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Off Beat Empire: Practice?! We’re Talking Practice

Towns In Midwest Prepare For Influx Of Tourists For Upcoming Eclipse Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On many occasions I have generically referred to hard work that band members and staff put in over the course of the season, but for those who haven’t taken part in the process, I figured that I would use this entry to just walk through a typical week of preparation and how things come together. Obviously, my experience is limited to one organization (Northwestern University) and at a single point in time (over 20 years ago), so I’m sure that there are at least a few differences today versus what others do and even what we did then. However, for the most part, I suspect that most marching bands go about their schedule in a similar fashion.

Again, it has been a long time and I can’t remember exactly if we practiced every week day or four of the week days (I suspect the latter), but basically at ~2:00 or 3:00 most afternoons and one night (Thursday) at ~7:00, we would board buses at various points in campus and head up to the parking lot just outside Dyche Stadium. On the lot, the school painted full markings for a football field, and that was our primary practice area. At the time, the lot was in pretty poor repair - it had that gravelly feel when you were marching or running on it - and we didn’t have any lights so when we got together on Thursday, we did everything in the stadium (which was still astro-turf at that time). Every now-and-then, usually if we weren’t performing that Saturday, we might have had an indoor practice in the basement of the music building where we focused solely on music. Each practice would generally last about three hours. The drum line would usually gather early or stay late, as they truly were the hardest working group in the band (and one of the most important in terms of keeping the show together and sounding good). You didn’t have a whole lot of time to waste over the course of the week, so we didn’t usually take time off for weather. Pretty much anything short of lightening was fair game.

About 90% of your time would be working on halftime. Halftime was usually new each week, whereas the pre-game show (with the exception of the opponent’s fight song, in our case) was the same and normally mastered at band camp or before the season started; you would only periodically rehearse it as a refresher. At the beginning of the week, the staff would distribute packets to the sections that would include music for the halftime show and a set of charts with the drill attached - literally a booklet of ~20-30 copied pages that had labeled dots on the picture of a football field and some information about where in the music the shape was to come together. The sections were expected to learn their parts / work on the music for ~30-45 minutes, the band would usually then come together and try and go through a song or two for ~30-45 minutes, and then we would start getting into drill. Basically, you would find your spot on the chart (yard markers, halfway points, and the hashes were your key navigation guides), you would find the next spot that you were going to, and then you would try and work out how to best get there, which wasn’t always easy... sometimes whoever programmed the charts would miss key details like the fact that they were sending tubas right into your path (in which case you would work through your mesh or timing to try and make things fit). In many cases, you also had to work out what relationships you needed to manage while going from point “A” to “B”, like if you were shifting a diagonal line or trying to move a piece of drill animation - the goal was to stay in the right formation with others in order to make things look right.

Early in the week, we usually left our instruments off to the side and worked through the drill while singing our parts. Over time, we would gradually put our instruments on and start playing through the marching sections as well. There are a lot of fits-and-starts to practicing the drill, and you could run through a section that would take you to the opposite side of the field, only to be told to restart everything 80 yards away. Needless to say, it was really important to hustle between practice sets, or you wouldn’t accomplish anything. This is where good drum majors or section leaders were heroes - just trying to keep everybody up and moving and working through the sheer number of repetitions necessary to put on a good show.

By the end of the third day, you would usually be to the point that you could go through the entire show without looking at your drill chart (and, at least for us, without looking at your music, either). Subsequent practices were used to clean up the rough areas - maybe work through some unique drill, maybe clean up some music that didn’t quite come together right, maybe work on a dance or some other unique aspect of the show, or possibly work on pre-game. There was almost always another 2-3 hours of practice on game day in uniform, and then you would break for a meal and start into the normal performance aspects of game day (pre-game indoor or outdoor concert, then entering the stadium, etc.)

It’s a lot to put together in a very short period of time, which is why I’m usually very sympathetic to Bands who will occasionally repeat a show, or schedule band day, or perhaps feature a week where there is an abnormal level of park n’ bark. The best shows that you will usually see in marching band generally take place when the group has two weeks to prepare, and especially if they’re going to have a visiting band come in or are going to travel to another school the following week. Those shows might see 40 or more sets and / or try and incorporate some unique instrumentation.

Most practice was pure work, but at least in the case of Northwestern, Thursdays after practice were reserved for “spirit sessions”. NUMB has two elected posts, the “Spirit Leader” and the “Grynder” who, aside from being the funny looking guys or gals dancing in front of the band in the stands, were charged with preparing a short skit each Thursday night and leading a sort of pep rally. The Spirit Team could be pretty creative and pull from the full resources of the university, and it wasn’t uncommon for a star player or head coach or alumni celebrity to show up and play a role in the skit.

