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Off Beat Empire: Stringing Things Out

Who wouldn’t want to see violins in the snow?

Riccardo Muti
Maybe a football field is a bit less formal of a setting...

When it comes to instrumental musical ensembles, hundreds of years before anybody even considered putting together what we would recognize today as a “Band”, wealthy royals began to display their patronage by sponsoring larger and larger collections of musicians into what we today know as the string orchestra. Although brass, percussion, and woodwinds all play an important role in the evolution and current composition of orchestras, the King has almost always been the violin, accompanied by its Banners, the viola, cello and double bass.

Throughout this era, a large portion of popular instrumental ensemble music has been written for string orchestra, including the original symphonies, concertos, and operas. Today, the string orchestra still plays an outsized role in television and film soundtracks and theatrical musicals. While other forms of musical ensembles have come, gone, are still developing, and are yet to be discovered, the string orchestra remains - often occupying the best concert halls in the region, adding that special theme to your favorite movie, or contributing to a fantastic evening in a summer park. As much as I am partial to Bands, orchestral performances are generally viewed by the public as the epitome of ensemble music.

So, considering that every B1G school with a music department probably has more violins than you can shake a bow at, why don’t bands try to incorporate some of that into what they bring to the field?

Well, for starters, it’s pretty hard to march with a violin, and damn near impossible to march with a Cello. If it was done, it would probably have to be some sort of seated setting toward the bottom of the field with the rest of the Band marching formation in the background.

Still, is that so bad? A lot of bands will field a standing pit percussion section as part of at least a show or two. I’m pretty sure there is a way to throw 70 strings between the 40-yard lines, if somebody wanted to.

My guess is that volume is probably the next obstacle that folks would point out. There is some truth that even 100 strings would have a hard time competing with the volume of a Marching Band’s brass sections. However, I’ve seen at least 4-5 small singing or instrumental ensembles mic’d up this year to play with various marching bands. I don’t know why you couldn’t do the same with a string section. We still march a lot of clarinets in the B1G, and they aren’t exactly known for their volume, either.

Some might argue that orchestras can’t be done outside, but I’ve been to too many Ravinia concerts and 4th of July “Orchestra in the Park” performances to really buy that. Yes, band shell acoustics are much, much better than a football stadium, but football stadiums aren’t exactly impossible venues. Again, if we can sound engineer choral groups into a halftime show, I think you can find a way to add some strings.

Above all, it might be tough to encourage participation from the average string player. As the joke goes, it only takes one violinist to screw in a light bulb... they hold it in place and let the world revolve around them. I’ve pointed out before that there are some Concert Band members who think they’re too good or refined to play in a Marching Band setting. You can probably multiply that attitude by a million when it comes to an orchestra member who is used to playing inside. At the sign of the first rain drop or snowflake, they might faint. I could be wrong, as I know that a fair number of flag corps members will often be musicians who don’t play a traditional Marching Band instrument, but I suspect that they are more oboes and bassoons willing to brave the elements than the typical sheltered string players.

Would strings make anything better? I’m not sure, but I do know that a lot of modern band arrangements of orchestral music have to make compromises with the source material. There are plenty of tunes where most people just want to hear the brass, anyway, and you might not be losing a whole lot relying on woodwinds in lieu of violins. However, there are also examples like Purdue trying to play “Hoedown” earlier this year where they did probably as good a job as anybody can do playing it without strings, but it just wasn’t the same. Tunes like “1812 Overture” or the the theme of Star Wars can feature a few of the highlights without strings, but there are whole sections that you just can’t touch with a band arrangement without exposing the musical compromise. When you lose strings from an arrangement, you usually lose multiple layers of musical complexity and richness in the sound.

Anyway, we’ve seen bands incorporate voices, small ensembles, electric guitars, and pianos / keyboards... let’s maybe give strings a shot one of these days and see if it works.


Marching Band with Strings?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    Sure, why not
    (12 votes)
  • 19%
    Maybe try it for the right show, but don’t make it a regular thing
    (18 votes)
  • 6%
    Only if the Band is going to play an arrangement of "November Rain"
    (6 votes)
  • 21%
    Orchestra members would die if exposed to outdoor activity
    (20 votes)
  • 6%
    I would prefer the sound of 10 alleys full of feral cats
    (6 votes)
  • 10%
    Violin, no. Fiddle, yes
    (10 votes)
  • 5%
    Strings are too good for Band, and they will be sure to let you know that
    (5 votes)
  • 17%
    I thought we already burned this heretic?
    (16 votes)
93 votes total Vote Now

Pre-Game Show of the Week

This week, we’ll take a closer look at the Illinois Marching Illini pregame show from Nov. 5th.

