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  • Jodi Blake

Strike Up the Band: My Love Affair with Marching Bands


Close-up of marching band performing on a football field. Shows two rows of musicians playing trumpets and baritones.
Close-up view of the Marching Illini as they perform during the September 2, 2023, halftime show. Son Ryan is the fourth band member in the row on the left side. (Photo used with permission from Andrea White)

From the moment I learned to play the flute in sixth grade, being in and around bands has been one of my happy places – especially if it’s a marching band. Fortunately, both of my kids have also been marching band members, so I have enjoyed the “band mom” role as well.


Learning how to march in straight rows for parades and then how to perform a halftime show – all while also playing music – was definitely NOT love at first sight. Rather, my reaction was closer to “take it or leave it.” My school district had a great band program with two awesome directors. But overall, I never felt a strong affinity for marching, and my fellow band members seemed to feel the same way. Mainly, I found it difficult to march a specific set of steps while reading the music from a small piece of paper that bounced around in front of my face. On top of that, Band class was the first period of the school day, so it was often chilly to rehearse each morning during football – I mean, marching band season.


When I was starting college, my mom suggested I join the marching band to meet people. After a little thought, I agreed to give it a try for a year. “At least I already know how to march,” I told myself. What a great suggestion from Mom! Despite a killer band camp week of rehearsals just before classes started in steamy hot August plus more demanding music and marching drills, I loved being part of the Showboat Gamblers marching band at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University) and performed with them for three years. Unfortunately, my busy class schedule crowded out time for band rehearsals and I reluctantly gave up my marching days.

Photo 1: Showboat Gamblers marching band photo from the 1982 Echo yearbook at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University). / Photo 2: College friend Cathy in her Showboat Gamblers band uniform (with bonus Tom Selleck poster in the background).


Being part of an ensemble like the Showboat Gamblers, which took great pride in their performances, changed my attitude about marching band by the time we were ready for our first halftime show. For one thing, we memorized our music for each performance, so gone was that darn bouncing metal lyre holding small pages of music in front of my face. The other major improvement, in my book, was marching corps style, which uses smooth walking or glide steps rather than the high-knee “chair” steps that my high school marching band used – something that also accounted for a lot of those bouncing pages of music.


After college, I filled my marching band fix by going to an occasional parade or by attending a Truman State University football game when my niece Adrienne was part of the percussion section for the renamed Statesmen Marching Band. Occasionally I would catch a Drum Corps International (DCI) competition on TV. These drum and bugle corps-style bands, consisting of students from high school through age 21, compete during the summer months with elaborate marching and color guard (flags, rifles, sabers, and other props) drill and phenomenal musicality. You can attend various competitions around the US, including the DCI World Championships in mid-August. Check out this video of the 2023 Champions Blue Devils, based in Concord, California.

Many years passed before involvement in a band popped up close to home – when my daughter Rachael was old enough to pick a musical instrument to play. That she picked the flute made me super proud – even though the fact her cousin Leah played the flute was likely more influential. (I can accept that.) And her introduction to marching mirrored my own experience. Four years later, my son Ryan went to school on instrument selection day with the intention of playing the trombone, but he surprised my husband and me by lugging home a huge case containing a euphonium (think low brass instrument that’s a bit smaller than a tube). Thinking back, I realized that my kids were third generation marching band members; my mom had played coronet in her high school marching band. I love that the family tradition has continued and that each of my kids joined their university marching bands – Rachael with the Big Red Marching Machine (BRMM) at Illinois State University and Ryan with the Marching Illini at the University of Illinois.


Photo 1: Daughter Rachael in her Big Red Marching Machine uniform at Illinois State University. / Photo 2: Son Ryan in his Marching Illini uniform at the University of Illinois.

Still, why all the excitement about marching band? Sure, it was a great school activity to be involved in and I’m proud to see my kids participate, but why do I feel a thrill when I hear a drum cadence or see a group of band members in uniform on the field? My long-time love affair with marching bands can be “measured” by these categories.


Impressive History of Marching Bands

From military band origins to aid communication on the battlefield, today’s marching bands serve as entertainment and school support at football games and other sporting events. There are many historic firsts that marching bands can claim, especially at the university level.

These deep roots are fascinating and help me appreciate some of the reasons for how marching bands now operate or how specific music styles, drill, and choreography have evolved. Plus, you never know when you might need to know these history tidbits for a trivia competition.


John Philip Sousa

Photo of John Philip Sousa with the cover of a record album of his music and the front cover of "The Washington Post" music score
John Philip Sousa, the American composer and band conductor

Yes, I realize mentioning John Philip Sousa seems like more history, but it’s the many marches he composed – more than 130 plus many other music pieces – that always makes me connect his music to my love of marching bands. Known as “The March King,” Sousa had a long career with the U.S. Marine Corps Band and served as its conductor from 1880-92.


He also contributed to the invention of the sousaphone, a more suitable tuba for marching bands with the location of the instrument's bell allowing its sound to travel upward and above the band. Many marching bands use sousaphones. You can't miss these large instruments – resting on the musicians' shoulders and encircling their chests with the large bell facing forward and towering overhead.

My favorite Sousa march is “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which highlights the high-pitched sound of the piccolo throughout and in the march’s finale. As a former piccolo player, I love the spotlight the diminutive instrument receives in this piece. Sousa also wrote marches for several universities, including the University of Minnesota, University of Illinois, University of Nebraska, Marquette University, Pennsylvania Military College (Widener University), and University of Michigan. Following his death, Sousa’s family bequeathed his musical library to the University of Illinois, where it is part of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music.


