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Off Beat Empire: Finale Traditions

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March of the Steelmen

As we are coming toward the end of the season and half of the conference has now played their last home game of the year, I wanted to take a moment to talk about how a few of the conference Marching Bands approach their last show and / or honor their seniors. Specifically, I wanted to share one of Northwestern’s lesser known traditions, the “March of the Steelmen”.

I have a little bit of experience with Northwestern during the Dark Ages. Although I was fortunate to arrive at a time when people were feeling a bit better about what Gary Barnett was doing with the program, the ‘Cats were still considered one of the worst programs in the nation. Nobody showed up to the games... I mean there are jokes about tarps today on a few sections, but I can remember games where there was nobody on the East side of the stadium or in the section behind the end zone. In fact, that was the evolution of putting the players on the opposite side - Gary Barnett did not want the ‘Cats players to see empty stands for the entire game. Average attendance for many years fell below 30,000 and during some of the Rick Venturi and early 1980’s years, average attendance fell to around 20,000. Dyche Stadium was considered so forlorn at the time that we couldn’t even sell out to the likes of Michigan and Ohio State... 1994’s game against the Buckeyes (which I thought was a fantastic turnout at the time), was a mere 35,753... only a couple of thousand less than we recently drew for Bowling Green and Nevada in 2017.

To be in the Marching Band during that time took an extraordinary kind of person. Anybody who had been with the Marching Band for 3-4 years had some pretty miserable experiences. Nobody had seen a winning record. In fact, nobody had seen more than two home wins since 1975. Barely anybody was in the stands to perform to. Almost nobody knew of, let alone was in awe of the traditions that so naturally call people toward the Buckeye Band, or Wolverine Band. Hell, if you were like me, you didn’t know who Northwestern was until you started applying to colleges and was tipped in that direction by a counselor or brochure. Yet, despite a lack of history and a lack of good football, some way, somehow people found the energy to stick with the ensemble until graduation.

From 1949 and 1994, the last home game of the year was the final opportunity to take the field and perform in front of thousands dozens of adoring fans friends and family members; a final opportunity to experience and celebrate performing through a season of football that was not just a disappointment, but for the prior 20 years, had been a mind-blowing shit-show of ineptitude that would have made even Thumpasaurus cringe. It was our final chance to take stock of the years of practice, the joys of performing, the friendships that had developed, the lows of searing heat and mind-numbing cold in wet, grungy, old uniforms. For those just finishing the season, it was a merciful end. For those experiencing their last days in uniform, it was the end of something that they had done probably since Junior High - something that they would not experience again unless you they were willing to occasionally join the alumni band at homecoming.

Therefore, the last game was always a big deal to us, and Northwestern has always made something special out of the final show. After performing a snippet of some drill from earlier in the season, we would carry on a tradition dating back to 1928 where the ‘Cats would perform the second half of Charles Belsterling’s “The March of the Steelmen” to classic drill of the “Old Plus Four”. It’s really not all that complicated... the music is a very traditional march that you would have found throughout the 1910’s to 1930’s. The drill is as basic as it gets... you form a simple large line for brass, and a large back woodwind line on the hash marks. Over time, the woodwind line gradually rotates and transforms into a skinny “N”. Then, toward the finale of the march, first the brass line, then the woodwind “N” high step forward. The final bars feature a graduated kneel-down. Again, it’s incredibly simple, it makes the drill the Illini do for the Three-in-One look like rocket science by comparison. Yet, just about every time it is performed, it gets several ovations from the crowd (sometimes I think it’s just because we’re all old NUMB-alums in the stands who are still paying attention at that point).

After the March is done, every senior is then introduced over the public announcer system by name and the number of years that person has spent in the Band. As each person’s name is announced, they join with the other seniors in the middle of the field. This group would then sing as the rest of the band performed the “Alma Mater”, then the seniors would play the first verse of “Go U Northwestern” alone before being joined in the break by the remainder of the band (usually while high-stepping off the field). It’s simple... it’s cheesy... but it’s a proper send-off and I dare you to find a dry eye among those seniors.

This just encapsulates the moment beautifully, right down to the miserable weather and empty stands.

For years, this was our special moment... our one and only chance to stop everything and celebrate a group of people who had given much and received little. Then, something really strange and miraculous happened my Junior year... suddenly, the last home game was no longer the last game of the season! In fact, we had another full month-and-a-half to enjoy each other’s company and let the seniors go out in real style (and even sunshine) in the Rose Bowl. I even got spoiled a second time, getting to see the ‘Cats take on Peyton Manning in the Citrus Bowl the following year.

Today, even the most inept of programs tend to find their way to a Bowl Game at least once during a band member’s tenure. For example, Illinois only has 3-4 graduating classes who would have missed out on the postseason since the early 1980’s (sorry class of 2019). This year is even Rutgers’ first graduating class since the class of 2005 who haven’t been invited to a Bowl Game. Pretty much the Hoosiers are the only team in the last few decades who haven’t consistently rewarded their Band with a holiday trip at least once during a four-year span.

