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Off Beat Empire: Should Big Ten Marching Bands Compete?

Let’s see if you really are the best damn band in the land.

Tulsa v Ohio State Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

For those of you who aren’t aware, marching band competitions are a thing. Fridays in the fall may belong to high school football, but on any Saturday (especially in the Midwest) you’ll find dozens of high school bands gathering at some stadium to pit their rendition of “West Side Story” versus somebody else’s “Wicked” for the honor of being Class 2’s “Wet Lake Invitational” champion. Boosters will spend thousands on props, costumes, sound systems, and tractors and trailers for mobile pit percussion sections and bands will spend their entire season refining their show, making adjustments as their scores come in, and eventually competing for state, and even regional and national honors.

For the truly dedicated between the ages of 17 and 21, you can even go a step further and join a Drum Corps International (DCI) band, which engages in a summer-long national tour of competitions, usually culminating in an August finale in B1G country (Indiana’s Lucas Oil Stadium is a popular locale, although Madison, Bloomington, and other Big Ten stadiums have been used in the past).

If you’ve never checked out a DCI show, I would encourage you to do so at least once (I would post one, but DCI gets most of their money from selling DVD’s, and while there’s always something pirated on YouTube, it usually gets taken down before too long). What these bands are capable of is truly amazing—a combination of music, dance, showmanship, and storytelling that is 10 steps above what you are going to see at the average football game. A lot of really good ones are also based out of B1G country, with one (Madison Scouts) even based in a B1G town.

So, there are college cheerleader competitions, college dance squad competitions, and even (oh goodness, I’m going to puke) even college Twirler competitions, but you don’t see any college band competitions.

Should there be?

Well, a couple of things...

First, football is and always will King when it comes to Big Ten Marching Bands. Michigan State could play their finest rendition of the Carmina Burana at halftime, and some folks might be happy to see it, but even if the performance is astoundingly good, you will get half the crowd participation and enthusiasm that you would get for one go of “Victory for MSU”. People buy season tickets to see RB’s and QB’s, the Band is just a nice soundtrack to add a bit more color to that experience.

Second, high school bands and DCI bands spend months perfecting the same show, which they perform over... and over... and over again. I’m about to get annoyed just watching 3-4 Thriller dances for halftime shows... I can’t imagine a whole season of having to watch the same themed show... even if it is a good one.

Third, for those college marching band folks who really are into the competition scene, they already have an outlet that is much more established in DCI. The B1G has a lot of folks, particularly from some of the better drum lines, who spend their summers in competition. Once you’ve performed at that level, nothing in college is really going to quite compare, and besides... you’ve got classes and everything else to worry about and could never dedicate the same level of time to competition that you did in the summer.

Finally, college Marching Band is more about tradition and fun. Sure, you want to look good and perform well for the crowds, but if you can’t just have a good time in the stands and enjoy the football games, you’re really wasting a lot of time.

That said, while I wouldn’t want to completely replace what Big Ten bands are and perform today, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t something that could be done to “bring out the best” of each ensemble and maybe let the better bands strut their stuff and receive recognition from their peers. I am aware that the coveted “Off Beat Empire Win, Place, Show” designation is a hard-fought poll that bands will spend months strategizing over (there are dozens who actively follow this column... literally dozens).

Still, how about this...

The week or two after the B1G title game, all the bands gather on one campus (or Lucas Field, or Ford Field, or someplace else indoors and warm) to give it their best, share a field for marching band fans to enjoy all the conference has to offer, and crown a Champion for bragging rights for the next year. Make it one last jamboree, where those who are going onto Bowls can use their show in the post-season and those who aren’t can finish the year on a high note as a part of a conference-wide celebration of marching bands (I’m thinking a boisterous, rotating 14-band post-competition concert where everybody gets to share a piece of what makes their group so great).

The only rule would be this: you can’t perform that show any other halftime in the season, but hey—if bands want to work on it on the side for a few months, go right ahead.

I think something like that could be a lot of fun and could be a great excuse to bring a bunch of bands together.

Just don’t invite the twirlers.


