The Art and Technique of HBCU

Look around in the stands at a halftime show pitting two Historically Black Colleges and Universities against each other, and you won’t see many people headed to the concessions stands or bathroom. on the contrary, you’ll see waves of audience members on their feet—clapping, singing, screaming and dancing along to the beat. find out some of the inside secrets that make these HBCU bands so entertaining and unforgettable.

Photo courtesy of American Honda Motor Co.

Imagine a football stadium with more than 65,000 fans cheering and dancing their hearts out. No, it’s not the latest Madonna or Miley Cyrus concert. It’s not the Super Bowl, and it’s not the Drum Corps International World Championships. It’s the annual Honda Battle of the Bands, held for the past several years at the Atlanta Georgia Dome in January. This marching band exhibition showcases some of the top bands from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

With the long tweet of a whistle, the show begins, and soon the first band steps off to the roar of the crowd with its high-energy performance. But what is it that makes HBCU bands so entertaining to young and old, despite ethnicity and whether viewers have a musical background or not?

There’s one word that comes up over and over again among HBCU band directors: “flashy.” Everything from movement and drill to uniforms (read “A Flare for Fashion”) and instrumentation add flare to these bands’ performances.

High Steppin’ Energy

First off, HBCU bands use a traditional high-step marching style, lifting the knees to 90-degree angles. This type of marching originated with schools in the Big Ten conference, primarily in the Midwest, where many band directors received their graduate and Ph.D. degrees.

“It’s more of a digging-in marching style where we snap our legs up and down when our feet hit the ground,” says Lawrence Jackson, director of bands at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., home of the Human Jukebox marching band. “In the traditional marching style, the ball of the foot hits the ground first as opposed to the corps style where the heel of the foot touches the yard line first.”

Also similar to Big Ten bands, HBCU bands emphasize turns by making right or left flanks with full 270-degree spins.

However, HBCU bands take these traditional marching styles to a new level. Heads bob, arms swing, instruments get thrown in the air, and every movement accents the rhythm.

Special instrument carriage allows the band to incorporate movement from head to toe. “The angle of instrument may be different because many corpsstyle bands keep them pointed directly to the front whereas we have a 45-degree instrument [and head] swing while we’re playing,” says Dr. Julian White, director of bands and chairman of the music department at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. He calls this technique, “riding the arc.”

In addition, many HBCU bands carry percussion instruments on slings and straps instead of using stiffer front-facing drum carriers. Snare drums are positioned down and tilted against the left leg instead of directly in front.

“The snare drum moves with the left leg, so you get the kind of instrument movement that corresponds with the left leg, and that gives kind of a flashy appearance,” White says.

Looser instrument holds also allow an HBCU band to incorporate the most unforgettable part of its show: the dance routine.

“For bass drums, most of the HBCU schools are still using bass drum straps because they’re more flexible and move around a lot,” says Johnny Lee Lane, director of education at Remo Inc., whose background includes writing many of the percussion cadences still being used by HBCU bands today. “When they have dance routines, [the drums] tilt, they move. Some bands disconnect them really fast.”

From the Dance Floor to the Field

Throughout their halftime shows and even in their stand music, HBCU bands incorporate the latest popular tunes. “HBCU schools spiced up the music,” Jackson says. “We do routines to popular music, music that you hear on television, on the radio, now. We have arrangers on the staff as opposed to buying stock arrangement, so it really fits what we are doing on the field.”

Bands are particularly careful to make the tunes highly recognizable. “Every detail of the music—whether it’s a classical ballad, rhythm and blues, pop tune or hip hop—every facet is particularly written, and we try to sound like the CD,” Jackson says.

And while some HBCU bands mix in traditional marches on the field, almost all of them break into full dance routines at the climax of their shows. They typically choreograph closely with the school’s dance group and perform the latest dance songs, from Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” in the 1960s to the electric slide in the ’70s to today’s hip hop.

