March with the USC Trojan Band on game day, starting with practice at the break of dawn, through its many renditions of “Conquest” and ending with its infamous “torture drill” at nearly dusk.
It’s game-day morning, but just barely, when drowsy University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band members make their way to campus to begin the long day that is Trojan Football Saturday. Before dawn has even broken, practice begins in the chilly, autumn air.
Until about 8:30 a.m., the band is broken into its individual instrumental sections, which meet separately from each other in designated spots around Cromwell Field on the USC campus. During this time, each section works on its music for the game and carefully warms up for the long day of playing ahead. Then, after munching on some donuts, band members head over to Cromwell for full-band practice.
As the early morning haze burns off, band members form into lines in the middle of the field and are called to attention by the drum major. Director Dr. Arthur C. Bartner then takes the reigns of the organization he has led for nearly 40 years. His amplified voice booms throughout campus as he runs the band through its halftime show, which is completely new for each home game. The show is perfected after a few run-throughs but band members aren’t off the hook yet. The traditional pregame show, performed every game for decades with little change, is still practiced every Saturday. It is only then, after “cleaning up” all the mistakes—and after four hours of practice or more—that band members get a short break.
Depending on when the game starts, band members may only have an hour and a half to eat, rest, and get into full uniform. Two hours before kickoff, the band assembles once again in front of Heritage Hall to officially begin game day on campus. After one last run-through of the halftime music, the band begins its march to the Coliseum.
First, the band plays concerts for the USC Associates in Alumni Park and then for fans in the center of campus to get the Trojan faithful excited for the game. Then, the TMB plays pied piper to the Cardinal and Gold throngs, leading them through campus and across Exposition Boulevard (remembering to kick the bases of the flagpoles for good luck, of course). Band members run a gauntlet of high-fives from enthusiastic fans on their way to the Coliseum while shouts of “Fight On!” fill the air.
Each section of the band has its litany of traditions en route, which include the mellophones playing the horn calls of “Conquest!” as they cross the street and the whole band chanting “Rose Bowl” as they enter the Coliseum’s tunnel. Once at the top of the tunnel, the band blasts “Tribute to Troy” into the darkness, both to stoke the Trojan players for the game and to intimidate their opponents.
When the tunnel has cleared, it’s time for the “tunnel run.” After a few short whistles, the band is off, charging into the mouth of the tunnel at break-neck speed. A cacophony of percussion and shouting fills the darkness and pours out into the stadium. Band members don’t slow down until they see daylight and hear the roar of the crowd. The band then forms up in their “Coliseum lines” in the tunnel, which is the formation for the band’s pregame show. The band marches—arms raised triumphantly—into the arena like the gladiators of old.
Once the team has cleared the field, the band approaches the sidelines. The drum major marches to the center of the field, symbolically driving his sword into the turf to remind opponents that the Coliseum’s hallowed field belongs to the Trojans. Band members begin to feel the adrenaline as they look out across the open field toward the packed stands and hear the crowd noise crescendo to a roar. Then, Coliseum public address announcer, Dennis Packer, heralds the band’s entrance onto the field: “Ladies and gentlemen. Presenting, The Spirit of Troy …,” he booms.
Packer is one of the few game announcers in the country who also announces the marching band. The core of the band’s pregame show is the traditional Trojan songs: “Tribute to Troy,” “Fight On,” and “Conquest!” along with the band’s distinctive rendition of “Star Spangled Banner.”
The band uses a different style of drill for its pregame show than its halftime performance. For pregame, the band uses a traditional “patterns-of-motion” drill, which splits the entire band into squads of four. Each squad on the field has a unique sequence of moves that they perform separately from other squads but which together form a cohesive whole. The entire show lasts about five minutes, and the band clears the field just in time for the football team to charge onto it.
After pregame, the TMB enters the stands and arranges itself by section in pre-set areas. All band members stand for the entire game without a break. The extent of “refreshments” for band members are cups of ice water passed down the line.
