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Off Beat Empire: Did Anything Happen Last Year?

Catching up with the Big Ten marching bands after an unprecedented 2020.

Michigan v Penn State Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Adjusting After a Year Off

Like many of you, I’m adjusting to a new world in the wake of Covid. I haven’t been back to my office since March of last year and I’ve been mostly living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan rather than the Chicago area (an unexpected bonus to an otherwise tough year).

During this respite from real life, I haven’t worn a collared shirt that wasn’t plaid, I’ve shaved about once a week on average (and I pretty much look like I have a full beard on video calls within ~ two days), and I’ve worn shorts to “work” on just about any day that the temperature was above 67 degrees. I’ve recently come back to Chicago for the pleasure of watching my ‘Cats look pretty much atrocious in person, which I would normally be upset about, but I can’t get too worked up when I’m just happy to be back in an environment that I missed very much last year.

Just like me, Marching Bands are just starting to get back into the swing of things, making their first gameday appearances in over a year. There presence is ever-so-welcome, but just take a moment to think of the challenges that conference Marching Bands are overcoming to bring us entertainment this Fall.

  • Two entire classes are participating for the very first time. For an organization that is built on tradition, leadership, camaraderie, and really has to pull from its own ranks in order to be successful, it’s got to be a huge undertaking to get all the new folks ready and live up to standards on Saturday.
  • Forget just meeting together as a Band for the first some places, sophomores will just now be getting acquainted with campuses that they have only visited online up until now.
  • A lot of young men and women probably didn’t play their instruments for a good portion of last year (whether in college or coming up from high school).
  • Ditto for marching. In general, exercise opportunities haven’t exactly been fantastic for the past year (especially for those of us taking shelter in the northern cold), and you would be surprised what a year off might feel like when you start high-stepping your way through a tunnel for pre-game.
  • Like my office, I’m sure that band members are dealing with an ever-changing Covid environment and restrictions that generates another dozen hoops to jump through just to be able to practice together. I’m sure more than a few are basically practicing while masked, which can’t be easy.

Anyway, it has to be tough for organizations to return to the field this year, and I just want to tip my cap to staffs and Marching Band members all across B1G country, who have probably worked four times as hard as they did in the past.

As a brief re-introduction to this column, I just want to remind readers of a few things:

  • I am not a journalist, and I am not in any way a professional musician or music educator. I was a member of Northwestern’s Marching Band from 1993-1996 and played Alto Saxophone, and beyond that I claim zero expertise. If you have an issue with anything I say about a Band, by all means, it’s just my opinion and I would love for you to “set the record straight” in the comments section.
  • I would LOVE for anybody else to guest-write just about anything they wanted with regard to their experiences or views with college Marching Bands. Just let me know in the comments if you ever feel the desire to publish something, and I’ll do my best to coordinate. In fact, I’ve pretty much hit the bottom of the well in terms of my understanding of special traditions for bands not named Northwestern, so anybody in particular who marched for another school who wants to share something about their own experience is super-welcome to do so.
  • This is a very unique niche at OTE, and I totally understand if 99% of you skip the article each week and go straight to Thumpasaurus’s excellent infographics. For those of you who do read, but don’t know anything technical about music or Marching Band... who cares... always feel free to share anything Band-related that you want. I especially enjoy comments that highlight something that somebody saw in the stands or maybe on twitter that another Band did... feel free to chime in with anything.
  • I’m a slave to YouTube videos in terms of what I can see and show. Not every Band has a good YouTube strategy. In fact, many schools do not post something on a weekly basis, and I just can’t write anything on them. If I’m not showing your favorite Band, that is the reason why (and Indiana, Iowa, and Nebraska have historically been very hard to find and feature).
  • The videos are all about halftime shows. I realize that pre-game is big for many fans, but it’s the same all year so there just isn’t any point in looking at it fresh each week.
  • I’m here to celebrate, and not marginalize schools. I do have a “Win”, “Place”, “Show”, and “Honorable Mention” concept that helps me highlight what I think were the best / most interesting shows posted that week, but there are a lot of quality shows that I just don’t spend as much time featuring because I have a full time job and I’m trying to put this together in two nights. I try and post as much video as I can, so it’s at least convenient to check out what your favorite Band did, or get a sense for what else is happening around the conference.
  • Marching Bands work hard, but because of timing of arrival on campus, holidays, exams, the quirks of the schedule, etc. everybody takes it light for a few shows. Out of seven typical home games, I would expect one “Band Day”, one mostly “Feature our fine color guard / dancers / twirlers” (which means, no, we did not want to practice drill this week), one patriotic “Salute to the Troops” for Veteran’s Day, one repeat / traditional show, and maybe three honest-to-goodness unique shows (of which at least one will be of the most popular music movie that came out that year, the biggest Band that has hit a 25th / 50th anniversary, the Halloween “Thriller” dance, or some random collection of pop hits that a music publisher somehow managed to sell to 40% of the Bands that year). I generally highlight bands that stray from the formula and do something unique, mostly because even with a year off (and despite love of the troops), I’m ready to drive a nail into my skull after I review my 7th “Salute to the Troops” for the year (maybe the addition of the Space Force might give me something to look forward to... I have no clue if they have a song or not).
  • I still don’t like Twirlers. As talented as they are, they don’t belong (except if they perform as a group in unison - some stuff from Penn State and Purdue where there are multiple girls involved looks good). Northwestern has one, again. Ladies, your hate only makes me stronger!


