You see them every Football Saturday. The Big House erupts when they take the field. They perform as a flawless unit in which all individuals are constantly aware of where they are on the field, what their next move is and everything that’s happening around them. They practice daily even in the harshest weather and undergo extensive training. They are some of the University’s most talented students. And no, they’re not on the football team.
The Michigan Marching Band has been a crucial part of the University’s fabric since 1896, and for many football fans, the band is just as important to the Big House experience as the game. The band is collected, cohesive and professional when we see it on the field. But we all know that the complex halftime shows don’t just happen with the wave of the drum major’s baton. What goes into producing a new show each week? And how is the band so damn good? It all rests on the effort and dedication of its members.
Anyone who lives south of Hill Street has probably heard the Marching Band brazenly practicing every day. And anyone near Elbel Field at 4:45 p.m. on a weekday will hear the sound of drums pounding in unison while brassy scales grow louder and louder over thumping rhythms. Practice begins each day with a half hour of music rehearsal. The band members usually receive their show music several days before gameday so they have sufficient time to memorize their parts.
During last Monday’s practice, all 328 students in the Marching Band stood in arched rows around the 50-yard line. The musicians stood attentively, watching the conductor for his signal. Band members brought their instruments to their lips in perfect unison to play a new song together for the first time. At first, the resulting music was good, but nothing spectacular. But by only the third run through, it sounded almost perfect.
The music for the band’s last show — an opera-themed routine for the Delaware State game — was musically intricate, and luckily the band had an unusually large amount of time (two weeks, instead of the typical one) to prepare for it. Even still, every show has to be memorized and performed while the band is in motion, adding a certain amount of difficulty to the performances. Because of this added performative dimension, band members must have a great amount of dedication to learn the music off of the field so they can perform their choreographed parts well when they take the field.
“(The students) are just so motivated to be in this band — they’re just so positive about the energy they bring every day,” said Scott Boerma, Director of Michigan Marching and Athletic Bands. “They bring the commitment to excellence; they bring the understanding of the tradition of this band that goes back to over a hundred years of tradition.”
“They’re carrying on a legacy that came before them and they understand that and they take it very seriously,” he added.
Music is only half of what Marching Band is about. Drill — the actual marching and formations displayed on the field — takes up the rest of the practice. Between drill sets, the Marching Band looks like any other bunch of kids decked out in mostly maize and blue hoodies and sweatpants. They just happen to be carrying around trombones and saxophones. Once they hear the drum major’s whistle, however, the band members chant in unison, raise their instruments and become a single, unified entity.
The 275 members that march the halftime show trace the same path and play the same measures over and over until the formation exactly mirrors what was mapped out on paper. Graduate students and other students in leadership positions walk the practice field and correct those who are out of line while faculty members stand at the top of a tower overseeing the field and occasionally yelling out directions and reminders to individuals.
Despite the hard work everyone puts into the Marching Band, no one seems to grow sick of it. Revelli Hall, the band’s headquarters, is usually full of students practicing their flag choreography, running through music with their sections or just socializing with other band members hours before practice begins.
Last Thursday, the band rehearsed in rainy, 30-degree weather. Even when people’s breaths were visible and their toes were growing numb, a couple members confidently shed their shirts and rehearsed the pre-game routine with smiles on their faces. Perhaps it wasn’t the safest display of band enthusiasm, but it was surely indicative of how much the students are willing to go through for the band. What makes this stressful environment enjoyable is the sense of camaraderie and intra-section spirit.
“My favorite part has to be the people,” said LSA senior and trumpet rank leader Michael Rudowski. “Coming in as a freshman to the University … you have a community of 300 people (in the band) … and, being a trumpet, I have a really large section of 62 members — that’s how large my high school band was. I don’t think socially, college would’ve played out the same way if I wasn’t a member of the band from day one.”
Community and tradition are important to the band — the trumpet section makes a point of practicing for the band’s weekly touch football tournament before rehearsal; the euphonium players have a tradition of dressing up in accordance with the theme of that week’s show (last Friday, they dressed as characters from the four operas presented in the halftime performance).
After each practice the band huddles together for announcements. Some are important, like reminders about Basketball Band. Others, including epic declarations of band members’ birthdays and the resulting number of cheers corresponding with years of age, just add to the fun. Before leaving the field, the band sings in support of defeating the football team’s upcoming opponent and plays one final round of “The Victors.”