Anyway, I started out writing this article to highlight what I figured would be some poignant traditions in the B1G with regard to the end of the season, only to find that maybe Northwestern is unique in this regard. Nobody else had to go through as much pain and suffering as we did, and very few can talk about a 47-year post-season drought such that the importance of the final home game is seared into our institutional memory. I’m glad that despite the fact that our football team is now much more successful, that the program still takes the time to perform the “March of the Steelmen” and recognize those seniors who have worked hard over the years to entertain us and carry on the traditions.

With regard to the other conference Bands, a few actually do incorporate some sort of send-off into their season finale, but it isn’t quite on the same level for most as what Northwestern does. It won’t be much of a surprise that these groups tend to have a football history that is a bit closer to Northwestern than... say... Ohio State. I mean, why would Nebraska have ever expected their season to end prior to late December and developed a special show for that moment? Such concerns were reserved for the likes of lesser programs (also, ha ha Huskers... enjoy your ongoing stint of mediocrity). Other Big Ten Bands who do try and incorporate something into their final show include the following:

  • Wisconsin: Wisconsin is the closest to Northwestern in keeping a traditional season-end show. Per Wikipedia, beginning in 1974 the halftime show of the last home football game of the year is ended with “On Wisconsin Finale”. While playing a maestoso version of On Wisconsin, the band forms vertical lines. At once, lines expand into the letters “On Wis” and the band marches towards the audience, ending the performance in a knee bow. There is no introduction of the seniors, but it’s a nice moment to consistently end the season on.
  • Indiana: The Marching Hundred do take the time to announce their graduating seniors in the middle of their final show and bring them out to the middle of the field. However, those seniors immediately go back to their spots to complete the show. When everything is finished, the seniors will quickly return for a brief, informal gathering at the midfield logo.
  • Maryland: Like Indiana, the Mighty Sound of Maryland will introduce their seniors and have them gather in mid-field. The seniors then sing their “Alma Mater” before exiting with the remainder of the Band.
  • Illinois: The Marching Illini will perform a traditional halftime show, but have incorporated brief announcements celebrating the career of the seniors (including a produced video played on the big screen for the Illini’s final performance this year). However, they are not individually introduced. After the Three-in-One concludes, non-seniors will melt off of the field and the seniors will remain and gather at the mid-field logo for an informal gathering similar to Indiana.
  • Minnesota: Apparently their seniors will flip the cape to an alternate color for the final halftime show, if not the entire game (this year, their capes were white whereas the rest of the band was gold).
  • Penn State: The Blue Band does something a bit interesting in that they supposedly allow seniors to pick their favorite shows over the past four years, including an opener, a middle piece chosen by the visual auxiliary groups, and a finale. From what I have seen, the Blue Band has good taste and generally picks some of the more difficult and active tunes that they have performed during their career, which means that their final show is usually top-notch. However, there is no formal introduction of their seniors.
  • Updated Purdue: Apparently, Purdue seniors are called up and get a whack at the Big Bass drum. Thanks to Danulus for pointing this out in the comments.

If other groups do engage in some sort of traditional show, I’m not aware of it. However, as always, I would hope that others would be kind enough to fill in the gaps in the comments if I have missed something.

Poll

March of the Steelmen and Introducing the Seniors

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    I’m not crying... you’re crying (I’m a NUMBalum)
    (18 votes)
  • 23%
    OK, cool that they do something, but whatever
    (11 votes)
  • 8%
    I mean, it’s just three moving lines to a simple March...
    (4 votes)
  • 29%
    It’s OK as long as no baton twirlers are involved
    (14 votes)
47 votes total Vote Now

Halftime

This week we have new video on Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, and Northwestern

Maryland

I will just highlight that I skipped the presentation ceremony for what I believe is Maryland’s national champion twirler (albeit, it’s a bit hard to hear if that is indeed the case and I didn’t see confirmation online). Yes, I am that petty.

Seriously, though, congratulations to the young lady.

For their final show of the year (bowl game potentially pending), the Mighty Sound of Maryland performed a number of pop hits, including Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie”, Cake’s “Short Skirt Long Jacket”, Bruno Mars’s “Finesse”, and Madonna’s “Vogue”. As has been the case for much of the year, Maryland’s sound is very good. They’re clear in their instrumentation... the right voices come through at the right times. They do a nice job generating contrast between some of the low and high points of the music. Generally speaking they kept things fairly cohesive (with a bit of an exception during portions of Vogue). However, at least as it relates to the Cake song and more pronounced in “Vogue”, I wish that the group had more bite... a bit more edge to what they were trying to perform. Some of the sound was just a bit too rounded and smooth when the underlying songs are known for being a bit more abrupt and raw. Still, there were some really nice trumpet licks in “Short Skirt Long Jacket”, and the drill, while not particularly difficult, kept things going and added a nice visual element throughout. I particularly appreciate that the band didn’t park n’ bark during all of “Vogue” despite featuring the dancers.

Along the lines of today’s topic, Maryland’s seniors were introduced and brought out to mid-field. Congratulations to them all... I hope you enjoyed your time in the Band and I really hope that there is at least one more game someplace sunny or at least interesting (i.e. New York or Nashville) in your holiday future (I mean, c’mon... you almost beat Ohio State... how tough can PSU be?).

