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Off Beat Empire: Get to Know a Marching Gopher!

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 03:  The Minnesota Golden Gophers marching band performs prior to facing the Illinois Fighting Illini at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on November 3, 2007 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Illinois defeated Minnesota 44-17.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 03: The Minnesota Golden Gophers marching band performs prior to facing the Illinois Fighting Illini at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on November 3, 2007 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Illinois defeated Minnesota 44-17. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

One of my hopes for this column has always been to expand the readers’ (and mine) understanding of the various people, traditions, and experiences that make up the Big Ten Conference Marching Bands. Today, I’m very fortunate that one of our own readers and proud Minnesota alums was willing to share his experience as a member of the University of Minnesota Marching Band. Without further ado, I give you StewartRL’s history and memories as a Marching Gopher...

Hello OTE. You know me as StewartRL. I am a second-generation alumnus of the University of Minnesota Marching Band (UMMB). I marched, along with my trusty tenor sax, with the maroon and gold in the 1989-1991 seasons – yes, I’m old; stay off my lawn.

  • What made you decide to join the band? What was your background in high school (if any)? Key differences between being in a college band versus high school.

I came by my affection for the UMMB honestly. My father marched with the Pride of Minnesota in his days at the U (of Mn.) He also was a member of the US Fifth Army band – which should tell you a bit about how good he was. He and my mom were in a vocal gospel group in the 70s, and I therefore grew up around music. I started playing drums in elementary school, but decided to move to the sax around the time I noticed a specific young lady in the sax section. (Note to those aspiring to meet eligible dating partners via music: I never had any dates with the lass I originally tried to meet, but had I stayed with the drums I never would have gotten my (now) wife to date me in college. Sometimes the effects you seek are delayed.)

I played in the marching band in high school because the sax isn’t an orchestra instrument, and the band programs at my high schools marched in the fall; there was no separate marching band extra-curricular. It was fun enough, but very different from college and didn’t really do much at all to prepare me for a B1G marching band. Everything from the steps (corps, or glide step in HS, high step in college) to events (mostly parades in HS, mostly football games in college) was different. Because the HS band wasn’t quite as serious, I didn’t really have a passion for joining the college band when I got there.

Then, my freshman year I met a few of the UMMB in my dorm. They made it sound like enough fun that I signed up my sophomore year and never turned back. Frankly, it also pretty much sucked going to Gopher football games as an ordinary student; going with the band would at least distract me from what was on the field.

  • Walk through how the Band goes about preparing for the season and each week – how much practice, where you practice, whether or not there are auditions, how early students report for the season, etc.

I was in for something of a fun, but rude, awakening. Unlike in HS, colleges tend to take their marching bands seriously. Not only did they charge me tuition for the privilege of playing, they made me show up a couple of weeks prior to school for something called “spat camp.” Our motto for spat camp was eat-march-eat-march-eat-play-party-sleep. Except for the sleep part, that pretty much covered the camp. It was during this time we auditioned for parts, learned pre-game and the first show or two, got to know others in our section & band, and began to be indoctrinated into the traditions.

When I marched, our “block” was about 160 or so people, with another group of alternates. That’s ½ the size of the UMMB today. This meant we really didn’t audition to get into the band, which happens now; we only auditioned for parts and whether we made the block or alternates. Once/week during the season, too, the alternates could challenge someone in their section to take their spot. One of the benefits of playing tenor sax – there were, I think, no more than 5 or 6 of us any of the years I marched – was that we all pretty much made the block.

  • Talk about the Band’s organization – Who is the director, is it guided by the athletic department or music school, key leadership roles fulfilled by students, etc.

I marched under two directors: Dr. Barry Kopetz and Dr. Eric Becher. It was fascinating to march under leaders with such different styles. Our directors were assisted by a number of graduate assistants, each of whom led a section or two of instruments. Additionally there was a band student organization, which consisted of student leaders who helped with some of the administrative tasks for the organization, and three layers of band on-field leadership: Drum Major, section leaders, and rank lieutenants.

My last year – or maybe penultimate year, I’m too lazy to look it up – the band also revived membership in the marching band sorority Tau Beta Sigma. (TBS, and its brother fraternity Kappa Kappa Psi, are service organizations, intended to help serve the band, not social Greek organizations – although there is plenty of “social” in TBS & KKP). Since, at the time, the UMMB did not have KKP, our TBS chapter was co-ed. Eventually the UMMB brought in KKP. I have no idea, though, if either group still exists at Minnesota. Membership was something of a challenge.

  • Some of your favorite traditions, shows, and memories, what you’re most proud of, etc. (that can’t be found in Wikipedia)

Unlike the year the UMMB brought back TBS, I do have fond memories of a number of things that happened during my years in band. A few highlights:

- We brought in soloists Maynard Ferguson & Doc Severinsen. Way cool.