Should Big Ten Bands Compete at the End of the Season?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    No. This isn’t high school or DCI
    (21 votes)
  • 40%
    Skip the competition, but a 14-band jamboree sounds like fun
    (48 votes)
  • 34%
    Yes, and my school will crush you, just like we did on the football field
    (41 votes)
  • 8%
    No, but can you send me a link to the Twirler competition? I might want to check that out...
    (10 votes)
120 votes total Vote Now


If there was a competition, what trophy should B1G bands compete for?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    The Golden Baton
    (13 votes)
  • 31%
    The Rusty Trombone
    (34 votes)
  • 40%
    The John Phillip Sousa Award (a little class)
    (43 votes)
  • 13%
    The Pile of Used and Dirty Spats Award
    (14 votes)
  • 2%
    Other (share in comments)
    (3 votes)
107 votes total Vote Now

Halftime Thriller Dances

OK, I haven’t actually looked, yet, but I’ve already seen an Indiana Thriller dance and one live for Northwestern, so I suspect there will be a few more on display today. Let’s see if I’m right...

Performances available this week include Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Win: Combined Michigan and Michigan State Marching Bands, Oct. 30th “Spooktacular”

Not only did Michigan and Michigan State come together for a great football game last week, but the bands joined together on the field to bring us a medley of songs ranging from Bach’s “Fugue in D Minor” to “Ghostbusters” to the theme from “Scooby-Doo”.

I loved the variety in this show, but what absolutely sets it apart is that the two bands sound fantastic together. The music is clear, concise, and you can hear a whole bunch of the counter-melody and bass voices that just make the whole show sing. When you get that many people on the field, it’s a challenge to do a whole heck of a lot on drill, and most of the show was a variation on words or blocks, but there were some really nice formations thrown in as well.

And yes... they end with the mother of all Thriller dances (does this count as one or two for my purposes of determining an over / under versus expectations?). It’s great when two outstanding ensembles can pull off a joint show like this, and I tip my cap to the Wolverines and Spartans for a great show.

Place: Ohio State Buckeye Marching Band, Oct. 30th “Can You Tell Me How to Get... ?”

Oh thank goodness... no Thriller dance. Instead the Buckeyes give us a celebration of all things Sesame Street with their typical combination of great sound and great animation drill, that features everything from the Cookie Monster to Ernie’s Rubber Ducks to Elmo to a lesson from the Count (which I’m told some Ohio State students can use for credit... I keed, I keed - I am the son of two Michigan graduates, after all).

The drill here is fun, continual, and I think that they got in just about every Sesame Street Character that there is. The “Michigan” one thing is not like the other with the trash cash was pretty good as well. Great show by the Buckeyes.

Tie Show: NEBRASKA!!!, Oct. 30th, “Various Halloween”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have Nebraska halftime video! This is the first time in a while that I’ve gotten anything on the Cornhuskers, and it looks and sounds pretty darn good. The performance includes everything from “Fugue in D Minor” to “Time Warp” to... to... (sigh)... “Thriller”... with dance.

Nice look and and sound Huskers... I hope that we can see more of your shows for the remainder of the year.

Tie Show: Illinois, Oct. 30th, “Spooktacular”

I have to admit, that even with the repetition of the Thriller dance (and the Illini make it nearly unanimous with their rendition), there is a lot of great spooky music out there to choose from. “Bald Mountain” is a classic and almost always makes for a good halftime show. We get Chopin’s “Funeral March” and I thought the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with headless skeletons was a good touch (although “Danse Macabre” would have been something, too).

There’s also something else special that is annual tradition with the Illini Dads taking the field to a number of silly dance tunes to strut their stuff on Dad’s day.

Tie Show: Wisconsin, Oct. 30th “Country Songs”

This was a bit of a late entry for me, as I didn’t find the show in my first search, but Wisconsin works their way into a tie for third by simply not doing the Thriller dance. We get everything from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” to “Wagon Wheel” (Old Crow Medicine Show forever, not Darius Rucker), and “Friends in Low Places” among others.

I have to pay Wisconsin’s new director a compliment. The first few years I did this, I kind of dreaded listening to Wisconsin, because they were always all over the place, only played at one volume (loud) and frankly had a hard time balancing melody vs. counter-melody and everything else. Now, Wisconsin actually sounds pretty good. It feels like there is a bit more musicality and a little bit less high step fitness show to their halftimes.

I know the old director was a legend and is much beloved by Badgers, but for my ear, this is better... much... much better.

Did Not Play, Coach’s Decision

I couldn’t find video on Maryland or Northwestern, but I did see Northwestern’s performance live as part of a spooky loss to the Gophers. It was a good Halloween show, complete with Thriller dance. It also looks like two purple Sousaphones got together and birthed a six purple Sousaphone for the Thriller dance, so maybe we’re moving in the right direction, there. All other teams were on the road this past weekend.


Let’s settle who is best once a year with a little friendly competition. The Thriller dance is a right of passage that I never experienced. Halloween is still a really fun weekend to build a show around - lots of great music to choose from.

And with that, I’ll leave you with the version that started it all...