Whether on your home field or a state-of-the-art professional football stadium, your body fills with adrenaline when you’re standing at attention, ready to perform in front of thousands of spectators. Some characteristics of a stadium, however, can make your experience even more positive and memorable.
By Sara Hodon
Photo courtesy of MetLife Stadium
Posted November 2011
While well-rehearsed marching units can play in virtually any type of setting, some environments are a little more conducive than others. This is especially true for a band’s primary performance space—the stadium.
A stadium provides the biggest platform for marching units to show off their playing skills and the aesthetics of their field shows. Although bands don’t have much control over the layout or physical characteristics of a stadium, it certainly helps if the facility is designed with the needs of the thousands of marching units who will make their way across its field in mind.
Not every school has the resources to build a state-of-the-art stadium with the amenities needed for a marching band, so a unit has to simply work with what is available in the performance space. But according to Tim Gallagher, band director at Horseheads (N.Y.) Senior High School and former events and transportation coordinator with the U.S. Scholastic Band Association—which has held competitions in more than 200 stadiums—certain characteristics of a stadium make it more band-friendly than others.
Natural grass is softer and has more “give,” which is a definite advantage for a football player who wants to minimize the impact on his body, but synthetic turf is the best choice for a marching band’s purpose.
The turf stays dry, so the group can still perform in inclement weather; mud is not an issue, so the color guard can kneel on the ground without worrying about ruining their uniforms or causing grass-stained knees; and the turf is less hazardous than real grass. “Real turf has had hundreds of people walking on it, so over the years it flattens down and becomes slick,” Gallagher says.
If the lime used to create the yard lines gets wet, it can also become slippery and potentially dangerous.
Part of the fun of participating in marching band is getting to travel and perform in different venues. For many student musicians, playing in a location that is different from their home school is exciting enough, but when they have the opportunity to play in a world-famous stadium, it only heightens their overall experience.
That sense of awe doesn’t just come from the huge, state-of-the-art fields that have every modern amenity. Although the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., may be one of the biggest, most inspirational and well-known stadiums, some intimate venues with a sense of history can have a special “wow” factor of their own.
Bill Givens, director of operations at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., says that his venue is more than just a stadium although recent upgrades and renovations have made the facility impressive enough in that regard. “It’s a monument, a memorial and a museum to everyone who served in the Navy and Marine Corps,” he says, adding that the sense of tradition is obvious throughout the facility.
There are monuments, battle and class arches, a Flag Bridge, a Memorial Plaza, and a Memorial Plaque Wall at various locations throughout the venue that tell the story of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.
The Navy-Marine Corps Stadium has hosted the USSBA championships for a number of years and will soon be the venue of the Drum Corps Associates championships.
Ron Van DeVeen, senior vice president of events and guest experiences at the new MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., says that video screens are a huge “wow” factor for many student groups. “We have four huge video boards, so the band is onscreen during their performance,” he says.
Ease of Flow
It’s no small task to get a marching unit and the equipment unloaded, assembled and put into formation in a short time, so the director’s job is much easier if the layout of the facility is conducive to this process. Ideally, the facility should have enough parking available to accommodate buses and equipment vehicles, with enough room to get everyone out of the vehicles safely. This ideal situation can be tough in major cities or stadiums situated in high-traffic areas, so the band director should contact the facility prior to the scheduled performance date to learn the specifics about accessibility and any possible conflicts with load-in or staging.
Gallagher says that he has performed with groups in huge stadiums that were great for performing, but getting inside the facility was a challenge. “I’ve experienced construction, subway stations and lack of parking,” he says of one stadium in a major metropolitan area. “There was also no room to warm up. If the place is hard to get in, even if it’s great inside, you may not want to play there.”
Once the band is in place and warmed up, it helps if the facility encourages a smooth fl ow of traffic, particularly for events like festivals and adjudicated competitions that can draw literally thousands of performers who need to get on and off the field quickly and easily.
MetLife Stadium has four field entrances, which make it easy for organizers to keep the traffic flow moving seamlessly during large-scale band events without anyone feeling pressed for space.
Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis— host of numerous marching events including the Indiana State School Music Association Marching Band Finals, Bands of America Grand Nationals and Drum Corps International World Championships—has plenty of accessibility, with 11 bays on its loading dock and a number of other features that make it easy for bands to load in and out. This state-of-the-art facility can easily fit 63,000 people as well as accommodate smaller events for a more intimate feel.
Proximity to Audience
Whether playing a halftime show at a football game or competing with other schools in a festival, proximity is extremely important to the musicians, director and audience. Some high schools and colleges have a multi-use field that often includes a track, which adds a distance of several feet between the musicians and the crowd.
Other venues have oddly-shaped seating arrangements or have the majority of their seats on one side of the field or the other. Whether the stands can seat 250 or 250,000, it’s vital that the musicians connect with the crowd and set the proper tone for the event.
“We can fitt 10,000 folks between the 20-yard lines, so it’s kind of intimate,” Van DeVeen says of MetLife Stadium, which does not have a track around the main field. “There is a fabulous view of the field from the second level’s club level, which is where judges go. Every seat is a great seat.”
Dome or No Dome?
Another structural aspect that can pose a challenge for directors is performing in a domed venue. Unlike playing outside, where the sound travels freely without much of an echo, in a domed venue the sound travels to the top of the dome or swirls around. Though having a dome has its obvious benefits—the ability to play in rain or shine, a level playing field for all competitors without the effects of wind or sun—it can also create acoustic difficulties, causing a director to change the arrangement of the field show to compensate.
Justin Mertz, director of the Syracuse (N.Y.) University Marching Band, is all too familiar with the challenges of a domed venue. The university’s famous Carrier Dome is the band’s home base. “We have all metal bleachers and concrete surfaces, so when the venue is empty, the sound bounces around like crazy,” he says. “We have to make sure that our percussion is somewhere in the center of the field. When it’s empty, we’re very loud. When there are people, we aren’t getting so much reverb, so it decreases their volume a little bit. When they’re on the field, a lot of the sound goes into the stands or goes up. The sound might bounce back at different times, so it’s diffi cult to hold things together metrically. It can be limiting in what we can do, but we’re used to it.”
Mertz adds that the material the dome is built from effects the sound, too. The Carrier Dome’s older concrete cover causes less reverb than many newer domes, most of which are made of metal. He says that although performing in a domed facility has its challenges, he is grateful for the shelter. “Even with all of these challenges, with enough time and experience, you don’t even realize you have to compensate for them,” he says. “We are extremely lucky that we get to play and practice indoors. It makes everything else a lot easier.”
While not every facility has all of the ideal amenities, most band directors agree that with enough practice, flexibility and preparation, a top-notch marching band can put on a stellar performance in any type of stadium.
About the Author
Sara Hodon is a freelance writer and proud alumni of her high school band’s front silks squad. Her writing has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, including Match.com’s Happen Magazine, History, Lehigh Valley Marketplace, Pennsylvania and Young Money, among others. She is also a copywriter for corporate clients. She lives, writes and relives her band memories in northeast Pennsylvania.