Can marching bands play an integral role in professional football? Many groups have proven that they can and do.
By Eddie Carden
Turn back the clock to the 1940s, and you’ll find the origins of the NFL’s two longest-lasting (and only remaining) marching bands. Baltimore’s Marching Ravens and the Washington Redskins Marching Band, who practice and perform less than 50 miles apart, keep their home crowds fired up and maintain two distinct marching traditions.
These two full-sized marching bands anchor a long-tenured professional football music tradition, but just because they’re the only marching bands in the NFL doesn’t mean the rest of the league is left out in the cold.
The NFL’s music tradition has exploded in recent years to include at least seven new music groups, including five drum lines. Marching bands and smaller ensembles have football fans rallying behind their teams and clamoring for more.
Saintly Days of Yore
The Baltimore Ravens football team features the NFL’s largest marching band, whose tumultuous history is unmatched in the league. With more than 250 marching members and 400 volunteers, Baltimore’s Marching Ravens celebrate their 60th anniversary this year. It’s been no easy feat to keep the band alive, though.
Just ask band president John Ziemann. He’s been with the band for nearly 45 years and kept the group together when the football team—then the Baltimore Colts—left town for Indianapolis.
“When we didn’t have a team, we did 30 NFL games in 11 years,” says Ziemann of the band’s stint as an NFL band with no team from 1984 to 1995. “Teams used to feel sorry for us. Now that we put on the purple, black and gold, we became the enemy band.” Interestingly enough, that wasn’t the first time the band went without a team. The band (then known as the Baltimore Colts’ Marching Band) performed from 1951 to 1952 to promote the return of the NFL to the city.
The band’s rocky history is hard to imagine today. Not only have the Marching Ravens survived without a team twice, but the group has also thrived in recent years. “It’s a Maryland tradition and a pro football institution,” Ziemann says. “One band director hit it right; we’re the ‘Miracle Band.’ It takes a lot of work.”
And work they do! They take advantage of the Ravens’ new $41 million practice facility, which features air conditioning and heating, for their rehearsals.
“Time-wise we only have three hours a week,” says Jennifer Gaffney, who has played trumpet in the band for four years. “We practice Wednesday nights for three hours. It takes a lot of focus and dedication. We just squeeze everything we can in the short period we have.”
The band accomplishes a lot in those three hours since the Marching Ravens perform on the field for pregame and halftime as well as in the stands. The band also plays for tailgating fans.
In addition, the Marching Ravens act as a part of the Baltimore community, performing at parades, concerts and fundraisers. Most notably, the band participates in four different 4th of July parades seen by more than 800,000 people. The Marching Ravens even performed at President George W. Bush’s inauguration parade and will march in the 2007 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“The fans really seem to appreciate us for doing what we do to support the team, for being there at not just team-sponsored events, but out in the community for different community events,” Gaffney says.
Despite the Marching Ravens’ community outreach, the band emphasizes its most important function: supporting the team and fans. An integral part of the stadium experience, the band sits just beyond the end zone, taking up the first 20 rows behind the uprights.
“We’re an extension of the fans,” says Bill Turcan, the band’s vice president and a trombone player. “We’re the link between the fans and the players on the field. We’re able to take a performance onto the field and bring the excitement of the team up to the stands.”
In order to heighten the Ravens’ homefield advantage and create a powerful game-day atmosphere, the band strives to get the fans excited and into the game.
“If you go to our games, it’s like a college game,” Ziemann says. “We don’t just have one mascot; we have three— Edgar, Allan and Poe. It’s like a complete college atmosphere. You’ll never see a pregame like the Ravens.”
Oldest Band in the Land
While the Marching Ravens are certainly the largest band in the NFL, Baltimore doesn’t lay claim to the league’s oldest band. That honor belongs to the Washington Redskins Marching Band, which performs at Fed-Ex Field in Washington D.C., for the same team that they have supported since 1937.
“We’ve always been a mainstay of the game for years and years,” says Dan J. Alpert, who played tenor sax in the band for 23 years and is now in charge of the band’s archive project. Memorabilia from the Redskins Marching Band can even be seen at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The band works to support the Redskins organization and to further fan and community outreach for the team. “During the game itself, the band plays occasional featured numbers, as well as when the team scores, we play the fight song,” Alpert says. “After the game, the drum section generally puts on a 20- or 25- minute drum show.”