Things you haven’t done for a year that might be hard to start up again

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    (25 votes)
  • 34%
    Waking up in time to commute to work
    (37 votes)
  • 14%
    (16 votes)
  • 27%
    Wearing pants
    (30 votes)
108 votes total Vote Now

Halftime Shows

I’m just going to admit that I made a mistake here on timing. I didn’t think that many groups would have video up until now, but it turns out that i) there is a lot to digest this week and ii) some of it was actually quite good, especially relative to my expectations. I should have done this last week, but here goes...

Win: Ohio State University Marching Band, Sept. 11th, “The Heroes of 9/11”

So, I wrote about what I expected from Bands this year before I actually watched any of the shows last week. I desperately want to deduct points from Ohio State for doing “Salute to the Troops” in the first two weeks of the season, but maybe because it’s first, or more likely because they were in fine Ohio State form early in the season, I just thought this was a very good-sounding, excellent drill performance on the part of the Buckeyes. The trumpet opening was well done... it was a well-arranged version of America the Beautiful that I think featured the guest trumpets well. Rather than being a complete somber affair (which I was anticipating), you had some good up-beat tunes like “Only in America” and “Stars and Stripes Forever”. I guess Space Force doesn’t have it’s own song, yet (or at least the Buckeyes didn’t salute them). Good crowd involvement.

Drill features the usual Ohio State stick shapes, but also had some really good pinwheel work in there and follow-the-leader that kept even semi-park ‘n bark moments from feeling stale. I posted the version where you can hear the PA announcer walk through his spiel, but OSU is doing something else unique on their website in posting digitally remastered versions where the sound is actually much better. If any of you want to better listen to the music without crowd / PA noise in the background, you might want to check it out.

Place: University of Michigan Marching Band, Sept. 11th, “We Remember”

Without fail, I love it when Bands try (and especially succeed) with something new and different. Michigan could have gone the normal route, like so many other Bands on this day, and just performed patriotic music. However, with a big game under the lights, Michigan went for so much more with a darkened field, neon lighting, and even laser-lights (cue pew, pew, pew memes)!

Music selections were creative, using John Williams “Olympic Theme” as a proxy for patriotic music and “Mambo” from West Side Story as a tribute to New York, which was surprisingly effective, although we eventually revert back to “This Land is My Land” and “Stars and Stripes Forever”. Sound was really good and clean, and just the overall effect was impressive. I was very tempted to move this to Win this week, but OSU just had more and better drill. Still, something tells me that I would have rather watched this live than the Buckeyes performance.

There is a second video at Michigan’s YouTube site that shows a closer view of some of the lighting effects and performers, if anybody wants to see a bit more of how this show was pulled off.

Show: University of Illinois Marching Illini, Sept. 17th, “50th Anniversary of Disney World”

This is the kind of show that my Mom absolutely loves, and would have sung just about every minute of it if she could have. The Illini bring a very wide cross-section of Disney to Champaign-Urbana with an incredibly clean sound and drill that impresses. The castle toward the beginning is great and the band makes some nice use of the full field while still maintaining some good movement.

Something about the Illinois sound also maintains a cheerfulness and playfulness throughout that it’s hard not to get sucked into. For one brief moment, the Marching Band made Memorial Stadium the Happiest Place on Earth, and that’s quite a feat!

Of course, as is custom, Illinois finishes with the classic 3-in-1.

Honorable Mentions: Purdue All-American Band, Sept. 4th, and Michigan State Spartan Marching Band, Sept. 11th

We’ll start with Purdue on this one. This isn’t a particularly difficult show, featuring “Strike Up the Band”, “Celebration”, and the fight songs of the Big Ten, but I wanted to highlight it because Purdue sounds outstanding. Unfortunately, I usually only catch glimpses of Purdue on YouTube (and usually because of what somebody else posted), but every time that I do I’m just impressed with the way they sound. The trumpets are bright. The baritone voices are full. The percussion is spot on. The All-American Band just sounds like what a college band should sound like. It is kind of interesting to hear which fight songs the crowd boos the most as a gauge for rivalry.

