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Off Beat Empire: Basketball Band

Illinois v Michigan Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This week, I’m going to briefly cover something that I actually don’t know too much about from experience, which is the Basketball Band. Personally, I never participated in a full season, but I did fill in a few times for others in my section. Also, my brother did play in the Basketball Band for one year at Marquette, so I have picked up a few tidbits from him. That said, I’m hoping that a few of you who did participate full time can fill in more details from your own personal experience and correct me if I get something wrong.

How do you become a part of a Basketball Band? For most it’s simple... be a member of the Marching Band during football season who is willing and able to continue playing through the Winter and Spring, and (to the extent that positions are limited) have some form of seniority. Joining becomes more difficult depending upon i) how good your basketball team is, ii) how big your Marching Band is, and iii) how difficult is it to get seats in your student section outside of the band. Most Pep Bands are going to include at most ~30 members, which means 2-4 folks per section. At places like Northwestern when we were still in the midst of our basketball dark ages, getting 30 people to volunteer was actually a fairly significant portion of the band, so it didn’t take much to get on the list. If you didn’t join as part of the band... no problem... student tickets to the games were usually pretty easy to come by. Someplace like Purdue or MSU, though... well, I suspect that interest in joining is usually much higher to begin with and the options to attend as a student are probably much more limited. At the larger schools, my understanding is that they do a fair amount of platooning and splitting up the season among a block of 60-90 potential alternates, with the preference for the better games going to upperclassman with seniority. However, I’m not sure about that, and it would be interesting to know just how many people are allowed to participate versus sticking with one core group.

Is it hard work? Not really. You already know the fight songs. You already know most of the stand music from playing in football. You might add a tune or two to your repertoire, but that isn’t anything difficult. There’s no expectation of memorizing your music, so you maybe have a few practices toward the start of the season, and then the rest is pretty much just showing up and playing. You might have to get there a bit earlier than other students, but aside from a post-game rendition of the alma mater and a fight song or two, you get to go home with all the other fans.

Is there a downside? Yeah... you have to show up... in winter... no matter what is going on. Also, maybe you joined for Men’s basketball, but you better be prepared to play a full season of Women’s basketball as well... and possibly hockey... or volleyball... or even a wrestling meet or two. Basically, you’re on call for any event that the athletic department deems important enough to warrant a live rendition of the fight song. Again, this might not be so bad at someplace like Purdue, who does have a top-notch Women’s program with a fun atmosphere where people actually show up for the games and cheer. In places like Minnesota, you might have even just signed up for the hockey (not all programs use the same band for both sports - again, be prepared to play the Women’s games in addition to the Men’s). However, if you’re at say, Rutgers, and you’re in the midst of an Eddie Jordan season, that’s a tough haul on a Thursday night in February.

Well, maybe you don’t have to show up for everything. Depending upon the student calendar, you might not have to attend too many non-con games in late November or December. Generally speaking, Basketball Bands are off the hook for any game where student housing is closed and classes are on break. However, athletic departments still like the sound of a live fight song, so usually they will reach out to a local high school or two, or maybe alumni to fill in for a few games. The fans get their (usually poorly played) fight song to cheer to, and the local music program gets a nice donation. It’s a win-win.

Do Basketball Bands travel? Not really, unless they’re buying a clump of tickets together and going to visit another arena. For some of the bigger early season tournaments, teams might take the “hire a local high school” approach, but nobody is flying the band to the Maui Invitational. A few of the exceptions to that rule include the conference tournament (at least when held in easy bus range, like at Chicago or Indianapolis) and... at least for most... the NCAA’s (I believe both Men’s and Women’s) where a budget is usually allocated toward spirit squads and others (some schools still pocket the extra budget and do the “hire a band” for the Tournament). My brother got a nice little March trip to Providence, Rhode Island to cheer on the Golden Eagles one year. I don’t know if Hockey Bands travel for all tournament games, but you’ll usually see them for Frozen Four games.

Is it worth it? Again, I don’t know. My brother did it for one year, and I think he came to the conclusion that he could have just as much fun getting student tickets without the hassle of band. He liked meeting a few new folks, but without the musical challenge of a new weekly halftime show a lot of the musical / ensemble elements that he enjoyed as part of High School Band just didn’t translate to the basketball court. However, per my article a few weeks ago, there are a lot of band members who like that band social clique, and it’s a really nice way to continue associating with those individuals throughout the year. Also, at a place like Michigan State where your program is big time and you add to an already rowdy atmosphere, I’m sure it means a lot more than the traditional Northwestern experience. More importantly, I think you get to keep those striped Rugby shirts. I will admit, I sometimes wish I could buy one of those to wear to football games. Oh, and some of the costumes and insults directed at Bobby Knight were classic (everyone wearing a sweater and tucking a pillow under their shirt for the entrance to the seats, for example).


Basketball Bands?