- My last year was also the year the Super Bowl was played at the Dome, and the UMMB was part of the halftime show. I have lots of good memories of that, although that experienced ruined halftime shows for me. The one we were in suuuuckkked (Google “Winter Magic” if you wish) and I know too much about piped-in sounds/lip-synching, but the actual experience was a blast. (Also, SB organizing committees are cheap AF. No souvenirs unless…you happened to be able to get away with one, and we sat under the bleachers watching the game – the one 30 yards away – on 17” televisions.)

[GTom: No need to Google. OH! MY! GOODNESS! So much to say about this!]

- I also marched during the 100th anniversary celebration year for the UMMB, which included some fun shows (including stick figure guy kicking a football through uprights; we were doing OSU stick-figures before YouTube! Made TBDBITL famous) and a great indoor concert.

- In November, we also held our indoor concerts. There’s something very fun about marching in and down the aisles of an auditorium, chanting cadences & doing the flare/visuals with people clapping along less than two feet to either side. At the end we then marched down to our band room and crowded all of us in to go through pretty much the entire marching cadence.

- Off the field we had our “Return of the Vets” party, the first Friday of spat camp – and the Saturday morning rehearsal the next day required the hair of the dog for more than a few. Poker games were incessant for the saxes, and I still play a few times/year with the guys I met then. There was a fall river cruise formal dance early on (because later in the season, the river might have ice on it) and then our end-of-season band banquet.

- At the end of every event – rehearsal, performance, practice, inspection – we all wrapped arms around each other and sang the alma mater (Hail, Minnesota).

[GTom: We did the same at Northwestern. With the passage of years, it is one of my favorite memories of the group.]

  • Perhaps some of the things that you didn’t like as much (i.e. I always hated band camp), types of shows that always made you groan, etc.

There were a few things, though, that were less pleasant. Playing when you know the majority of the fans have gone for beer was kind of a downer, though you wanted to give it all for those who stayed. The music arranger my first year had a propensity to square up anything with soul, and there were a couple of songs we played way too much. But for the most part my memories of band are all good.

  • What did you think about other Big Ten Conference bands or experiences that you might have had with other groups / stadiums / fanbases?

Those good memories extend to my experiences with other bands. I was able to travel to Northwestern (tarps could have been used back then, too), Michigan (the Big House is a must-see, even if you’re not a Michigan fan) and Iowa (we couldn’t play because the blizzard going through froze up our instruments. Turned out to be two long bus rides full of poker sandwiching a cold, snowy Gopher loss). For the most part, our host bands were excellent to us. I remember the Michigan band, especially, treating us pretty well. (The Michigan fans though? There might still be marshmallows in the bell of that sax.) We had the least interaction with the Iowa band, but I’ll blame the weather for that.

We also hosted the Wisconsin and Iowa bands…and maybe the PSU band, but I can’t swear to it. The Badgers were pretty stand-offish until after the game, at which point a few joined us for the weekly post-game band party.

  • Any great road trips or bowl games?

Sadly, the Gophers never made a bowl game when I was there. In fact, the only post-season trip I ever attended was with the hockey team, to Maine, for the NCAA tournament. In March. Maine in March isn’t very tropical. However, it was a small travel group, so I spent a couple of nights in hotel rooms hanging out with the rest of the band, the cheerleaders and some of the hockey players. Hockey players have good stories.

A group of us made up for the lack of football road trips by taking an annual road trip to Evanston for the MN/NW men’s basketball games. There were lots of gestures exchanged with Wisconsin motorists during these trips, especially those with Packer bumper stickers.

  • What other musical activities did you participate in, or perhaps give us other opportunities and ensembles that people might not be aware of, but are really good and should be checked out?

The UMMB isn’t the only band on campus. I also played in the pep band, playing for basketball, volleyball and hockey games. Nothing like getting into pretty much any event for free just because you were one of the few saxes who wanted to play as many pep band gigs as possible.

A lot of UMMB members also played in some of those other ensembles. The jazz bands were exceptionally good, and as you’d expect the concert bands and orchestras were all top shelf. Our UMMB members also met others of like mind, and started their own blues or rock bands. It’s amazing, really, how many groups musicians will organically form when put together.

  • What do you miss most now that you have graduated? What things do you try to make sure you see or do when back on campus that are band related?

Of all the memories I have, the best are all about the people. My wife is a fellow alum, as are many of my friends. I play poker with a group of guys I first met in spat camp ’89, and meet for dinner with three couples who live within a few miles of us. We have get-togethers around homecoming, and a bunch of us meet at one of two tailgate tents hosted by friends from that era. And a lot of us get together around the indoor concert, which has a nice tradition at the end. As noted above, the band sings Hail, Minnesota at the end of each performance. During the indoor concert, UMMB alumni are invited to the stage to sing with the band.

