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Off Beat Empire: Time to Rethink Uniforms?

Are hats and plumes really that necessary?

These actually look functional. I would have rather played in this.

As part of my review of USC last week, I highlighted that they had two very different uniform elements to everyone else, including the standard use of shades (even at night) and full-on helmet hats that you’ll pretty much never see at any other college (at least that I’m aware of). All of this kind of got me thinking about band uniforms in general, and some of the insanity behind it all. Why do we do it?

Of course, the original answer (which is the same answer for just about everything Marching Band related) is that Marching Bands originated as a military tradition. For centuries, military signals through sound were part of battlefield command-and-control and psychological operations (millennia, if you want to talk about biblical references to the trumpets of Jericho). From there, you get more ceremonial parade bands, and in America, you see the modern format really developing in the 1880’s with Sousa marches and Civil War veteran parades (with retired soldiers in their dress uniforms). We have pretty much continued to emulate that tradition since then. However, last I checked, we weren’t sending the Rutgers trombone section off to war. Even if we were, most military bands started by using traditional dress uniforms that they might have used for any formal event. Beyond that, I don’t think that Rutgers scarlet red is really all that effective as camouflage.

Today, when absolutely every other sport (not that I’m calling Marching Band a sport) has moved toward gear that is comfortable and enhances performance, we’re still for some reason clinging to wool - polyester blends with silly things like capes, uncomfortable hats, and feather plumes. The rule seems to be the sillier the better with all sorts of little add-ons and trinkets that make it a costume, but not really great for performing.

From a cost perspective, each of those uniforms are $500-$1,000+ new (internet estimates vary greatly, and I suspect that like everything else, they’re more expensive now). Because you’re not getting a new one every year to fit your needs, you’re ordering extras at sizes that need to fit everyone from 4’6” to 6’7” and every possible width in the spectrum. Even then, some tailoring is usually involved. You’re wearing it for maybe 7-8 games a season... possibly 9, 10 or 11 if you’re lucky enough to go to a Conference Championship, Bowl, or College Bowl Playoff series. Then, you’re storing it someplace for the remaining nine months of the year, where one way or another, you’re paying for the space.

From a performance perspective, you’re asking one set of clothing to stand up to everything from August / early September heat to frigid snowstorms in November (albeit, usually with some form of a rain / snow overcoat). When it is hot, there is nothing that you can do to get relief short of stripping it off for a T-Shirt (in which case, why did you bother to dress in the first place?). When it is cold... well... you hope that you didn’t tailor it too tightly so you can fit a sweatshirt or something else a bit warm under there.

The first time you get caught in consistent rain... it’s all over. They get disgusting from mildew. Yes, we’re all told that we should take that uniform to the cleaners, and yet, being the cheap, grungy college students that we are, odds are that it is instead simply stuffed in a corner and hoped to dry over the course of the week. Don’t smell your marching band in late October / early November... you might not like the results.

And the hats and plumes... nobody has worn this stuff in any other context for 100 years! Even top hats went the way of the dodo bird when John F. Kennedy became the first president to shun them at his inaugural. It is not comfortable to put a piece of hard plastic on your head with a vinyl strap for four hours a day, and it’s not like that stuff stays perfectly still on your head when you’re doing a run-on for pregame or high-stepping the fight song.

So... let’s rethink this. Instead of what we have today, let’s go with things like a Band “Jersey” (I would love to see white Northwestern chest and sleeve stripes on a purple background, or the stormtrooper look with white background and purple stripes), light coat, and heavy coat, the latter two of which should be waterproof and offer layering opportunities. Let’s get simple pants that folks will just have to buy on their own and are machine washable - maybe a rain suit option for inclement weather. We don’t need hats. If you do, baseball caps are just fine, or berets, or something not nearly as heavy that needs to be strapped on. No more plumes... they don’t do anything, anyway. It’s time that we stopped clinging to 100 year-old expensive traditions and about time that we started focusing more on comfort and practicality.

Just... you know... don’t get rid of the spats.