“(‘The Victors’) is an iconic fight song — the best fight song in the country, in the world, no matter what anyone says,” said Drum Major David Hines Jr., “The first time I heard myself on a recorded play of “The Victors” — there’s nothing else like that. It’s definitely something special.”
The band members have an indescribable amount of spirit. And not just toward Marching Band. Their enthusiasm toward Michigan football is tangible.
In the tunnel before the Delaware State game, cheers of support and shouts of good luck between the band, the football team, the cheerleaders and the dance team echo deafeningly, mixing to create an unmatchable air of enthusiasm.
“We’re all there to support the team and generate excitement in the stadium,” Boerma said.
The community surrounding the Marching Band doesn’t just extend to band members and other football-centric student teams. Despite the low temperatures on Friday evening and Saturday morning, the band’s last few practices attracted quite a crowd. Ranging in ages from eight months to 80 years, people bundled up in Michigan regalia came out to support the band. Some visitors came to watch sons or daughters and others came to support friends. And all had nothing but respect for the Marching Band.
With such a diverse audience, the band has the responsibility and opportunity to provide music that appeals to all spectators.
“The hardest thing about what we do is the fact that we have 110,000 people all with different preferences of what they’d like to hear, so we try to appeal to everybody at some point in the season,” Boerma said. “It’s just a process of trying to find a good balance to connect with everybody at some point.”
Approximately 110,000 people eagerly await the band’s entrance in the Big House before kickoff of every home game, but for band members, the Saturday festivities start much earlier. For the noon game against Delaware State, the Saturday Marching Band practice began promptly at 7:30 a.m. While even the most dedicated pre-gamers were still in bed, 328 students were up and preparing for a busy day, watching the sun rise over Elbel Field in 25-degree weather. About two hours later, after final run-throughs of music and marching, the practice ended and band members dispersed to tailgate, eat breakfast with members of Delaware State’s band and de-thaw.
The drum line, considered by many to be the centerpiece of the Marching Band, reconvened for its weekly pre-game step show outside of Revelli Hall at 10:30 a.m. The waiting audience was treated to the drum line’s impressive rhythms — it was difficult to spot anyone in the crowd who wasn’t completely captivated by the beat. The informal concert ended with a musically and visually complex piece: Drummers placed their drums on stands and struck them as the performers spun around and wove between one another. Cymbal players worked together to create the accompanying crashes. The cadence became more of a dance, instilling a tremendous amount of energy in the excited crowd.
The fans then fell in behind the band and followed as it marched toward the Big House. The band played “The Victors” once more before filing into the tunnel. The suspense and energy inside the tunnel was unparalleled, as the band belted “Eye of the Tiger” loud and clear.
The band cheered with wild excitement as the Michigan football team came in from the field. The two groups joined in the tunnel, and immediately the band transformed into a stoic, professional militia at the sight of the Delaware State team. Before marching onto the field, the band huddled together, arms across each other’s shoulders, to sing “The Yellow and Blue.”
“I like a lot of things about band week,” Hines Jr. said. “but you practice every week just leading up to the game.”
Being a part of the Marching Band also provides many students with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The band arguably has the best seats at the game, and when the team does well, the experience can make for some incredible memories.
“We did the Rose Bowl our freshman year, and we took very few freshman, and so to be able to go (was) unbelievable,” Rudowski said. “You know, you’re in band as a freshman and you’re going to California for free on Christmas break.”
Unfortunately, that 2007 Rose Bowl coincided with the funeral of former president and University alum Gerald R. Ford. Ford is known for favoring “The Victors” over the traditional presidential fanfare of “Hail to the Chief,” and he requested the Michigan Marching Band play for his funeral service.
“We had to rush and completely change over our flight plans … They sent three quarters of the band home from Pasadena hours after the game ended,” Rudowski recalled. “We played ‘The Victors’ very slowly as they were processing the coffin by … It was very powerful.”
Through its activities outside of Saturday performances, it’s easy to see that the Marching Band is made of much more than uniforms and music. The halftime shows students see on the field are the products of 328 students’ devotion for music and marching, and the end result of hours of physical and mental sacrifice — though no member would call it one. This loyalty has fostered a unique family on campus.
“It’s the students that make this band; the students that bring the drive and the talent and the smarts and the desire to be excellent,” Boerma said. “And without that drive, without that internal commitment to making this program great, none of us could’ve made this happen.”