Patrick Fleming was buried in his Michigan Marching Band uniform.
Fleming, a sophomore trumpet player, died on Sept. 26, 2011 in a car crash on US-23 near Fenton, Mich. Scott Boerma, director of the Michigan Marching Band, still remembers the call from his receptionist on that Monday morning. He had just stepped out of his office in Revelli Hall to grab lunch at the mall.
“That can’t be true,” he thought, staring at the phone in his hand. “How could that have happened?”
He’d experienced a loss in the band before, when he was a high school director in Novi, Mich. But that student was in a long-time battle with leukemia; they saw that one coming, they had time to prepare.
“That’s indescribable,” Boerma said. “You never expect something like that to happen.”
Just two days earlier, Fleming had taken his spot at the base of the block ‘M’ during pregame of the Michigan-San Diego State game. Now he was gone. Boerma contacted counseling services on campus and then delivered the heartbreaking news to the band.
That Saturday, Fleming’s hole in the block ‘M’ was left empty. It was a painful absence, even for those who never knew Fleming. But it brought the MMB family even closer.
“It didn’t surprise me, really, but it was so profoundly obvious that something like that you think might tear people apart did just the opposite,” Boerma said. “It brought us all closer together and made us realize how fragile life is and how important the bonds are. I saw the band really cling to each other and forge forward.”
Fleming’s family requested he be laid to rest in the uniform he loved so much.
“That was unprecedented,” Boerma said. “Ultimately, it was decided that what Patrick would want the most was most important. That was pretty profound to go to his funeral and see him lying in his uniform.
It’s hard to relive the memories from just a year ago. What Boerma likes to remember is the outpouring of support the band received in the wake of Fleming’s death.
Boerma picked a wristband off his desk on Friday afternoon and twirled it between his fingers. It alternated purple, maize and blue, a memento from the Northwestern band that wore them that week.
There were myriad cards from well-wishing programs across the country. Drum majors from Michigan State and Ohio State delivered 12 roses — one from each Big Ten band — and laid them in Fleming’s spot in the block ‘M.’ They also brought a drum major baton inscribed with Fleming’s name.
Ohio State had a moment of silence during its skull session. The Spartan Marching Band posted a video offering their condolences, and performed Amazing Grace to honor Fleming.
News travels quickly between bands. Rivalries aren’t impenetrable walls, and there’s something beautiful about that.
Two years ago, though, the MMB was on the giving end of that support.
The Massachusetts Marching Band — dubbed ‘The Power and Class of New England’ — was in town for Michigan-Massachusetts in September 2010. But that visit was made with the heaviest of hearts.
In marching band, like every other walk of life, there are legends. And there are legends lost. While the marching Minutemen were en route to Ann Arbor in 2010, they stopped by Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio for a quick performance. At 10:30 p.m., George N. Parks, the band’s director for three decades, suffered a heart attack and died suddenly.
When Massachusetts arrived at Revelli Hall the next afternoon, the MMB lined the walls of the practice hall with signs in hand.
“It was another example of, just wow,” Boerma said. “I was so proud, not surprised, that they stepped up and welcomed the UMass band.”
There are sides of the marching band family that you never see. If you understood them — the pain, the tireless dedication — you might get to your seat on time, you might stay in your seat during halftime.
Michigan Stadium announcer Carl Grapentine announced a halftime lineup on Saturday that whipped the student section into a frenzy — and likely left thousands others with a look of confusion.
“Call Me Maybe.”
“We Found Love.”
“Moves Like Jagger.”
“We have a different kind of audience to cater to,” Boerma said. “It’s a football crowd. They come here to rah-rah and have a good time. We have to make sure we have a show that’s going to connect to a different faction of the audience each week.”
It’s all part of a balancing act. Boerma arranges 90 percent of the MMB’s music, and he has to take everyone into consideration. Against Massachusetts it was modern pop, against Air Force it was a military tribute. Next week? “Maybe Gershwin,” Boerma said.
The difficulty with a college marching band is that you learn a show for five days, perform it, then learn a brand new show the next week.
It’s no walk in the park. It’s undeniably absurd. Not only do you have to find time to do homework and study, you have to memorize a full slate of halftime music and marching drill.
“It’s freaky how they’re able to memorize these charts in five days and perform for 114,000 people,” Boerma said with a grin. “I try not to tell them how difficult it is; they just do it.”
The band puts in more hours than you’d ever expect. There’s Band Week — which is actually two weeks — in late August when the MMB puts in 10 hours per day. During school, it’s an hour and a half each afternoon.
Other than learning the music and drill, it’s on the MMB members to nail down the band’s unique style — two different kinds of high steps and the halftime roll step.
There’s plenty of time to cultivate the family atmosphere.
“Two weeks before you step into your first class, you have a new family,” Boerma said. “You have 380 new friends who have been to that classroom, have taken that professor, know where all the dorms and apartments are.”
There are 380 members of the MMB, but just 275 spots in the performance block. That means not everyone marches each week, there’s a depth chart of sorts, and that means “challenges.”
Each Friday, reserves battle for a spot in the following week’s block. After a three- or four-hour cram session between Boerma and the assistants on Monday morning, the results are posted and members find out if they got a spot.
Marching band means the world to each member of the outfit. Like Fleming, they’d all wish to take it with them.
I chose band over newspaper in high school. I’ve been around music enough to know that it’s more than a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. It’s one of the biggest commitments you can make in college.
My oldest sister, Stephanie, graduated from Michigan State with a degree in horn performance. My oldest brother, Dan, graduated from the University of Michigan’s School of Music, and my twin brother, Peter, is currently enrolled there.
“Oh, so you’re with the band?” folks will ask them.
Well, they’re in a band, but not the band. Actually, only a handful of music majors are even in the marching band. It takes too much time, too much effort, too much pain. The band is comprised of primarily LSA and Engineering students; it’s their last hurrah in the music world.
“I love to tell people that,” Boerma said. “People usually assume it’s all music majors.”
You see, the band that takes the field every Football Saturday in Ann Arbor, isn’t so different from you and me. They just work a lot harder, and often deal with a lot more.
This column is long overdue. This weekend, with the Minutemen in town, felt especially appropriate.
So, this is for the band. For the 380 students that can’t help but walk in step — in eight-to-five steps — across campus. For those who find beauty in uniform horn angles and a polished bell. For those who know that a right foot step-off is the most unsettling feeling in the world.
It’s for the ones who know that a season with the Michigan Marching Band can provide more ups and downs and a longer disabled list than the football team — and just about as many hours of practice.
Maybe next time you’ll show up a few minutes early and see the band emerge from the tunnel into the iconic ‘M.’ Maybe you’ll keep an eye on the field at halftime, knowing the time and effort put into earning a spot in the performance block. Maybe you’ll remember Patrick Fleming, who will rest forever in maize and blue.
I know I will.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated that the Massachusetts Marching Band made the trip to Ann Arbor for the football game last Saturday. They did not make the trip.