Who’s with me?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Burn the heretical witch!
    (39 votes)
  • 9%
    But... but... tradition!
    (14 votes)
  • 34%
    Marching Bands were meant to look silly and not ask questions
    (50 votes)
  • 8%
    This newfangled thinking will destroy "Big Uniform" and bring down the economy
    (13 votes)
  • 2%
    The only thing that should change is getting rid of the spats
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    I would make a few tweaks, which I will describe in the comments
    (1 vote)
  • 17%
    I’m with you, brother! It’s time that bands were as comfortable as the teams
    (25 votes)
145 votes total Vote Now

Pre-Game of the Week

So, I actually had 4-5 bands with regular halftime videos that I wanted to feature here this week who for some reason haven’t posted a pre-game show this year. Kind of odd, as a lot of bands are proud of their pregame performances. By default (but certainly not least), I ended up with Michigan State from Oct. 15th.

  • Interesting run-on with that little stutter step that they work in.
  • Fun coming out of the tunnels, but man, that takes a long time for the band to get there.
  • Beautiful conference flags.
  • Nice discordant fanfare.
  • Great drum major flexibility. Drum majors will literally bend over backwards to make the band better (you can stop groaning, now).
  • I really like that drill transition to the “S”. Clean, organized, and just snaps together at the right moment.
  • So far, I haven’t heard a B1G band yet that didn’t play the opponents fight song for pregame. Very, very classy of the entire conference.
  • Ooh... nice helmet formation.
  • I’m going to cover this more next week, but a concerted effort to at least get some of the fight song played to the far side is good and interesting.
  • Alma mater for pregame versus halftime.
  • Honor America.
  • No team tunnel.

Another fun, complete pre-game performance that is a fine crowd warm-up for the game.

Halftime Shows

With conference play in full gear and this week for some reason being a very popular bye week, we have less shows to catch up on. That said, what we do have was all of very high quality. As a refresher, scoring rules can be found here.

Win: Penn State Blue Band (+11), Sept. 24th “Latin Fire”

I somehow missed this in my last two write-ups, which kills me because we get the much beloved “El Caliente Toro” and “Malaguena” as part of this mix. As is the case for all music, video games, and movies... I don’t care if it’s 20 years old... if it’s new to me, it’s new. As such, even though it took a commenter last week to point out that I had missed this (and thank you, BulkModulus), it goes in the competition for this week.

Before acknowledging the Blue Band’s fantastic sounding performance, I have to explain why “El Caliente” and “Malaguena” usually win. Yes, I like both tunes, but there is a lot of music that I like out there. What makes these pieces special is that you can’t muddle your way through it. The arrangement (particularly for “Malaguena”) is just one lick, one counter-melody, one punch right after the other. If your trumpets don’t bring it, the piece doesn’t work. If your baritone voices can’t come through when they’re called for, the piece doesn’t work. If your band starts phasing, it becomes a garbled mess. The music gives you no place to hide, and you’re either going to show that you have the chops or you don’t. Fortunately, just about every B1G band that I’ve heard play it has shown that they indeed have the chops. I also think that bands probably get a bit hyped for the opportunity to take on something like this, and probably give it more than they might in a normal performance (I know I did when we played it at Northwestern).

Anyway, the Blue Band’s sound is superb. All of the voices are there. The percussion is perfect. The tempo holds together throughout. The licks are clean. The big hits are right in your face when they need to be.

Beyond that, drill was on the simple side, but I can forgive that when the sound is as good as it was. Unfortunately, the middle tune (“We Are One”) “featured” the Blue Sapphires with 100% Park N’ Bark, which I didn’t think quite earned the spotlight and per the rules is a 1 point deduction (they were at least a squad and in sync to avoid the 2 point penalty). So, scoring is +7 First, +2 Video, +3 Malaguena, and -1 Park N’ Bark feature. Still, a nice haul of points for the Blue Band and well-deserved for difficult and entertaining pieces well-played.

Place: Iowa Hawkeye and The Ohio State Buckeye Marching Bands (+10 each), Oct. 22nd, “A Tribute to Elton John”

Last week MNWildcat sent me a message noting this is the first time in Ohio State’s history that they have teamed up with another Band for a halftime show. Such performances are rare, but we have had some good examples over the past few years, including a very strong Halloween show by Michigan and Michigan State a few years back. I’ve discussed this before, but the challenge is that each squad has to prepare on their own, and can only work out the kinks of combination the night before and / or morning of the performance. Good design helps (and you can kind of see how this show does a good job of featuring one band or the other without too much crossover). Still, it’s always impressive when you can bring two large ensembles together and the music works and nobody runs over members of the other band.