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    An absolute necessity for a good atmosphere
    (65 votes)
  • 2%
    I could live with piped in music
    (2 votes)
  • 8%
    Hockey Band is better
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    GTom, you know so little. Let me tell you about the drunken shenanigans we used to get into in Basketball Band (comments, please)...
    (3 votes)
  • 4%
    A student ticket is so much better
    (4 votes)
  • 9%
    I want a striped Rugby shirt
    (9 votes)
  • 5%
    At least there are no baton twirlers!
    (5 votes)
96 votes total Vote Now


For this week, we got new video from Indiana, Minnesota, MSU, Northwestern (finally!), and Purdue. Illinois also posted video from their hosting of the state band championships as well as a performance at a Bears game (second trip to Soldier Field), but most of that video is a repeat of their Star Wars / ET show which I’m not going to review.


Indiana’s format does not play well with SB Nation, but the show can be found at the following link (and select the 10-20 show versus Penn State):

For the game against Penn State, the Marching Hundred performed three tunes from ABBA, including “Take a Chance on Me”, “Mamma Mia”, and “Dancing Queen”. As a side story, by the time that tape players actually came into vogue in cars in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, ABBA’s “The Album” was basically the only post-1970 music (except for the “The Rose” and “Maniac”) that my parents possessed on audio cassette. Therefore, I associate this entire show with the car trips of my youth (which is both good and bad). The first number (“Take a Chance on Me”) features a lot of the positive characteristics of the Marching Hundred, which includes very clean music, a little motion and dancing to have fun during drill breaks, and use of some good counter-marching / follow-the-leader to add visual pop to otherwise very simple drill. The middle tune (“Mamma Mia”) is 100% park n’ bark, but features the Red Steppers. One of these days I’ll delve a bit more into the dancing squads, but I will take this opportunity to recognize the talent of Indiana’s ladies, particularly as it comes to their Rockette high kicks. Out of all the dancing squads in the conference, this one feels like the most “classic” in the sense that they belong on the field with the band. The Marching Hundred then finish with “Dancing Queen”, which includes a fantastically entertaining little get-down on the part of the band. Between this and some of the other shows this year, I think the Marching Hundred are best prepared for a “dance off”. My only gripe is I don’t understand the cadence shift in shape between the second and third tune. There was no way to design that into the show? Again, it’s a simple show... Indiana rarely tests the boundaries of degree of difficulty, but it’s effective, entertaining, and generally sounds pretty good.


Again, this format is stripped out of certain browsers, so if you don’t see a video above, click on this link:

As I suspected last week, Minnesota’s performance of a Stranger Things / ‘80’s show at Nebraska was a dry run for a home performance of the same this week. However, in addition to their rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”, Toto’s “Africa”, and Devo’s “Whip It” that they performed last week, the Gophers added the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, Bon Jovi’s “Runaway”, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. The first half of the show seemed to click a bit better this week - the music sounded clearer, the animation drill for “Ghostbusters” was solid, and the odd 4-5 man squad movements for “Africa” seemed to progress at a better pace after they added a bit of a pause in the drill (and looked visually more interesting). I now also heard that Dig Dug was the video game being portrayed during “Whip It”, which makes a lot more sense and was a nice little touch to the drill. Out of the new music, there was some tentacle animation drill going on for “Runaway” (again, I haven’t seen Stranger Things to understand the significance), and I have to say that I like what Minnesota did for the “Thriller” dance. First, they set down their instruments which left kind of a nice background on the field for their dance. Next, instead of just standing where they were, they went out to the crowd to give them a good view of what was going on. Finally, they had a nice zombie meandering to their positions - it looked fun and set up the dance well. Now, they lost a bit of punch having to come back to their instruments after the dance, but still it was quite entertaining and well done. Also, for the record, I think this is the tenth Thriller dance that I have now reviewed in the past two years. I’m starting to think that it is a right of passage for college Marching Bands (for the record, I have never performed it, despite the music being smack dab in the middle of my childhood).

Michigan State

For the game against Purdue, the Spartan Band gave us a variety of tunes tied to a successful solo career break-outs from other bands. The Spartans start out with the Jackson Five’s “Blame it on the Boogie”, followed up by Michael Jackson’s “Can’t Stop ‘Till I Get Enough”. The Spartans are impeccably clean, as usual, but I have to say that I was bit disappointed by the bass line in “Can’t Stop ‘Till I Get Enough”. The Buckeyes did a particularly good version of this song a few weeks ago, and their Sousaphones were spot on with that beautiful bass lick that holds everything together. Here, I just really couldn’t hear the bass... (it might be a microphone issue, maybe it sounded a bit better live). The next duo featured N’ Sync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. These arrangements were a bit better and seemed to pack a bit more of a punch than the opening. As is usually the case for the Spartans, there are some really good horn and trumpet licks mixed in throughout both pieces. Finally, the Spartans finished with Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. This arrangement was just awesome... everything from the trombone slides in “Survivor” to the numerous big hits interspersed between the two just fit so well with what the Spartans are capable of doing on the field. Drill was terrific throughout... the pauses were brief and made sense with what was going on musically. The dance to “Single Ladies” was superb and a huge crowd-pleaser (what is it with every band wanting to dance this week?). Another fantastic show from the Spartan Marching Band.