Meaningful Traditions

While many organizations have their special traditions, the ones that marching bands celebrate always touch my heart – from signature pieces of music to specific marching drills that are passed on from year to year. From my Showboat Gambler days in college, I'll never forget the band’s signature song, “Shenandoah,” that was played – and still is – at the end of every halftime performance. Hearing it later as a spectator still has the same effect on me – chills through my body and tears in my eyes – as I listen to its haunting melody with its swell of sound at the end.

Other marching bands are known for their traditional drills that they perform every year. Perhaps one of the most iconic on-field traditions is found at Ohio State University with their marching band’s Script Ohio drill. The band starts in a block O formation before the drum major leads a single line of band members to spell out “O h i o” in cursive. In a final move, a senior sousaphone player usually has the honor of “dotting the i” in the word, although honorary “i”-dotters have been selected, including entertainer Bob Hope, golfer Jack Nicklaus, and astronaut John Glenn and his wife Annie.

Marching band spells out Ohio on a football field
The Ohio State University Marching Band forms their iconic Ohio script on the football field.

Two of my other favorite traditional drills are equally exciting to watch:

  • The military style Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band of Texas A & M University perform some of the most intricate precision marching maneuvers I’ve ever seen. During a halftime show, they play continuously and march in tight straight-line formation that is anything but simple! Their lines constantly turn, split into smaller ranks, come back together, and march through other ranks of the band. The show ends with the band standing in their signature “Block T” or “Block ATM” formation. Watch the Aggie Band’s first 2023 halftime show video.

  • The Marching Illini’s Three-in-One formation, which features a medley of songs – “March of the Illini,” “Pride of the Illini,” and “Hail to the Orange” (alma mater song) – is played at the end of each halftime performance. The band begins in a large block I formation that nearly fills the football field before marching to the south end zone where they turn and march back across the field spelling out ILLINI. In the center of the field, they stop and lead the crowd in singing “Hail to the Orange.” Parts of this formation were introduced in the early 1920s and have slowly evolved over the years. Check out the Three-in-One formation (starting at the 9:55 time code) in the Marching Illini Halftime Show: A SPOOKTACULAR Halloween video.

My friend Sherri’s kids, Suzi and Tommy, have served as drum majors for the Marching Leathernecks of Western Illinois University. One special tradition comes at the end of a football game when the marching band forms a big circle on the football field and sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” At the last football game of the season, the senior band members stand in the center of the circle and remove their uniforms for the last time. It’s a very poignant moment to witness.

Large circle of marching band members on a football field
Post-game tradition for Western Illinois University's Marching Leathernecks to gather in a circle on the football field and sing "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Following a similar post-game tradition, it’s been thrilling to watch my kids with their university marching bands sing the alma mater song along with the football team. Then, after exiting the stadium, their bands set down their instruments, put their arms along the shoulders of the people next to them, and sing the alma mater song again. All these traditions build a strong bond among band members and demonstrate to others what it means to be a part of those marching bands.

Group of marching band members singing with their arms around each other's shoulders .
At a post-game concert, the Marching Illini band members sing their alma mater song.

A Sense of Family

As a marching band parent volunteer across the eight years my kids were in high school, nothing was more poignant to me than seeing how new freshman students were welcomed into their instrument sections and the entire band family. No matter how shy or awkward they might have felt, they soon became more comfortable as they got to know others like them or perhaps observed more confident versions of themselves in older band members – getting a glimpse of who they would become by the next year when they welcomed new members to the band family.

Not that marching band is the only group that can build this sense of belonging, but I hear similar stories about other marching bands. When Ryan joined the Marching Illini at the University of Illinois, there was another baritone player named Sam who offered to give Ryan and a couple other baritone players a ride to band rehearsals in her car. That gesture helped build a real comradery within their section.

No doubt the long hours of band camp and rehearsals together allow plenty of time to become closer and create long-lasting friendships. Plus, there’s a newfound swagger when you and dozens of other students put on the same uniforms, grab your instruments, and head out to perform together. From my own experiences with my college marching band, I felt real pride at how well we marched and sounded as we played in front of bleachers full of spectators. We even marched off after halftime performances with one hand tucked into the lapel of our uniform jackets and our shoulders thrown back – with lots of swagger!


Evolving Creativity

As I continue to watch marching bands each year, the new ideas I see on the field for halftime shows or competitions always amaze me. The creativity of the marching drill and color guard choreographers, the clever use of show props, or some new uniforms that follow the theme of a show never seems to reach an end limit. And I’m thankful for that!

While neither of my kids performed with a competitive band, I’ll always jump at the chance to watch those groups, especially high school marching bands. For me, it’s just fun to watch for the clever elements in their performances – maybe strategically timed horn angles changes, a short break in the marching to do some quick dance steps, or the use of an unexpected prop by the color guard. One of my favorite places to catch these performances is the Illinois Marching Band Championships, featuring 42 marching bands divided into six classifications based on school enrollment size. From the smallest to the largest bands, this day is full of excellent music, top-notch marching, and incredible showmanship from these bands.

Perhaps the most creative marching comes from the corps bands that compete within the DCI circuit. When I lived in the Chicago suburbs, I loved going to DCI competitions at Northern Illinois University. I even organized an optional outing so our high school band students could see what high-performing marching bands could do – combining the difficult music they played with the intricate high-precision drill they marched at the same time. I could only imagine how many hours they rehearsed to perform at those top levels! The high school students were always impressed – just as I was! I hoped seeing these bands would inspire their future performances back with their marching band or perhaps ignite some interest in auditioning for a corps band or joining a university marching band.

Drum and bugle corps performing on a football field
Bluecoats drum and bugle corps performing during a competition at Northern Illinois University in July 2019.
 

If you’re inspired by my love of marching bands, I hope you’ll give an extra round of applause for the bands in a parade or stick around for the halftime performances. (You can still get your hot dog and nachos afterwards.) And if you are or were in a marching band, share your favorite memory in the comments.

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