Again, I think that most people still pretty much do things the same way, except whereas we used to rely on paper, it seems like today’s music and marching charts are now adapted to iPhones and tablets. The one thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that you can’t half-ass it and have things look good. If you’re taking on any sort of reasonably tough drill or music, there’s just no substitute for repetition. If people aren’t working hard and rushing back to their spots when asked to do so, you’re just going to waste a lot of time and Saturday will come sooner than you are ready. You can maybe bluff your way through a park n’ bark piece on sheer talent, but you’re not going to look and sound good on anything complex unless you have put in the time and the effort.

Anyway, that’s pretty much the typical schedule for putting something together over the course of a game week.



This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought went into preparation
    (31 votes)
  • 14%
    Somehow, I though it was different
    (6 votes)
  • 11%
    I was in XYZ band and we did something unique that I’m going to tell you about in the comments
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There is actually a ton of new video available this week on various bands, so I’ll jump right into it...


First off this week, we have video from the Mighty Sound of Maryland for their 9/22/18 performance. The Terrapins brought us a series of songs that are related to Dreams, including a mash-up of Brahms’ “Lullaby” mashed into Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”, “A Million Dreams” from the Greatest Showman, Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”, and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” from Wham. I haven’t really heard a marching band try and replicate something quite as heavy as Metallica before, and as much as I wanted it to succeed, I think the key guitar riff for “Enter Sandman” just didn’t quite feel right - I really don’t know what instruments, if any, you can use to capture the edge and distortion of Metallica power chords. The mash-up with “Lullaby” was also a bit clunky going into that piece. However, everything else that the band performed sounded pretty good - the music was clean, the instruments are bit better suited for the synthesizer portion of “Sweet Dreams”, and “Wake Me Up...” was a nice, upbeat touch to finish. Drill was mostly random geometric, and although they did pause for stretches, the band didn’t really succumb to pure park n’ bark. Overall it was a nice show and bit a of a unique mix of music to match the theme.


We got a couple of our first videos from Michigan for the year, starting with the 9/22/18 game versus Nebraska. The Wolverines basically emptied out their 2017 downloaded music onto the field with Imagine Dragons’ “Believer”, Camilla Cabello’s “Havana”, Sia’s “Cheap Thrills”, Avicci’s “Hey Brother and “Wake Me Up”, Portugal the Man’s “Feel it Still”, and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito”. A couple of things about this show. First and foremost, the middle horns are absolutely fantastic. They carry the melody throughout much of the music and they sounded beautifully clean and were able to sustain big hits without the trumpets needing to come over the top. There are also a ton of little counter-melody licks throughout that go pretty high in range, but just sound fantastic. The entire band sounded great, but the horns really stuck out as being something special. Second, Latin music is always perfect for Marching Band, and these were some really great arrangement choices. Even outside of the Latin Arrangements, this is probably the best rendition of Imagine Dragons’ believer I’ve heard, and the trombone / baritone brass slides in the underpinning chords were a nice touch. Drill... eh... it didn’t look bad, but clearly Michigan was just marching to a spot to park for a bit. I wish they did a bit more to add motion to the big musical hits. Still, it’s a great sound and a great overall show for the Wolverines.

For the October 6th show, Michigan featured music from two of their alumni, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who apparently write theater and movie music, including music for “The Greatest Showman”. This is a pretty brief opening drill - I’m not entirely sure which tunes are encompassed. We then get the alumni band to join for various tunes from “The Greatest Showman”. The sound is outstanding throughout, but obviously, the vast majority is done in a park n’ bark setting. I have no idea who the crowd is cheering... but I suspect that it is one of this site’s mortal enemies, an old twirler somewhere in the background. May they be forever cursed for the evil they brought forth into this world.

Michigan State

For the 10/6/18 game versus Northwestern, MSU brought out their alumni band to perform Stevie Wonder songs including “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, Adios”, “Sir Duke”, and “I Wish”. I have to say that this whole thing was very odd in that usually the current band performs and then they’re joined by the alumni, but Sparty seems to have done things in reverse. I’m curious if they do it this way every year. Anyway, it’s a 100% park n’ bark show and I guess it lets a few old Spartans enjoy a memory or two, but I’m a bit bummed that we didn’t see more from the current members.


Again, Minnesota’s video doesn’t always play nice with SB Nation, so you can also click this link if you don’t see anything above:

This week, the Gophers treated us to a variety of Broadway tunes, starting with West Side Story’s “Prologue”, Hamilton’s “Alexander Hamilton”, George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm”, and then a variety of tunes as the homecoming court was introduced. It was an abbreviated show due to homecoming and the addition of the alumni band, but I thought the Band sounded solid throughout and their opening drill is probably one of their most active to date. I also noticed the rifles on the Gopher Color Guard, which seemed like a nice tough (and I don’t think I’ve seen Minnesota use them before). It was a short homecoming show, but a good one.

