternative philosophy of measuring itself. Instead of comparing themselves to other collegiate bands, the band has an uncomplicated measuring stick. Simply put, the band strives to achieve one – albeit tough – aspiration: excellence.
“We don’t compete with other bands,” Nix said. “Our philosophy here at Michigan is that we are competing against a standard. We always want to have the highest standards of excellence in whatever we do. We try to set the bar for college bands, in the way we play the music, in the way we march and the way we integrate the total package. We push the students to achieve excellence rather than to be better than another band.”
As for his students, Nix says, “They are the hardest working band in the country. They have got to be the best band students in the country and they are just awesome and great people.”
After three years of graduate work at the University, Nix took over as director of the marching band in 2001, a position he refers to as a dream job. In his time with the band he has seen students come in, mature and graduate, all the while participating in the band. With thousands of alumni, including the Alumni Band, who play at some of the basketball games and the Blast from the Past during homecoming, the Michigan Marching Band is as much a family as an institution. It shapes the lives of all those who participate and leaves an indelible mark on the ranks of performers.
“When they leave the program they are so well rounded,” Nix said. “They all have a great sense of priority, time management, work ethic, discipline, perseverance, of working together as a team to achieve a goal.”
For Cavanaugh, perhaps the most visible member of the band, excellence is a dynamic and sometimes elusive goal.
“Excellence means you set a standard and you try not to just meet that standard but to exceed it,” Cavanaugh said. “Across all fundamentals, there are intricate steps and intricate music. You just need to go out there everyday and set the bar higher for yourself. Always pushing the standard higher and higher. “
From dePont to Cavanaugh, the Michigan Band has proven a serious venture for the lives of hundreds of students, fans and most importantly band members. The story of the Michigan Marching Band is one of a family a century in the making. A family in pursuit of excellence.