“You’re like putting on a stage show, a musical,” Jackson says. “We have high-powered entertainment throughout.”

According to Dr. Larry J. Pannell, music department chair and director of bands at Grambling State University, dance routines have always been a part of the Black culture dating back to the days of The Cotton Club, a New York nightclub popular during Prohibition, and watching Count Basie. “It’s a byproduct of that; it moved from the nightclub to the football field,” Pannell says. “As you do the dance steps throughout the years, the crowd understands the music, and they understand the dance steps, and it adds a flare to it.”

White echoes the sentiment. “Dance routines are popular because that’s what people do for entertainment,” he says. “When they see over 100 people on the field doing the same thing they do on the dance floor, it brings the show much closer to home in terms of appreciation.”

Instrumentation Evolution

As a result of the style of music, instrumentation also differs when compared to corps-style bands. The most significant differences can be seen in the drum line, where HBCU bands have traditionally used upright single-drum tenors instead of quads and quints as well as same-size bass drums instead of tonal bass drums of varying sizes. In addition, drums are tuned looser, so they ring out more, according to Lane.

“In the beginning of HBCUs, the marching percussion section was an imitation of a drum set on the field,” Lane says. “That’s how you get the groove. You can’t have the bass drums running up and down like in a drum corps. Bass drums play the same rhythm together; you don’t do the tonal stuff; otherwise, you can’t, won’t sound like a drum set.”

But more and more, HBCU band technique is evolving as groups incorporate corps style and instrumentation into their shows.

FAMU, for example, created a “bilateral percussion” section, mixing traditional HBCU instruments with corps-style drums.

“We always like to keep up with the times and also be on the vanguard of changes with unique sounds, both tonal and rhythmic,” White says. “We wanted to add that melodic flavor to the drum lines and the rhythm with the quads in addition to what we had.”

Grambling State takes these concepts even further by adding a sideline combo with bass guitar, electric guitar, drum set and organ—similar to a corps’ pit percussion. The band will also pull a timpani on the field as well as an oversized bass drum, akin to the Big Bertha used by the University of Texas at Austin. As for playing technique, Grambling State might even mix traditional rudiments with funk.

According to Lane, there are many reasons why HBCU bands have chosen to make these changes. “I think it’s changing because you can’t find many companies that make single tenor drums; also you get many teachers who played drum and bugle corps or are fascinated with drum and bugle corps; some band directors want to keep an HBCU style band but want it to be more 21st century; it’s just a matter of who’s in charge,” Lane says. “Even in the movie ‘Drumline,’ you can see a mixture of traditional and drum corps stuff.”

Interestingly, corps-style bands may also be implementing some ideas from HBCU bands. “I think even more corps-type college bands are implementing some of the traditional HBCU stuff,” Lane says. “Everyone’s kind of pulling on each genre and pulling from their situation. It’s good for both styles.”

Despite some of these new changes, HBCU bands continue to connect with their audiences and enjoy a unique style of their own. And with their popularity, HBCU bands have certainly gone beyond football games and reached the overall public consciousness with the Honda Battle of the Bands as well as appearances at numerous Super Bowls, presidential inaugural parades and films.

“Using the Honda Battle of the Bands as an example, … the significance of that particular evening is that there are 65,000 people coming to see bands without a football game,” White says. “It shows the electrifying power that HBCU bands have.”

To sum it up: “We start off with entertainment and close off with excitement,” Jackson says.

Note from the Editor

Unfortunately, those looking to catch a performance of the Southern University Marching Band this spring will be out of luck as the band has been suspended from performing due to alleged hazing although it expects to be back on the field this fall.

About the Author

Christine Ngeo Katzman is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Halftime Magazine. She has played the flute since the age of 8 and marched in the Northwestern University Marching Band, including the 1996 Rose Bowl and 1997 Citrus Bowl. She graduated from Northwestern with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1997 and earned her MBA from the University of Southern California in May 2007.

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