Woo! We finally have some video up from my alma mater (I at least had the pleasure of seeing these all live). Going all the way back to the game tragedy played out against Akron, NUMB performed a quad of prominent women hits, including Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, Beyonce’s “Love on Top”, and Pink’s “So What” as well as “Get the Party Started”. This would have been only the second home show for the year, and as I’ve alluded to before, I’m both very proud of what Northwestern is able to do and sound like for a band of its size, and I’m also very sad that the band is as small as it is. During my time, we were bigger, albeit we were still one of the smallest bands in the conference. Anyway, the sound is absolutely clean throughout with some really nice hits despite not having a plethora of instruments to rely on. In particular, I thought the arrangement for “Bad Romance” was strong and had some nice musical moments. If I have one qualm, it’s that the trumpets fell apart a bit in a key section of “Respect” that requires a lot of quick double-tonguing, but otherwise the music held together well. The drill featured a ton of sets for this early in the season and there were some really nice and well thought-out transitions. In particular, the drill seemed to play well between expansion and contraction. Again, I think that both Northwestern and Rutgers are outstanding at doing more with less, and there were a lot of good things happening during this show.

For the game against Michigan (and later repeated for the game against Wisconsin), NUMB gave us a variety of Disney tunes, including in order “When You Wish Upon a Star”, Under the Sea”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “A Whole New World”, “Mickey Mouse March”, and “The Incredibles”. I had my one year-old and three year-old nieces at this game, and the three year-old is on a tremendous Disney kick as of late, so she really enjoyed the selections. Overall, the music was very clean and well-performed, but these arrangements didn’t necessarily have a ton of punch to them outside of “Under the Sea”, so it ended up feeling maybe a tad bit flat at times. There was a lot of animation drill until “The Incredibles”, which featured mostly abstract geometric drill and playing with pinwheels. I just noticed how the color guard was used as the flags to the castle, which was a nice touch (although it reminds me of the much naughtier Disney “... with a Cactus” meme that we are sometimes fond of using on this site). If it made my niece happy, it’s a great show in my book.

Finally, for homecoming against Nebraska, Northwestern played a medley of hits from the ‘80’s, including Blondie’s “Call Me”, Toto’s “Africa”, A-Ha’s “Take On Me”, and finishing with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with the alumni band. Musically, I thought the big hits throughout the entire show were fantastic... I particularly liked the hits for “Africa” with the high horn parts. However, there were a bunch of little spots (particularly in “Africa”), where the trumpets got a bit sloppy and the music started to lose cohesion. With the exception of a couple of word drills, this was mostly an exercise in abstract geometry which once again used a ton of sets and had some really interesting transitions and nuances going on for it. When the alumi joined for “Thriller” we were treated to... wait for it... wait for it... ANOTHER THRILLER DANCE!!! Again, I never did it and I have no clue how, because between this song and the ever-present “Salute to the Services” that will be played 1,000 times around Veteran’s Day, bands just cannot stay away from this tune or this dance. By the way, I think this is also at least my sixth time reviewing Toto’s “Africa”... There are literally millions of different pieces of music out there... why do bands always play the same ones (not blaming Northwestern... I’m just pointing out how many of these things repeat)? Regardless, it’s another great show by the Wildcats - you guys still make us alums proud.


For their game against Ohio State, the All-American Marching Band performed a tribute to the late great Aretha Franklin. Tunes performed in order included “Think”, “Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, “Say a Little Prayer”, and “Natural Woman”. Reviewing this after listening to Northwestern just highlights how full and well-rounded a big band like Purdue can sound, and they do a really good job keeping things clean throughout the opening. “Respect” was a Park N’ Bark piece featuring the dance squad. Like others, there is a bit of a trumpet double-tonguing section that seemed to fall apart (it’s really hard to do right), but that’s pretty much the only compliant I have (other than the lack of drill). I’m a bit less familiar with “Chain of Fools” and “Say a Little Prayer”, but of these tunes sounded well-arranged and the AAMB made up for it’s pause during “Respect” with a lot of fast-moving drill that did a really nice job taking up the entire field. I kind of liked the Sabres used by the guard at one point as well... it’s something a bit different than the typical flags and rifles. Finally, the Purdue Band finished with “Natural Woman” being sung by Rev. Dr. Twana A. Harris, a (I believe) former member of the Purdue faculty. Dr. Harris joined the AAMB last year to sing “God Bless America”; she was fantastic then, and she was fantastic again as part of this show - it takes quite a voice to fill in for Aretha. There were a few points where maybe the voice competed a bit against what the Band was doing, but both the singer and the band adjusted quickly and overall the song turned out to be a nice combination of the two. It was a really nice touch and a solid way to finish a tribute to the Queen of Soul.


Basketball Band can be a great way to get tickets, but you better be ready to trudge through the snow and be just as excited about Women’s events as the Men’s game. Indiana took a chance on ABBA, Minnesota expanded their Stranger Things take on the ‘80’s, MSU showed us that there is life after boy bands, Northwestern finally posted some video ranging from Divas to Disney, and Purdue showed Respect to the late, great Aretha Franklin.

With that, I will leave you with a snippet of the lengths that OSU will go through to make sure that Hockey games enjoy the full Buckeye experience. This is not a smart move... this is how people lose teeth and break arms...