  • Beautiful conference flags. I kind of like the full logos versus just the colors or the muted name featured by others.
  • That is a wide tunnel that you come out of.
  • Nice triple back-bend by the drum majors.
  • OK, the Illini take a long time to get on the field. I think that’s about the same 50 seconds as Penn State, which is still 5 Minnesotas in length. However, individuals seem to make a rapid and grand entrance... it’s just that they seem to come out in different sections rather than all at once.
  • There is also a lottttt of space to cover in that end-zone. I didn’t realize that the bleachers were so far removed from the field in Memorial Stadium.
  • Good fanfare. That said, I think this was the hurricane force wind day, so I don’t think we’re getting the normal full impact of the sound.
  • Beautiful spats.
  • I’ve never thought of Illinois as being one of the larger bands, but man... they spread from the five to the opposite ten and don’t look too spaced out doing so. Maybe they’re bigger than I give them credit for.
  • I’m trying to recall in the Purdue halftime show if the dance squad actually marched in formation for pregame. The Illini certainly do and it’s kind of impressive - I don’t think many other dance squads actually “march” with their band (I maybe just haven’t noticed it as much for others).
  • I really like that drill after the four minute mark. I think the Illini capes are great as well... the orange is a fantastic contrast to the blue and it looks sharp when groups are turning in unison.
  • In honor of our previous topic, it’s nice to see the Illini simultaneously play to two different sides of the field.
  • Nice US (and Illinois) map!
  • That whole shift transitioning to the star was cool. These are almost more halftime-like “non-blocky” transitions than pregame, but I like it (and find it ironic that the pregame features more curves than the halftime 3-in-1 portion).
  • ‘Merica properly loved.
  • Purdue fight song played. Classy.
  • Quick snap to illIni.
  • Nice little “William Tell Overture” to cap things off.
  • Video ends before any tunnel or run-off... not sure if Illinois does either

Overall, an entertaining performance to give the crowd some early energy (shame that there wasn’t much crowd there, but it was a tough weather day... even Ohio State fans stayed away from Evanston that day!).


OK, everything I said about Bands avoiding “Salute to the Troops” penalties last week looks like it is going to fall apart this week. I haven’t seen the shows, yet, but my YouTube feed had an awful lot of references to saluting troops. As a reminder, scoring rules are here. Also as a reminder, I do love and respect our veterans... I really do. I just can’t take anymore after years of doing this column, though, and it’s pretty unoriginal to keep coming back to this well every year around Veterans Day.

Win: Ohio State Buckeye Marching Band (+9), Nov. 12th “A Tribute to the Rolling Stones”

This turned out to be one of my easier win picks for the year. Ohio State starts us up with a variety of great Rolling Stones tunes, ranging from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to the already punned “Start Me Up”, among several other greatest hits. For the performance, Ohio State features a small rock ensemble, including electric guitars, bass, drum set, and what I think are a few extra horns... (not sure, my eyesight ain’t what it used to be).

Anyway, it might just be the digital remastered version that I’m viewing, but I thought this was the best Ohio State has sounded all year. The arrangement was interesting, with a really nice mix of give-and-take between the electric ensemble and the band parts. It seemed like a lot of thought went into what to feature when, and it really felt like an integrated arrangement rather than a band with a few electric guitars thrown in. I don’t know why, but I especially liked the Trombones being featured in “Satisfaction” - I just thought that was a really good arrangement choice and a good sound coming through. Of course, it was all very clean.

However, as nice as the sound was, the drill was fantastic. Some of the things Ohio State did aren’t necessarily that hard (I’m talking about the swinging gates and continued reversal of the word ‘stones’), but visually it added a whole lot of motion and energy and every formation was just incredibly sharp. I really enjoyed this performance.

Place: Michigan State Spartan Marching Band (+6), Nov. 12th “Weather”

The Spartans give us a weather-themed show, featuring songs like U2’s “Beautiful Day” to Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” to Judas Priest’s “Riding on the Wind”, and a whole lot more that I didn’t quite pick up on from the PA announcer (something by Lady Gage, something by Rihanna, etc.). As usual, the Spartans bring a full, complex arrangement and sound that includes all sorts of little counter-melodies and licks that are just amazing. The drill wasn’t on a par with Ohio State, but it was still pretty darn good for a college halftime show. I just love the sound of this band, and once again, their musicianship just really stands out.