As much fun as being in the band was, and the enjoyable things we did, I don’t miss it to the point I wish I was back. I don’t even play with the alumni band. But I miss some of the people, and I’m glad to keep in contact with so many more. That group of band geeks/nerds…I wouldn’t trade ‘em for anyone.

Thanks for the opportunity to share. Go bands, and Go Gophers.

Thank you for sharing your story, StewartRL. The thought of anyone driving out annually for the Northwestern, Minnesota basketball game during that era has me intrigued (although I’m sure it was easy to get seats every time!).


Most Surprising Minnesota Band Experience

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    A snowstorm shut the Gophers down
    (5 votes)
  • 27%
    Sounds like a lot of parties for a bunch of Lutherans
    (10 votes)
  • 35%
    tOSU stick figure shtick is really old school MN
    (13 votes)
  • 18%
    Minnesota actually did play a Super Bowl at home
    (7 votes)
  • 5%
    Pete Mote
    (2 votes)
37 votes total Vote Now


For this week, we have video on four different shows from Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan, and Maryland.


StewartRL: Illinois paid homage to 150 years of their band program, which led to some interesting music but rather simple field drill. The show started with “Forever Illini” - written for the event, and corps style marching into a diamond formation with “150” in the middle. They then welcomed in a large number of alumni, meaning not much movement other than turning around to play toward the other side of the stadium. Music spanned different historical periods, starting with a medley “Revelation,” “The Southerner” and “Barnum & Bailey’s Favorite March.” The next medley included “Ritual Firedance” and “El Toro Caliente.” They finished their main show with a medly of “Saints hallelujah” and “In The Stone.” After this the alumni moved off and the band concluded half time with a rousing rendition of the Three-In-One with an alum on their over-sized bass drum.

While drill was simple, the Illini pulled it off well. Their lines are fairly crisp with few spacing issues. One thing the simple drill allowed for was good focus on sound. Intonation and dynamic range (i.e., volume) were consistently good and the high trumpets worked. I sometimes think marching band directors choose Spanish music (like El Toro Caliente) to feed the egos of first trumpet players, but it works outside.

There were a couple of technical things to highlight too for those perhaps not familiar with typical marching band standards. Illinois marched corps style, instead of high step, which allows for a smoother sound while moving (GTom has remarked on this in the past). They also used the line markers & hashes to keep lines straight, which fits the geometric shapes they do. Their pace was 8-to-5 (eight steps for every five yards), which you can see in their moving pieces. Finally, because of the way the Illini record their shows with multiple cameras (way to go!) you can see a number of the different on-field and ladder directors. Believe it or not, it can be hard to keep 300+ musicians all together in a large open space with echoes, so multiple directors are vital. You’ll also notice the direction is crisp; none of the flourishes and flair you might see at an orchestra - all because you need to be very clear in directing a band this size, all spread out and often moving. All in all a nice historical nod, with good musicianship, but visually simple.

GTom: The opening was a repeat of the first show of the season, but with a completely revamped set for the alumni to join in. StewartRL is right that i) this is by far the best video production work done by any B1G band, ii) the Illini are always clean, well-spaced and make drill look great, and iii) there is no better way to for trumpets to show their chops than in Spanish or Latin music. I thought the big alumni “I” was a nice addition to the Three-in-One, and watch out Purdue... the Illini are starting to bring out the big drums (and a hearty congratulations to the 100 year-old WWII vet and alum playing that bass drum - good health to you sir and may you join many reunions to come).

Ohio State

StewartRL: The Buckeyes are not known as the Best Damn Band In The Land for nothing, although there are other bands capable of doing what they do. It’s just that, as GTom has pointed out, they do it so consistently that it’s very difficult to come close to their level. They started this week’s “dance” theme with “Shut Up And Dance” - forming the word “dance” followed by a transition to stick figures who danced, naturally. Next up was “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by the King of Pop - a title they spelled out on the field. This song ended with the band forming two of Michael Jackson’s famous gloves and his hat from the video. They also rolled out a stage for Brutus to use to dance along. Next song up was “Footloose” and a drill that incorporated two dancing shoes. They move into “Uptown Funk,” starting in blocks and moving into an X shape, with some park-’n-blow so the cheerleaders could be highlighted. The show closed with “Dance, Dance, Dance” and returned to dancing stick figures. The band left the field to the ol’ school song.

”Uptown Funk” was a good fit for the instrumentation, allowing for the low brass to alternate with the trumpets for good contrast. “Dance, Dance, Dance” also gave the high brass some opportunity to show off quick tempo playing. All in all an enjoyable show.