The band also performs pregame and puts on two or three halftime shows each season, including a special Christmas show.
Alpert finds that one of the most unique parts of the NFL band experience is the band’s diversity. “We have a wide variety of people in the band—people who just graduated college,” says Alpert. “We have people in the band that have been in the band 50, 60 years. We have people in the band who have been in the band since 1947.”
Out of the Bull Pen
It may seem like a no-brainer to bring the energy and enthusiasm of marching band to every NFL stadium, but most teams don’t have the funding or extra seating to support a full marching band. Several teams have found alternate ways to bring live music to game day, though.
“It’s becoming more popular to have a drum line or a pep band—a live music experience instead of just the canned music they have over the loudspeaker,” Gaffney says.
Several teams have “struck up the band,” enlisting local volunteer musicians to pump up the crowd. The Houston Texans Bull Pen Pep Band is in its sixth season as one of the most visible NFL music groups.
“Our goal is to bring a musical element to heighten the game day experience … to help bring more of the spirit of football to Houston,” says music director Lamar Burkhalter. “Regardless of the outcome on the field, we’re able to bring excitement and stimulate Texans Pride.”
Burkhalter began the 50-piece pep band six years ago at the request of the Houston Texans’ founder, chairman and CEO Robert C. McNair and his wife, Janice. The Bull Pen Pep Band features a horn line, drum line and combo with guitar and Latin percussion elements, and it plays throughout the game as well as at various tailgates prior to kickoff.
“What’s unique is our size and our choice of instrumentation,” Burkhalter says. “Not being a full marching band allows us to be more mobile while still producing a huge sound. I think we’re the only NFL music group that has around 50 members—not a full marching band, but not just a combo.”
The Bull Pen Pep Band, made up of mostly professional musicians and music educators, indeed packs a powerful punch. The group practices once a week and is stationed on the visitor’s side of the field where it can impact the whole stadium.
Make Some Noise
Several other teams desiring a live music experience have decided to leave the wind instruments behind and have jumped on the drum line bandwagon instead. In the past four years, drum lines have arisen at NFL teams in Chicago, Denver, Jacksonville, San Francisco and Seattle.
The drum line experiment has proved successful for the San Francisco 49ers. “I think they love it,” says Joe Haworth, who plays in San Francisco’s Niner Noise drum line. “Some of the folks that work with the 49ers said that they’d done a poll or questionnaire of some sort, and the season ticket holders had voted, and the Niner Noise was their favorite addition to the game. You can tell when we go over to the tailgates and people get super rowdy, cheering and dancing.”
High-energy performances from drum lines like the Niner Noise and the Seattle Seahawks Blue Thunder fit perfectly into the NFL atmosphere. Drum lines can easily entertain fans at different locations throughout the stadium as well as outside the venue before and after game time. These groups are comprised of local musicians from all walks of life although several teams have shrewdly collaborated with local drum and bugle corps to head up the ensembles.
The Niner Noise, for instance, is closely linked to The Blue Devils, this year’s Drum Corps International World Champion. Directed by David Gibbs, who is also executive director of The Blue Devils, the line’s 16 members are mostly alumni or current members of the corps. Likewise, the Denver Broncos’ drum line, The Stampede, is related to the Blue Knights, and the Chicago Bears Drum Corps is linked to The Cavaliers.
Overall, marching ensembles have become an integral part of the game day experience for many NFL fans. “For the most part, we get a great reaction,” says Gaffney of the Marching Ravens. “Fans always ask questions about the band, the instruments, and what we do. It’s really nice to have that kind of relationship.”
About the Author
Eddie Carden is an editorial intern for Halftime Magazine. He is a junior, majoring in public relations and psychology, at the University of Southern California. He has been playing the trumpet since the fifth grade and is now a trumpet squad leader in the USC “Spirit of Troy” Trojan Marching Band. He also appeared in a State Farm commercial as part of a five-piece band.
Photo by Shawn Hubbard. All rights reserved.