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Off Beat Empire: Does Size Matter?

Asking for a friend

Ball State v Northwestern

I wanted to raise something that I’ve alluded to several times over the past few years, but haven’t fully focused on. As many of you are aware, I’m a Northwestern University Marching Band Alum. I’m also a season ticket holder, so I get the honor and privilege of seeing the Wildcats in action each-and-every home game. Generally speaking, I think the Band does a really good job... their musicianship is very good, their shows are reasonably challenging, and they’re pretty active in the stands. However, as the band was playing a solid and entertaining rendition of Elton John music this weekend, I decided to count a few key instruments, and came up with a grand total of four sousaphones and four snare drums. That’s unbelievably small... embarrassingly small. It’s a drum line with less snares than bass drums, and less tubas than most high schools.

How can that be? Yes, Northwestern is much smaller at the undergraduate level than most other schools in the B1G - 8,200 versus what is generally more than 28,000 at the other schools. Still, we weren’t anywhere near as small in the ‘90’s (and that was even before the 1995 turnaround), and that’s still at least four times the size of a reasonable high school, which can field just about as many. There’s no tryouts at Northwestern. As painful as Saturday was, we’re in the golden era of football success. What is going on?

I’m sure part of it is the overall issue of attendance at sporting events. Northwestern’s student attendance at games has frankly become pathetic. It’s embarrassing that the one day they do the “running of the freshman” is usually the only day you see the student section reasonably full. Most other games I would put non-band attendance at maybe 300-400 young men and women. This never made sense to me... as a student who got into Northwestern you could probably easily go to plenty of academic minded schools with similar programs and reputations - why not take advantage of the unique opportunities associated with being part of B1G Athletics? Of course, this isn’t unique to the ‘Cats - I’ve seen enough blank spots in the student section at Camp Randall and East Lansing to know that student attendance is being challenged in era of instant gratification and (putting on my best Fitzgerald airs) smart phones.

Maybe part of it is just a general decline in participation with extracurricular activities in college. Tuition is pretty hefty, and the more extreme your financial obligation and academic competition (especially at a school like Northwestern), I can see where making a commitment to Band might be a bit much. Still, this was also always true in the past, and yet we found more people willing to join band than we have today.

Maybe Marching Band in general is going out-of-vogue (to the extent it was ever really in vogue). I really don’t know if this is unique to Northwestern or if other schools have had a harder time recruiting in recent years. Most other bands have tryouts, so if you’re filling a block of 300 and your applicants drop from 500 to 400, you’re not going to see it on the field as much. Maybe Northwestern is just exposed because it’s so small to begin with.

I really don’t know and would be interested in hearing what others have to say about interest at their own schools, but I feel like it is starting to get to the point that Northwestern should do something about it. We’re in the B1G. We have an administration that has stepped up to support Athletics in a big way... new facilities... money spent on coaches... etc. Student attendance in general and Band involvement in particular are part of what being in this conference is about, and if we can’t bring numbers, tradition, and involvement to the conference, what are we doing?

Anyway, in no particular order, I would consider the following:

  • Give more credit for band. When I was a member, we got one-third of a normal class credit for being in the Marching Band in the Fall. I’m pretty sure that is still the case (maybe not). Regardless, Band takes 14+ hours a week out of your schedule, which is easily on par with or in excess of what you would be expected to contribute to any other class, so why do you get less credit?
  • Money. Athletes get scholarships for participating in sports. Why not give a little bit of a financial break to students for being part of band? It doesn’t need to be anything extreme, but even $500-$1,000 off of tuition could make a big difference. Don’t have the budget? Do what you do with everything else and fund raise... I’m sure that you could get a group of NUMBalums to step up and help out the current program.
  • Recruit. Northwestern is a highly selective school. Give some admissions advantages to those who are capable of and willing to join Marching Band.
  • Open it up to other schools. I’ve had a crazy idea for the past several years of truly making Northwestern Chicago’s Big Ten Team and opening up student tickets to other schools without football programs, like DePaul, Loyola, and UIC. Maybe there’s a few members of those schools who would be interested in putting on the purple and blowing a horn or playing a drum. We already run shuttle buses from campus to the practice area, so it wouldn’t be hard to run another few buses to other campuses.

Of course, there’s always one other option... do nothing. I’m sure there are many who aren’t nearly as bothered as I am about the size of the band. The ‘Cats still do sound good, they still add a lot of enthusiasm to the home games, and there are still over a hundred students who do actively participate. It’s not like NUMB is an embarrassment to the school as a whole. Still, Morton Shapiro makes a big deal about our commitment to big time athletics as part of the overall Northwestern experience. One of those commitments should be a big band worthy of the big conference that they play in.


Does size matter?