Ohio State

For their most recent game, the Buckeye Marching Band gave us a tribute to Civil Rights in general and Martin Luther King, Jr. in particular. I have to admit that there are two tunes that I can’t quite pick out, but we started with U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, transitioned to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, and after a couple of tunes that I don’t recognize plus a small patriotic break in-between, the Buckeyes brought out a choir to finish with Common and John Legend’s “Glory” from the Selma soundtrack. As always the Buckeye drill is outstanding, including a number of geometric movements plus a little stick-figure animation. I thought the mix with the choir for Glory was also quite successful - the two groups balanced and complimented each other well. However, some of the rest of the sound just seemed a bit flat throughout the performance. In particular, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” just sounded too bright and upbeat in contrast to the dark blues element that really makes the song what it is. Regardless, it was still a nice, complete show - nobody goes through more sets over the course of the year than the Buckeyes.

Penn State

This was Penn State’s performance for the Ohio State game a few weeks ago, where the Blue Band included theater performers on a stage to play musical selections from Jersey Boys, Hamilton, and Hair. I know that this performance came up in the comments last week, and not necessarily in the most flattering light, so let me start out by saying some things I thought the Blue Band did well...

  • The Band itself sounded good. They had good tone, good cohesion, and the arrangements were of reasonable quality.
  • They took a chance and featured another musical group within the school. I always like it when bands at least try to do something different.
  • The theater students were definitely into what they were doing. There was some nice life and color in the dancing and performing.

Now for what didn’t work... let’s face it, some of the voice features were off key and the sound mixing was not particularly good. It seemed like some of the more harsh elements of the theater performance got exacerbated by the microphone, but no matter what, it was kind of clear that the band and the performers weren’t entirely on the same page. The voices got off tempo at times, and frankly, some of the harmony (like in Age of Aquarius) just did not sound good in the voices. I guess the stage was OK, but it limited what the band could do in their drill, and some of these performances with live voice actors seem to work better when they’re down among the band instead of literally on a pedestal.

Overall, I would say that it was an ambitious idea that probably could have used a bit more joint work and sound testing in the stadium to really pull things off.


For their 10/6/18 show, Rutgers opened with several songs from Wicked before closing out with a combined Band Day performance. A couple of things... to start out, Ohio State is pretty much consistently the King of drill in the Big Ten Conference, but if I had to pick a second tier below them, it would go to two of the smaller organizations in Rutgers and Northwestern. Every show that Rutgers has performed this year has a really nice flow to the drill. Unlike, for example the Michigan show highlighted above, they’re not just going to a spot and playing through their hits... they’re doing some good things in the transition and they’re moving through the show to set up the next musical and visual element. It’s really sharp and I’m kind of impressed with the the consistent quality that they bring. Also, they sound great. Everything is clean throughout, the band holds together, and there are some nice hits and melodies playing off of each other throughout the show. I do find it interesting that they are playing with a pit (the various percussion instruments that are up front). Not many college marching bands will use a pit outside of a show or two, but they are popular with competition bands. I wasn’t paying attention to this aspect of their prior shows, so I don’t know if this is a one-time thing or not, but I’m actually a fan of pits and wish that more colleges would at least feature them for a show or two during the course of the year. Finally, it seems like their guard is doing more than others are doing with their routines - I thought they looked sharp and it was a nice touch to make the guard the broom for the flying witch.

Rutgers may not win a single conference game this year (please don’t beat my ‘Cats... please don’t beat my ‘Cats), but their band is definitely holding their own on Saturdays.


So we don’t have video for the 10/6/18 performance, yet, but we did get video of a performance at Lambeau Field for 9/30/18 which I suspect was performed again versus Nebraska. Just two songs were performed, the classic big band hit “Sing Sing Sing” originally from Louis Prima and what I thought the announcer referred to as “Dancing in the Aisle”, but it sure as hell does not sound like the disco tune by the same name. I don’t know, I’m confused by the second song. I can’t quite tell if the echo is bad in Lambeau or if the band is just really, really off toward the beginning of the show - I suspect it is the former, because they seem to quiet down in unison at parts. Still, the music is problematic throughout... it’s just not clean and there are so many within the B1G who play Sing Sing Sing often and well (i.e. the Marching Hundred) that I don’t know why the Badgers struggle with it. Drill is very typically Wisconsin, which includes a whole heck of a lot of lower body motion, but shapes on or between a yard line in varying degrees of absolute straightness.


Most of the other bands were off, although we’re still missing a few shows from Northwestern this year and I always struggle for video from Nebraska.


Hopefully, a few of you have a better idea as to how halftime comes together over the course of a week. Maryland showed us what dreams were made of, Michigan let us know what they were listening to in 2017, MSU alumni featured the music of local legend, Stevie Wonder, Minnesota brought a little broadway to the Prairie, Ohio State honored an American hero and the movement he spawned, Penn State tried something different with their theater group, Rutgers got Wicked, and Wisconsin Sang Sang Sang.

We’ll end with a little snippet of Purdue’s All-American Marching Band preparing for a game last year to give a little flavor of what the run-throughs start to feel like after things really start to come together...