Show: The Mighty Sound of Maryland and Penn State Blue Band (+7 each), Nov. 12th “Military Appreciation Show”

OK, I have all sorts of conflicting emotions given the use of “Salute to the Troops” in this show, but damn... that is one big ensemble with Maryland and Penn State combined and they sound really, really good performing the show together. The two bands team up to give us a patriotic show featuring “Salute” and what I thought was a great execution of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, finishing with “America the Beautiful”. Again, what’s great about this show is the sound. As my old director used to say, “Loud is good. Clean is loud”. This was both loud and clean, which isn’t always that easy when you’re putting two big bands together.

Anyway, even though I made such a show of assigning penalty points for “Salute”, the truth is that it feels a bit dirty when I have to actually apply them, so I’ve decided to back off of my pledge to deduct one point for failing to recognize the Space Force. Please don’t nuke me from orbit, Space Cadets. There still is one point penalty for “Salute”, though, so scoring is +2 Video, +2 Show, +4 Combined Band, -1 “Salute” (for each group). While I’m forgiving this year, bands better start remembering the Space Force next year.

Honorable Mention: University of Michigan Marching Band (+3), Nov. 12th, “125th Birthday”

Michigan gives us a random mix of celebration / party theme tunes to celebrate their 125th anniversary. While I didn’t think the show was quite good enough to place in the top three, the quality of the music just seems to be a step above and I thought this was worthy of a bit of extra recognition. Interesting tidbit on “Hot Time in the Town Tonight” being the original celebration song for the band, but you guys have really given it up and handed it off to Wisconsin - just like script Ohio belongs to OSU, now.

Others Saluting the Troops

Illinois Marching Illini (+1), Nov. 12th “Our Armed Forces”

I did like the Coast Guard boat pitching in the sea.

Minnesota Gopher Marching Band (+1), Nov. 12th “Veterans Day”

Minnesota stuck with service logos. I’m glad that piccolo was in there for Stars N’ Stripes.

Did not Play, Coach’s Decision

I got video on every band in action this week except the Iowa. However, I’m still missing a lot of season video for Northwestern (even if I did see it live). They used to be so good about posting video... I wonder what has changed.

Reader’s Choice


Which show was your favorite?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Ohio State "A Tribute to the Rolling Stones"
    (16 votes)
  • 19%
    Michigan State "Weather"
    (12 votes)
  • 16%
    Maryland and Penn State "Military Appreciation Show"
    (10 votes)
  • 6%
    Michigan "125th Birthday"
    (4 votes)
  • 14%
    Illinois "Armed Forces"
    (9 votes)
  • 11%
    Minnesota "Veterans Day"
    (7 votes)
  • 6%
    I’m a veteran, and I’m going to tie you to a chair and force you to listen to "Salute to the Troops" for a week until you learn to appreciate our great armed forces
    (4 votes)
62 votes total Vote Now

Scoring Update

With the exception of the combined Iowa / OSU show (which was still only ~40 votes), the winners of the Reader’s Poll usually only have ~25 votes. Well, Purdue did pretty well last week at ~40, but the Illini steam-rolled everyone with their “Space” show at 102 votes. I don’t know if a pocket of Illini just seemed to find us at the right moment, or if it was just that popular a choice with the Readers, but that’s a record thus far for the season. Plus three points to the Illini.

Updated Tallies 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

OK, it’s looking like Ohio State is starting to pull away, but most of the bands toward the top of the Constructors still have at least one game remaining. It’s not impossible to catch Ohio State, but they have to hope for a weak performance against Michigan (which I doubt is going to be the game where they let down) and some other bands need bonus points - time to bring out an Aerosmith, Heavy Metal, and Malaguena show that gets chosen as the Reader’s Pick and partner with a school below you in the standings. There is a little more room to scoot past OSU in the average performance standing (which was meant to offset situations like this where one school just has more home games), but so long as OSU posts a show with no penalties in their final game, the worst they will end up at is 5.75. I have made up my mind to disqualify Iowa (unless they post a few shows over the next two weeks) for only two appearances, as really they, Northwestern, and Rutgers are the only schools with fewer than five appearances this season.