During the game, the TMB plays on every down, but not just “Tribute to Troy” as some opponents and media members seem to think. “Tribute” is only played when the opposing team has the ball, and the Trojan defense holds them to five yards or less. The band plays more than 15 other situational songs and drum cadences for events such as turnovers and quarterback sacks. In addition, the band’s repertoire includes more than 20 different “rock charts” that Dr. Bartner can call during timeouts and at the post-game show.
Band members are required to commit all of these songs to memory; music is not allowed on the field or in the stands. When band members aren’t playing, they’re leading the student section in yelling when the opponent has the ball and raising their “victory signs” on offensive plays.
Around five minutes before the half, band members exit the stands to prepare for the halftime show. After the teams exit the field, band members usually have only a minute or so to get into position.
The type of drill used for halftime is “curvilinear drill,” where the band creates large, usually symmetrical forms on the field. Instead of squads of four, members move individually from location to location while maintaining their position in the larger, linear form. Each halftime includes up to 25 forms, new music and maybe even a dance routine.
After a typical halftime show, band members are breathless and tired from 10 minutes of continuous playing and marching. The band’s marching style is especially grueling. The “drive-it” stride, which is a modified form of the traditional high-step, requires band members to form a “chair” with the thigh at a 45-degree angle, the foot pointed down and the toes six inches from the ground.
The second half is much like the first with “Tribute to Troy” played even louder as the Trojan defense knuckles down. After a victory, the band waits for the team to approach and serenades them with “Conquest!” Dr. Bartner sometimes gives the drum major’s sword to one of the players and has him ceremonially lead the band.
Then, it’s time for the band’s traditional post-game concert where it cuts loose on its favorite rock charts for devoted fans. The TMB’s current slate of rock charts includes popular songs that span the length of Dr. Bartner’s tenure at USC. Funk songs from the 1970’s share time with some of the most recent hard rock hits.
For band members, the informal setting of the post-game concert allows them to relax and play as hard as they desire. Though their “chops” may be tired, their exuberance for performing comes through in the coordinated dance moves and horn movements that they incorporate into each chart.
After the concert, the band marches back through the tunnel. Inside the tunnel, the USC drum line segues into its “Rock” cadence, an exciting, bass drum-heavy cadence that reverberates deafeningly inside the closed space.
The band then stops at the Trojans’ locker room and celebrates their victory once more with an encore of “Conquest!” The band often gets into trouble here when irritated members of the opposing team try to push their way through the band. The TMB has a strict code that no one can pass through the band’s ranks, which often creates trouble, especially with opposing fans.
The TMB’s march back to campus is a little more laid back. The remaining Trojan fans that are still celebrating at their tailgates flash victory signs at the band as they pass. There are also more band traditions on the way. After victories, the trumpet section plays “Joy to the World,” and the tubas blast “Imperial March” as they cross Exposition Blvd.
Once back on campus, the band visits Tommy Trojan for one last rendition of “Conquest!” before making its final stop at the steps of the USC Bookstore, where family and friends await. Dr. Bartner makes a short speech, complimenting the band on its performance that day. Then, the band performs its traditional “torture drill,” an in-place conditioning drill involving marching, playing and sometimes even singing.
Finally, after more than six hours, Dr. Bartner says the words that everyone has been waiting for: “Thank you, band. Band dismissed!” A yell rises up from the band members as they take off their helmets and peel off their sweaty uniforms.
Campus is once again dark, just as it was when band members arrived so many hours before. As they trudge home to go out and celebrate, have a post-game hamburger at Tommy’s, or just sleep, they realize that the next grueling, dawn-to-dusk game day may only be a week away and they can’t wait.
About the Author:
Brett Padelford has been assistant director of the USC Trojan Marching Band for four years and is in charge of booking the band on more than 325 special engagements each year. He has been involved in marching band since he started playing clarinet in elementary school. He holds two degrees from USC: a bachelor’s of arts in English literature & language and a master’s of arts in communication management. When he’s not doing gigs with the band, he handles the band’s publicity and writes for the band newsletter.