Michigan

For Michigan’s game this past weekend against Indiana, the Wolverine Marching Band paid tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Tunes included, in order, “Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”, “Think”, and “Say a Little Prayer”. The Band sounded excellent. In addition to just having a nice, full and rich sound, I think Michigan was one of the best groups this year to capture the soul element of Aretha’s sound... it was beautiful, it was cohesive, but they left things just a little bit dirty and nailed most of the rhythm throughout. They came just about as close as anyone to successfully completing that double-tonguing segment in “Respect”, but even the mighty Wolverines didn’t quite pull it off cleanly - everyone has seemed to struggle with those few bars this year. Drill was above average... the Band definitely designed a reasonable amount of sets, the transitions looked clean and smooth, and they did a good job occupying the whole field. It wasn’t a show that blew you away, but it was solid throughout and had some really nice elements to it. That said... Wolverines... you have two more games before you can claim anything this season. It might be a bit early to flash that “Those Who Stay”... phrase during your halftime (and, let’s face it, many who stayed, weren’t).

Minnesota

Usual caveat... not all browsers play nice with Minnesota’s format, so if you can’t see the embedded video above, click here: http://www.ummbvideo.com/newummbvideo/Videos/20181117Halftime.mp4

For their final home show this year, Minnesota broke out one of my favorite Marching Band genres in performing a variety of Latin music tunes. Songs performed included Mark Anthony’s “Viva La Viva”, Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente”, and Ernest Lecuano’s classic “Malaguena”. I may be biased by the choice in music, but I think this is the best that the Minnesota band has sounded all year. There was some really nice rhythm and big sound going on all throughout this performance - the Gophers just seemed to maintain a great balance between clarity and the dance soul of what they were performing. Hands down, there is no better song for a Marching Band to perform than Malaguena... it just has everything... nice swing beat, big horn hits, open spaces for percussion, huge variety of melody in different sections, and brass licks and counter-licks galore. There were a few times that Minnesota lost a bit of cohesion in certain sections, and they did arrange the piece a bit differently than most who I have seen perform this tune, but the sound was still great and it’s one heck of a tune for a senior to go out on. Drill wasn’t anything complicated, but it wasn’t exactly all park n’ bark, either. Having the seniors with their reverse-colored capes all come down to form the 2018 was kind of a nice touch (although, aren’t they technically the Class of 2019? - I mean, I kind of get what they were doing...). I liked that extra little spin around the middle of the field to finish the show as well.

For the sake of their seniors (and now that my ‘Cats are safely out of the way with a “W”), I hope that will walk away from Madison with the axe and tickets to someplace warm. I mean, they won’t, but I can hope for it... right?

Northwestern

For the game against Notre Dame, Northwestern played a variety of 1970’s rock hits, including Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Led Zeplin’s “Black Dog”, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. I’ve always felt that Queen’s music, with their frequent use of harmonics, fits well with Marching Band arrangements and Bohemian Rhapsody is no exception in this show. I thought the sound was really good with nice balance between the appropriate voices and good contrast between the choral and instrumental segments. There were maybe a few places where cohesion was lost a bit, but it still sounded pretty good. What I haven’t heard much of over the years is Led Zeppelin music being played by Marching Bands. In particular, “Black Dog” seemed an interesting choice given how raw and dirty segments of it can be. I think the trombones actually did a great job making things dirty, but the trumpets were a bit too proper and lost some of the edge of Robert Plant’s voice during key segments. Finally, I need to make a confession... I’ve listened to a ton of classic rock over the years, but I have somehow gone through this much of my life without really listening to “Free Bird”. Now that I have, it’s fantastic of course, but if there’s a joke associated with the intro, it’s kind of lost on me. NUMB’s performance was great, the music held together quite well through a couple of tempo changes and there was some really nice sound coming from the Band. Drill is what I have come to expect from the Wildcats, which is to say that it is top notch... a ton of sets, a ton of motion, nice transition between sets, good shapes, good meshing when called for, and just enough familiar shapes (crown, guitar, etc.) to add a good story line to the performance.

Northwestern also posted another video of the ‘Cats performing the same show (I think minus the Zeppelin piece, though) at Minnesota, but I didn’t want to repeat it in here. I have to say that I’m really curious what the ‘Cats are going to do for the Big Ten Championship game... if they’re going to repeat a show, or if we’re going to see something new.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you’ve become a bit more acquainted with how various bands send off their seniors, especially my beloved Wildcats. Maryland sent off their graduating class with a bit of advice regarding wardrobe and style, Michigan paid tribute to a Detroit native, Aretha Franklin, the Gophers gave us beautiful Latin sound, and Northwestern gave us a dose of ‘70’s rock.

As I outlined in my article last week, Wisconsin’s Michael Leckrone will be retiring at the conclusion of this season after 50 years as Band Director. The University of Wisconsin posted this collage of photos set to music of him online, sharing many of the wonderful memories over the years. Again, congratulations to Mr. Leckrone and good luck to his successor, whoever they might be.