Beyond football/with gallery: University of Michigan Marching Band keeps up the hard work - even during bye week
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The other day when I walked out of the Michigan Marching Band director’s office, I was in a bit of a daze. I had learned things about the band that I couldn’t have imagined.
I headed across the street to the practice field, fired up and ready to join. I already could see myself on the 50 yard line at Michigan Stadium performing before 114,000 fans. As I was walking, my mind began to clear. I remembered I didn’t have my instrument with me.
A minute later I remembered I don’t play an instrument and never have; that I have grey hair and don’t know how to do that fancy "high step" march they do when they come onto the field; that I might look out of place. Like the Aflac duck in the commercials.
Oh well. At least I could watch them practice.
Dr. Scott Boerma, the band director since 2007, was explaining to me what the students go through to become and remain band members. First is an audition. Those who are accepted arrive on campus two weeks before school begins to start practice with returning band members in order to be ready for the first football game. They have their own version of the two-a-day workouts that the football team has: seven days per week from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. with breaks.
Like, the football team, a lot of that time is spent on technique and conditioning. Since most high school bands no longer use the "high step," the band members need to learn it. It requires precision and physical endurance, according to Boerma, to make it look snappy while at the same time holding their upper body still in order to play their instrument.
Those breaks might be spent with a massage therapist.
Once the season begins, they practice weekdays from 4:45 p.m. until 6:15 p.m. and on gameday Saturday mornings to do the final touches. Practice is at Elbel Field (Wines Field to us old folks), which is bordered by Hill, Division, and Hoover Streets, and is open to the public. Friday and Saturday, especially gamedays, draws hundreds of spectators. When there are back-to-back home games, they have only five days to memorize the music and the steps for a new program. Somehow it works out, as we witness on Saturday afternoon. "These kids are scary smart," Boerma said. "They are also creative, passionate, motivated, and have a great sense of humor. This is the first job I have had in which motivation isn’t an issue. They are a joy to be around."
I have a suspicion that the pupils are a reflection of the teacher.
Only five to ten members of the band are music majors. Most played in a high school band and enjoy sports, so this is a way to continue those passions in college. Boerma’s goal is to make it a fun, exciting experience for them. They also earn two credit hours for this class.
Of the 380 member band, only 275 get to play for the halftime show at home or away. Again similar to the football team, they have a depth chart. If you are high enough on the chart, you play. As Boerma explained, "It is competitive. There is an expectation of a certain level of performance, and some aren’t there yet." Generally that’s the newer members.
But everyone has a chance to move up. Each Friday after practice, they have challenges in order to win or keep a spot for both pre game and halftime. Those who don’t make it are given help during rehearsals daily so maybe they can make it next time.
When game day arrives, Boerma said he has no worries that they will perform well.
"They have worked hard. It’s our time to have fun, to show our stuff."
A further test for the band comes when they travel, which is primarily to our main rivals - Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame. They go by bus, six of them, leaving and returning the same day. The band and the Michigan fans are definitely a minority among a crowd that Boerma calls "not always friendly." He said that maintaining momentum for the fans is difficult.
"Even rougher is when we march to and from the stadium. We run into inebriated fans and they sometimes throw things at us, try to take our plumes, or taunt us. Let’s hope our fans don’t treat visitors the same way."
Road trips are financed by the athletic department, though other expenses are shared by them and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, of which the band is an ensemble.
Though Boerma is confident the band will play well at halftime, he does have one concern - how to please all the age groups in the stands with the music and show concepts. "The military tribute we did for the Air Force game, everyone can get into," he said. "But that’s unusual. So we try to mix it up. At the Alabama game we did fighting songs such as the theme from ‘Rocky.’ We played modern pop tunes at the Massachusetts game. Sometimes we do skit shows, throwing in jokes, and story lines to interact with the crowd. Variety is the goal as we attempt to connect with everyone each season."
Another challenge is what to play during the game itself while the band is sitting in the stands, which is 75 percent of their total playing time for the day (all 380 play in the stands during a home game, 300 at an away game). Boerma said that he has to pay attention to the action constantly in order to present the right mood at each stage of the game.
"For instance," he said, "Amidst all the troubles at the Notre Dame game, we played Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, a song with some grit and anger in it to do our part to try to turn things around. On the other hand, when we are thirty points ahead and the spectators are a little bored, we might lead the ‘wave’ or play ‘Sweet Caroline.’
"It’s exciting to see how much the musicians can impact the fans and the game, and to see a sea of yellow pump their fists or sing as we are playing. That’s why we are there - to enhance the experience for the fans, and to help them rally behind the team, to keep them involved and cheering.
"Michigan football is a game first of all. But it’s also an event with atmosphere. This is what professional teams try to create through the increased use of piped-in music." I sat back in my chair trying to imagine the scene at the stadium without the band. I asked if it would still be considered a real football game. Boerma smiled and said, "Yes... but I would like to think not."
Bob Horning, a lifelong Ann Arbor resident, is writing U-M game day stories for AnnArbor.com. If you have a story idea, email email@example.com.