A few technique things for tOSU. Their band marched a high step, more of a B1G traditional step than corps, though somewhat less pronounced than, say, Wisconsin’s. Notice in some of the hits in ”Shut Up and Dance” the steps get a bit higher & snappier on the hits as each stick figure ends one set of movements and goes back the other way. Also, with tOSU, you can see 8-to-5 and alignment in “Uptown Funk” but it’s much different in the moving sets. Steps then align to how far one has to travel. This kind of motion is harder to keep aligned, especially with rounded shapes, so kudos to tOSU for keeping at this. Lastly, sound was a little less consistent than with the Illini due to the need to focus on movement *and* playing. That’s not to say the Buckeyes don’t have good musicians; they absolutely do. It’s just that some dynamic consistency & intonation can be lost when you’re focused on being part of a moving leg.

GTom: Definitely some different things going on in this show than the Buckeye norm, particularly with how much they involved their cheer and dance squads. However, it all worked nicely for them - some good energy, some good dance moves, and some good sound. I’ve been on a bit of an MJ “Don’t Stop ‘Til you Get Enough” kick lately, and it’s kind of fun to hear a band replicate that bass line, especially at the open of the song.


StewartRL: Ah, Michigan, the other U of M. As noted above, the Michigan band treated us well when we were on a visit, so I have a soft spot for this group. The Wolverine band also went historical, kicking off the show with “Happy Together” into “Pretty Woman” Drill here started with a sun image to showcase their flag corps, then moved into some geometry to set up some hearts, then into rectangles. Aging into the 80’s music, the next song was “In The Longest Time” with a diamond shape, then “Piano Man” with some rounded abstract patterns - which set up a nice stick figure at a piano image. The song closed with the band moving into a block for the start of “Free Bird.” During this song the band compressed into one corner of the field. From here they played “The Victors” as they left the field.

This show was a contrast to tOSU’s in that they played a more musically balanced show. Michigan generally has very good musicians in their music school, so they’re going to play well. This week was no exception.

The technique note for the Wolverines is not terribly new for anyone who saw the first few reviews. They march a standard 8-to-5 high step, but were more fluid in their marching. While Michigan certainly used blocks and lines, they used more curves than the other bands this week. Alignment on these is pretty tricky, especially when the curves are mirrored on the opposite side of the field. You have to not only hit your spot, but hope your counterpart fifty yards away does too. Also, Michigan used more intermediate formations. Where OSU moved from formation to formation, Michigan used smaller moving blocks and other steps between their primary formations. These transitional movements can be interesting on their own, but it’s an art to make these artistic enough to stand alone while setting up the next punch.

GTom: I don’t have a ton to add to StewartRL’s comments other than I thought the guard looked impressive throughout this show. The piano in “Piano Man” was a nice touch and I’m pretty sure that I heard the crowd singing along at one point, which is always a good sign that you’re hitting the sweet spot in terms of entertainment.


GTom: Unfortunately, this one came in a bit late for me to get StewartRL’s comments on, but Maryland posted video for their game against Rutgers that featured a whole lot of soul and funk. Joined by alumni for homecoming, the Mighty Sound of Maryland started with Aretha Franklin’s “Think”, followed with Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, and finished with Five Alarm Funk’s “We Play the Funk”. Needless to say, the Tuba’s were getting a workout during this show with a ton of key bass licks to sustain. Sometimes funk can be difficult for marching bands to pull off, particularly if people try to round the edges or clean up key melodies, but I think Maryland stayed just dirty enough to keep that funky spirit throughout. Drill wasn’t anything difficult, but the Band did a reasonable job of keeping things moving - most park n’ bark moments only lasted ~20 seconds at most.

I’m sorry to hear that the band recently lost a long-time ?police? escort driver (I couldn’t quite hear the full story as to whom the show was dedicated to). Aside from staff and student leadership, there is almost always somebody special to each band - a shuttle driver, a facilities manager, a landscaper, an equipment manager - who does something to help make everything work for the Band. Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate them when they are right in front of us, but they’re there and they make a difference. Again, I’m sorry for Maryland’s loss.


StewartRL: All in all, this week’s offerings were solid shows, with three distinct styles and approaches. Part of the fun of having 14 schools is that we have 14 bands in this conference with their own personalities. Thanks to GTom for letting me have the opportunity to throw in some thoughts, and for all the work he puts into this weekly gig.

Go band!

GTom: The thanks are all mine - it’s great to get to learn a bit more about the Marching Gophers and I really appreciate StewartRL’s willingness to share his story and halftime thoughts. I’ll leave you with Minnesota Marching Band’s second Super Bowl performance, which just took place last year. I don’t care how many mic issues he had... this is much better than “Winter Wonderland”!