For the show itself, we get pretty much every Elton John tune that is on my iPod (and yes, I said iPod), such as “Saturday Night’s All-Right (For Fighting)”, “Tiny Dancer”, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, “Rocket Man”, and others. I love “Saturday Night’s...” and thought that it was a great arrangement and opener. However, I do like the irony in that title when you’re playing a football game on Saturday and have two large opposing groups working together. Beyond that, I think you got really good sound with good, clean energy from the two squads and the drill was almost right up there with a typical OSU show (maybe a bit simpler just to make sure that bands weren’t colliding throughout). This was a very entertaining show and kudos to both bands for making it happen.

To explain scoring, +4 Place, +2 for video, and +4 for combined band bonus (yup... that was in the scoring rules for the season - I’m not making it up, now). There is no deduction for the dance squad Park N’ Bark because I think they earned the feature.

Show: Mighty Sound of Maryland (+4), Oct. 22nd “John Williams”

Maryland brings back some of my childhood favorites with portions of soundtracks from E.T., Superman (Christopher Reeve era), Jurassic Park, Hook (I think) and then a (very unique) alumni mash-up between Star Wars’ “Cantina Band” and “Swing, Swing, Swing”. I’ve been saying it for most of the year, but this show continues to demonstrate just how good Maryland’s sound has been throughout the season. They just have a really solid, clean way about them and the arrangements are pretty great at bringing out all of the different voices within the Band. Drill was quite effective here as well. Overall, a very well-executed and entertaining show.

Others Receiving Votes

Rutgers Marching Band (+2), Oct. 22nd “Homecoming”

I don’t have a full band view of this show, but this actually gives me a unique opportunity to share what seems to be a growing trend on some of the band sites, which is to use a go pro camera and show life from the perspective of a Rutgers trombone player (I swear that I did not see this video before I wrote the uniform intro, and no, I don’t think this guy is being sent off to war). It’s more PA announcer than music, but you’ve got some Beyonce thrown in, we certainly have confirmation that Rutgers memorizes their music, and if you like trombones... this is your video!

Reader’s Choice


Which show was your favorite?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Penn State "Latin Fire"
    (17 votes)
  • 39%
    Iowa and Ohio State "A Tribute to Elton John"
    (39 votes)
  • 26%
    Maryland "John Williams"
    (26 votes)
  • 11%
    Rutgers "Homecoming" (you must really like first-person trombones)
    (11 votes)
  • 5%
    [Insert smart-ass choice here]
    (5 votes)
98 votes total Vote Now

Scoring Update

When I started this, I thought that there would be a lot more disagreement between my winner and the Reader’s Poll, but it seems like a lot of you see things the same way that I do. There was a fair amount of love for Purdue’s “Farmer” show and Michigan’s “Night in New Orleans” jazz set, but the plurality (21%) picked Minnesota’s Latin hits as the winner. That is three more points to the Gophers.

Revised standings are as follows:

Constructor’s Cup Standings*

School Total
School Total
Ohio State 47
Michigan 42
Illinois 37
Purdue 34
Penn State 31
Minnesota 29
Michigan State 27
Maryland 21
Nebraska 19
Indiana 15
Iowa 15
Wisconsin 12
Rutgers 6
Northwestern 2
* Does not include this week’s Readers’ Poll

Performance Average Standings*

School Average
School Average
Iowa 7.50
Ohio State 6.71
Penn State 6.20
Illinois 6.17
Michigan 6.00
Purdue 5.67
Minnesota 4.83
Michigan State 4.50
Maryland 4.20
Indiana 3.00
Nebraska 2.38
Northwestern 2.00
Rutgers 2.00
Wisconsin 2.00
* Does not include this week’s Readers’ Poll

I continue to be surprised by where the scoring moves each week. Although OSU took a big step forward in the Constructor’s Cup, there are a lot of bands that can catch up with a good win and a few bonus points in the coming weeks. On the performance averages, PSU and Iowa only have two shows, but made them count for great averages. There is a nice mid-tier, though, with 4-6 performances that are averaging the equivalent of 2nd-3rd place, which is solid and something to be proud of. This should be an interesting final third to the season.