Somewhat the same comment for MSU. This is a band that has some serious chops and when they’re on, they can be really impressive. This is a tribute to 9/11 that does avoid most of the cliché selections, like going with Foo Fighters “There Goes my Hero” as opposed to the oft used “I need a Hero” played by several others on this day. I kind of like the shape in the embed, with the Statue of Liberty’s crown right around Sparty’s helmet. MSU can do a lot more on drill when they want to, but this is pretty solid for their first home game and they do sound really good.

Others by School

Illinois Marching Illini

August 28th

Two things about this show. Shorts.... and Rap. Interesting take. As somebody who pretty much hates the “I-L-L”... “I-N-I” chant, I hope that the rap doesn’t really catch on, but kudos to the Illini for doing something unique and looking comfortable while doing it!

Sept. 4th

Band Day!

Mighty Sound of Maryland

Sept. 4th

Somehow trying to suck up the President of Maryland in a cheesy kind of way that only Marching Bands can do. with music ranging from a specific Maryland Fanfare to “September”. Not bad for a first / early season show.

West Virginia’s Band paid a visit and from the snippets that I heard, sounded pretty damn good.

Sept. 11th

Something completely different for Sept. 11th. Maryland invites the Howard Band on the field and you get a joint park ‘n bark accompaniment of Critical Condition Band. Some of it seemed to work better than other moments, but it was definitely unique.

Michigan Marching Band

Sept. 4th

“Welcome Home”. Mish mash of tunes ranging from “All I got” to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”. Not bad for a first week.

Sept. 18th

“It’s All About Blue”. Just titles with a pun take on the word blue, like “Blue World” and “Rhapsody in Blue”. Still, what impresses me about this is that it is the third original show in three weeks without a break. Michigan’s Band hit the ground running this year, which is pretty impressive in itself given everything that was going on.

Minnesota Marching Band

Sept. 2nd

“Back Under the Lights”. Generally pop hits from the last 10-15 years with some sort of light reference... “Light ‘em Up”, “Firework”, etc.

Sept. 11th

Band Day!

OSUMB, Sept. 18th

Roaring ‘20’s with joint performance with OSU’s jazz band. Good drill, but I didn’t think the sound was up to normal OSU standards.

Penn State Blue Band

Sept. 11th

Tasteful tribute, but not too challenging.

Sept. 18th

A little bit of a step up in difficulty. Odd combo of “Pagliacci”, “Swing, Swing, Swing”, and “William Tell Overture”, but fun I guess. Twirlers... (sigh... you can say it) twirlers aren’t too bad. Flame makes everything more interesting.

Rutgers Marching Scarlet Knights

Sept. 4th

Kind of a mix, welcome-back tribute featuring everything from “Auch Sprach Zarathustra” to the theme from “Friends”. I give Rutgers a lot of credit for this show knowing that a good chunk of the area was underwater the week before.

They seem bigger, too. I don’t know why, but I kind of enjoyed this show (and the next one), but it just was too basic to feature as an Honorable Mention.

Sept. 18th

Pretty much the same opening, but they add the theme from “The Office” and the James Bond theme. See everyone else... you can have Band Day without having to bring them all out on the field.

Wisconsin Marching Band, Sept. 4th

Variety of welcome back tunes from “I’m Coming Out” to “I Will Survive”. Drill is still very Wisconsin and designed to feature the high step, but it seemed to have a good flow. The melodies sound much better, and you can hear a bit more variation in volume than the old Badger “but it goes to 11” approach.

Did Not Play, Coach’s Decision

I only saw a pre-game for Iowa and nothing for Nebraska.

I did see Northwestern’s two performances live, and basically one was a bit of a cop-out as a repeat of the pregame show. However, the ‘Cats come back to school later than just about everybody else (student housing opens so late that there’s no place for anybody to live even if they wanted to start earlier) and it was frankly a surprise to see the Band at the first game at all, so I’ll maybe give them a pass. Second week was Band Day. We’ll see what they perform on Saturday.


Some of the conference’s bigger brands look they haven’t missed a beat despite everything they went through. Many others had a pretty good start. Overall, it feels like a lot of energy is back in the stands and the Bands play a big part in that.

Again, I salute the staff and young men / women who brought things back after a year’s break and what had to be a tough restart.