Marching Bands hold fast to traditions—from the sublime to the obscene—passed down through student generations.
What do a toilet seat, Pixy Stix and a beer serenade have in common? It sounds like the beginning of an off-color joke, but these are sacred relics used by thousands of marching band members in their most beloved and memorable traditions. At universities and colleges across the United States, young men and women with tremendous creative energy—not to mention musical talent—devote hundreds of hours to supporting their teams, classmates, and communities. In the long hours, more than a few raucous traditions are born.
“The band’s tradition is to always be on the edge, and sometimes they do get in trouble” says Giancarlo Aquilanti, director and faculty advisor of perhaps the most infamous college marching band, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (that’s Stanford to the uninitiated). “Their craziness comes from their spirit. But when you’re sarcastic and funny, it’s very easy to cross the line.”
According to band lore, Stanford helped pioneer the “scatter band” tradition in the 1960s by running to various formations on the field rather than marching into position. In one famous scatter drill, an “injured” sousaphone player lay on the field after the dust settled. Paramedics rushed onto the field with a stretcher, then evacuated the sousaphone and left the musician sprawled on the field!
“Today there’s a lot of nudity involved in our performance act and our traditions,” says Samuel Franco, a soon-to-be junior trumpet player from New York. “If it’s under one minute left in the game, and we’re in need of a miracle, the trumpets drop trou[sers].”
Observers and those associated with Stanford either love or hate the band. Neutrality is rare. Perhaps it’s their zany, often offensive shows. Or the band’s history of banishment from various stadiums, TV broadcasts and even airlines. But members say the creative freedom and crazy traditions continue to attract them to this student-run marching band.
For example, before the annual big game against Pac-10 rival University of California, Berkeley, each band section dresses up. “This year, the altos all dressed up like Flavor Flav,” says Franco, referring to the group’s ode to the Public Enemy rap star.
In the Toilet
There’s just something about bathroom humor. No marching band comes close to—or aspires to—Stanford’s antics, but most claim their fair share of bizarre traditions. Take Northwestern University Marching Band’s “grinder,” an appointed band cheerleader, who relies on an old purple toilet seat as his main prop. With his partner in crime, the Spirit Leader, the student Grinder uses “Fred,” the toilet seat, to control the band’s growling (cheering volume). He pumps up the crowd and generally creates a distraction for the opposing team.
Northwestern Wildcat band members are known for forming a claw and pointing it toward the field (or each other) to “growl” at opponents, but their softer side often inspires members. At the game’s conclusion, band members play an instrumental version of the school hymn, the “Alma Mater,” including a heartfelt choral interlude. Band alumni often report tearing up when they hear or play the “Alma Mater.”
How Sweet It Is
The University of Minnesota Marching Band, “The Pride of Minnesota,” has its own university hymn (“Hail! Minnesota”), but band members cite the freewheeling pre-game warm-ups as their favorite tradition.
“If you’re looking for crazy, most of that happens within sections,” says drum major Molly Watters, an upcoming senior. “The tuba section always dances to the drum line warm-ups before we march to the stadium, and the tenor saxes eat Pixy Stix.”
Who knows? When the Golden Gophers move from the Metrodome into their new outdoor campus stadium in fall 2009, the Pixy Stix may help the woodwinds warm up in the nippy Minneapolis mornings. One band member who’s sure to stay warm is the musician selected to suit up as “Goldy Gopher,” the school’s furry mascot. The costumed band member revs up the crowd, and, in return, the band rescues “Goldy” from tail-pulling kids.
In October, a toasty gopher suit might be useful in the high plains of Wyoming, where the University of Wyoming stadium perches at 7,200 feet. No such luck for the “Western Thunder” Marching Band. Instead, some members keep warm by climbing stairs. During the third quarter of home football games, the trombone section makes its way around the stadium, playing its signature, “In Heaven There is No Beer.” Students faithfully respond by screaming, “That’s why we’re drinking it here!” But, no beer for the hard-working trombonists.
How We Roll
There’s tradition, and then there’s tradition (but not in the “Fiddler on the Roof” sense). Grambling State University Marching Band, which celebrates its 81st year in 2007, pioneered some of the more wacky parade and show styles simply by working to spice up their military routine. Other bands have been trying to duplicate the “Tiger Band’s” funk ever since.
“The secret of what we do to make the band have longevity in modernity is the fun dance steps—we make them up and give them names,” says Larry Pannell, director and band alum. Favorites include the Grambling Drop, the Skeeter Rabbit and the Jed Clampett. Watch out, color guard.
Pannell says Grambling’s strongest band tradition, if not the craziest, is producing great leaders. It’s safe to say that the veteran director’s words apply not just to his own students, but also to thousands of marching band members across the country. “Band builds character that you need to go out into the world,” he says. “You have to get 200 to think as one. To do that, they have to learn how to work as a team.”
About the Author:
Olivia Herstein is a proud NUMBALUM, or alumna of the Northwestern University Marching Band. She still plays the clarinet in Minneapolis, but not in drill formation. In her day job, Olivia edits NWA WorldTraveler magazine.
Photo by Robby Beyers. All rights reserved.