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    Yes, and bigger is better
    (60 votes)
  • 32%
    No, it’s how well you use your instrument that matters
    (29 votes)
89 votes total Vote Now


With the start of conference play, the number of bands in action gets cut down dramatically and we only have a few videos this week. However, all of these shows were outstanding, and it was frankly very hard to pick which ones were the best (and I could easily see a lot of disagreement in the order). My picks are as follows:

Win: Marching Illini We are the Champions (Sep. 21st)

For the game against Nebraska, the Illini featured music by Queen, including several different instances of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We are the Champions”, “We Will Rock You”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, and “Somebody to Love”. What I loved about this show is what I usually love about the Marching Illini... they’re just so clean in everything that they do. The drill comes together at the right parts. The music is very clear. They make great use of their uniforms, with the orange capes really popping visually. However, what got them the top spot this week was the range and depth of their arrangements. They’re not afraid to let their woodwinds speak for some of the quieter elements of the show and the brass is big enough to carry a nice, full sound when the peaks call for it. I also think they did a really good job with how they utilized the ancillary groups... the dancers, the flag corp, etc. It wasn’t the toughest drill in the world, but it was again very well executed and had some really nice transitions and sudden visual “pops” when called for in the music. I just thought the whole show looked and sounded sharp and that the Illini looked really good under the lights. Of course, the Illini finished with a fine rendition of their traditional “Three-in-One” as well.

Place: Ohio State Modern Movie Musicals (Sep. 21st)

The Buckeyes gave us tunes from a musical films, including “The Greatest Showman”, the “Mary Poppins” sequel, “A Star is Born”, and something that I can’t figure out... “LaLa Land”, maybe? I know that crowds love all of the stick figure action that Ohio State is known for, but some of the best-executed drill was really some of the pinwheel boxes that took place early in the show and the company front (one big line) sequence for “A Star is Born”, and overall the drill looked exceptionally sharp. The band sounded good and relatively clean, but I didn’t quite feel the same emotional pop for the big hits, or felt the flow of the melody quite as much as I was hoping for. Some of that might just be a bad microphone, but I don’t think the crowd was really reacting that well to the music, either. Still, the drill in particular was the most challenging performed this week and thoroughly entertaining.

Show: Rutgers Paul Robeson Memorial (Sep. 21st)

Unfortunately, we have to rely upon a fan video for this week’s show from Rutgers, but I thought they performed something special in memory of Paul Robeson, a former All-American for Rutgers football, outstanding singer, movie star, and early civil rights / political activist. It’s a bit hard to follow some of the music, but I suspect the opening is from “Show Boat” - I could easily be wrong. We then get a performance of William Fisher’s “Going Home” with guest vocalist Charles Wesley Evans, and we finish with a performance that I apologize for not quite being able to catch from the PA announcer, but it was performed with the East Coast Inspirational Singers from NYC. This is an extremely well thought-out show that does an excellent job showing off Rutgers’ musical ability and range. I love it when bands take a chance featuring other outstanding artists, and Charles Wesley Evans does not disappoint with a beautiful baritone performance followed by the up-beat joy and gospel of the East Coast Inspirational singers. The drill isn’t particularly difficult and takes a few pauses every now-and-then, but everything just fits well with what Rutgers is performing on the field. The Band itself was super clean throughout with well-balanced instrumentation and some really nice rhythm. There was a lot of artistry on display throughout this performance and there were moments where I thought this might actually be my favorite of the week, but the drill (while appropriate) was just simple enough that I couldn’t quite give it the same nod as the Illini or the Buckeyes. Still, it’s a great show.

Honorable Mention: Nebraska Cornhuskers Moon / Space Songs (Aug. 31st)

As many are aware, I have a hard time finding video on Nebraska performances, so I was excited this week when I found a fan video for their first performance of the year. Under the umbrella of honoring their School of Science and Engineering via the 50th anniversary of the moon landing (I know, I know... it’s a stretch), we get a bunch of space and moon pun songs, including Sinatra’s (I think) “Fly Me to the Moon”, Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”, Elvis’s “Blue Moon”, Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The ‘Huskers have a really full, strong sound, and do a very good job making their big musical hits pop the way that they are supposed to. They’re very clean and they do a really good job on their drill execution, which wasn’t super difficult, but fit well with the music that they were performing and had some unique elements, like the small body-surfing groups that formed at the beginning of “Rocket Man”. The Band was then joined by alumni, and ultimately, the ‘Huskers finished with a combined Band / Alumni rendition of Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance”. Overall, this is a very entertaining show and I hope that we will get more Nebraska video throughout the year.

DNP Coach’s Decision

Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, Maryland, and PSU were all off. Michigan and MSU were on the road. I haven’t seen any video yet this year for Indiana. Northwestern performed an Elton John show (which was good), but they haven’t posted video, yet. Wisconsin also hasn’t posted video, yet.


The ‘Cats need to find a way to get bigger. I don’t know if this is a problem anyplace else. We only have a few videos this week, but some high quality shows.

With that I’ll leave you with one of Mr. Charles Wesley Evan’s performances of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”... He’s quite a talent.