During much of my career in secondary education, August was the month of sports camps for conditioning, practicing and performing. During that athletic preparation in the ’70s and ’80s, I underestimated another summer camp, a much more entertaining team that practiced and prepared just as hard as the athletic teams and over past decades has developed into highly skilled, large-team performers equivalent to today’s athletic performers. YouTube search results for college marching bands not only reveals their performance innovations but also the athletic ability inherent in their presentations.
College marching bands today, and some talented high school bands, demonstrate the physical exertion, stamina, spacial awareness and mental acuity required of athletes who compete in sports such as marathon running, field hockey and soccer. Band performances include carrying and playing an instrument, memorizing music and learning formation locations and arrival routes while marching “in step” with other band members.
More challenging than the coordination required of a team of five or 11, a band member’s performance must be synchronized with as many as 200 or 300 performers, while avoiding a seven-tuba pileup. The crisscross maneuver of the Texas A&M Aggie band requires coordination of more than 400 band members, 12 marching columns (with instruments) intersecting at midfield.
Today’s major college band performances require well-conditioned and highly skilled athletes. For example, the marching bands from Michigan, Notre Dame and West Virginia enter the field with a synchronized 180-beats-per-minute high kick, equivalent to a 40-yard sprint while carrying a 10- to 15-pound musical instrument.
Edwards’ 2005 Indiana State University study showed that a band member’s heart rate preparing for performance was 180 beats per minute, comparable to an athlete’s “adrenalin rush” moments before competition. During a band member’s performance (drill), heart rate increased to 200 beats with oxygen consumption comparable to a marathon runner at mid-race. With this physical exertion, talented musicians (a surprising small percentage music majors) provide the lungpower to produce a Broadway-like show, some before the pressure of a hundred thousand spectators and millions more watching on television.
The inception of marching bands at college football games dates more than a hundred years at Notre Dame in 1887. The University of Illinois performed the first halftime show in 1907, and the first letter formation was Purdue University’s “P Block” that same year.
Bands’ styles have evolved in recent decades with the introduction of intricate steps (ankle-knee step, chair step, extended high step, glide step, roll step, crab step and more) while marching laterally, backwards and diagonally — sometimes with instruments pointed in a different direction to produce optimum sound. Step variations are common with Big Ten Conference bands and also Florida A&M, Southern California, Grambling, Tennessee, Southern University, Texas, Ohio University, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Jackson State. Drum majors add an additional marching style.
These athletic and mentally demanding movements not only allow bands to form pictures, geometric shapes, curvilinear designs and blocks but also to slowly or quickly dissolve them, rotate them and condense or expand them. Bands can also float them (moving maintaining shape) such as Penn State’s floating lion. Bands such as Ohio State have created animation to replicate Michael Jackson’s moonwalking and a waving flag. If a computer can show it, a band can perform it. The memorization and mental demand of performers require the near perfect “A” GPA of most band members. The athletic demands require hands and feet coordination.
Maneuvers are highly visual such as Ohio States “Ramp Entry” and Michigan’s stop action and slow motion during “Victors.” Each action requires near-perfect synchronization of hundreds of players.
Other traditional signature performances include Southern University’s “Human Jukebox,” University of California’s “Tuba-Hopping Line,” Iowa State’s “cyclone” field entrance, Michigan State’s “The Series,” Notre Dame’s “Step Off”, Michigan’s “The Victors” Block M field march, Alabama’s “Elephant Stomp” and Stanford’s “Counter March.”
One of the legendary traditions of marching bands is Ohio State’s “Script Ohio,” cursive writing of the word “Ohio” and first performed by Ohio State in 1936. To the displeasure of Ohio State partisans, a variation of the formation was first performed by Michigan in 1932. “Script Ohio” requires a measured number of steps by each musician and two intersecting columns perfectly timed to the music of The Regiment of Sambre and Meuse. The last few notes synchronize with the kick, turn and directional bows of the sousaphone player dotting the “i”. Ohio State performed this maneuver on ice at a hockey game, not unusual for bands who practice in inclement weather and perform in extreme temperatures and treacherous field conditions, similar to athletes.
Major college bands maintain a reserve of 20 to 30 members who compete for starting positions each week, challenging the least experienced members, a process that ensures performance proficiency similar to athletic teams. While many bands frequently perform combined concerts after football games, many drum lines compete informally more intensely. A YouTube video shows the Michigan State drum line performing on construction barriers flipping sticks to each other and bouncing sticks off the roadway. The rival Michigan drum line responded by holding a drummer upside down by the ankles while still drumming. Another Michigan player ran across the drumheads of a curved formation of five drums.
Drum majors also compete with each other. Ohio State’s drum major performance includes a backbend touching the headgear plume on the ground. The Michigan drum major removes the headgear and performs the backbend touching the head on the ground. Annual drum major tryouts at Ohio State attract more than 500 spectators.
Many major colleges offer partial scholarships to band members. Legendary golfer Jack Nicholas and his wife Barbara, graduates of Ohio State, initiated a fundraiser with the goal of providing a $6,000 scholarship to every Ohio State band member.
YouTube provides hours of music and performances of college bands. Tutorials for band candidates show marching styles and musical memorization requirements. Band members will receive the appreciation they deserve when we see band members being carried off the field by football players.
Dr. Joe Giampalmi, an assistant professor at Rowan University’s Department of Writing Arts, has been teaching writing for 52 years. Author of five books and dozens of educational articles for national magazines, he has been writing this semi-monthly column since 1985 and has published more than 600 columns. Some past columns are available at DelcoNewsNetwork.com. Giampalmi regularly presents writing workshops for schools and businesses. Please address questions and comments to Giampalmi@Rowan.edu.