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Off Beat Empire: Getting to know an HBCU Band

Enjoying the sights and sounds of Howard University’s Showtime Marching Band

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Howard at Northwestern Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I had a little bit of a unique treat this past Saturday, in that Howard University “Showtime” Marching Band was kind enough to come up to Evanston to perform for the Howard vs. Northwestern football game. Of course, I’ve seen footage of plenty of HBCU Marching Bands over the years, but I’ve never had the privilege of seeing one live in action. The Bison gave a wonderful, energetic performance, and the crowd was definitely into it. In fact, the ‘Cats were so grateful, that they almost let a 16-0 halftime lead turn into a defeat, ultimately having to recover an onside kick to preserve the victory (my goodness do we suck - how did you lose to us, Minnesota?!).

Anyway, this gave me a great opportunity to use the column this week to look at a sub-segment of Marching Bands that most of us have only really seen through the movie Drumline.

Alas, I was all set to conduct hours of half-assed research and vague Wikipedia references when I happened to stumble across this article titled “The Art and Technique of HBCU” by Christine Ngeo Katzman, who just so happened to be a classmate and friend of mine when I was in college, as was her eventual husband, Josh (the world can be really small, sometimes). Unlike me, Christine is a true journalist who does do interviews and full research, so i) she pretty much nailed everything I was interested in, and ii) she is a living reminder as to just how short I come every week in my little article. I bet the Twirlers like her a whole lot more as well. Anyway, for those who read my column and want a bit (or let’s face it, a lot) more knowledge on all things Marching Band, I encourage you to check out her online magazine,

So, what makes HBCU’s so unique? A few things.

First, the Bands took the high step from the Big Ten (I was a bit surprised by that attribution in the article, but it makes sense in retrospect) and basically exaggerated everything in terms of motion to add visual appeal. Whereas most Big Ten Bands will do the high step, the goal is to keep the upper body fairly straight and level (to the extent possible), especially while playing the instrument. As I saw first hand from Howard, they used plenty of twists, dips, swings, etc., even while playing, to accentuate every little bit of movement just about every opportunity they had. They also use slings for their drums as opposed to fixed front harnesses, so drummers have greater freedom of movement and can make the drum bob back-and-forth to add additional motion. The look is very visually appealing, and demonstrates a lot of energy that the Band is bringing to the field.

Perhaps because of the high step, I would say that the music is very punchy as well (it’s hard to play something flowing if your mouthpiece is moving, although proponents of the high step will just tell you that you’re doing it wrong and not landing the ball of the foot properly). I don’t know how they do it, but despite the fact that Howard only brought one more Sousaphone than NUMB, I think you could have heard their Sousaphones 10 blocks away whereas NUMB’s Sousas were more like a bass guitar in a 50’s era bee-bop tune. That bass was incredible.

I didn’t realize that dance routines were as prevalent in HBCU performances as they are, but per the article noted above, apparently, every halftime performance features a dance. We do get the usual “Thriller” dances around Halloween (still a deduction - I’ve seen it too many times), and apparently there is some sort of “Barbie” dance that I think I’ve now seen twice (somebody has to tell me if the dance is exactly the same as something in the movie), but that’s usually it for the year outside of dedicated dance squads. Not so for HBCU’s - they like to boogey and the crowd loves it (and the Sousas make sure you feel that bass line in your chest versus just listening with your ears).

Some of the comments about instrumentation in the article surprised me as well, particularly that the bass drums are all the same (other bands will have differently tuned drums to play various multi-note musical lines) and that most HBCU’s use single tenor drums versus quads or quints. I do like the explanation that it is intended to better match a traditional drum set, but this is definitely unique in the modern day-and-age.

Of course, no conversation around HBCU Marching Bands is complete without reference to their drum majors, who are apparently built of rubber bands. I have a game that my nieces play with me, where they show me something and say “Uncle GTom, can you do this?” They like to start out with something simple like a leg raise, and Uncle GTom tells them that of course he can do that. Then, they put their foot behind their head, and Uncle GTom says something like, “No... Uncle GTom’s leg would fall off if he did that!” Well, all I could think watching Howard’s drum major is, “No... that would kill GTom”. It’s not just an occasional move, either... every five seconds that drum major does something that looked very painful, and he did it with ease.

Finally, it’s hard to overlook the pride and enthusiasm that these Bands bring to their schools. We’re proud of our Bands as well, of course, but our Bands never evolved in a world where we were shunned and our entire culture was treated as second-rate. HBCU Bands were about celebrating who they were, and who their fans were at a time when they weren’t supposed to be celebrating such things. They continue to feature heavily in HBCU football games, with Bands often facing off against each other in competitions, halftimes, and post-game performances. That kind of support and enthusiasm is infectious, and we’re all better off getting to see something different.

Anyway, I was hoping for a better recording (although it’s really not bad aside from the vertical camera), but this is the same show performed at halftime on Sept. 16th that Howard brought up to Evanston, and I hope you enjoy it. Again, thanks to their entire band for coming to Northwestern and sharing their talents with us.


HBCU Bands

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Are awesome
    (41 votes)
  • 15%
    Need to come to our stadium, soon
    (10 votes)
  • 4%
    It’s all about the bass, the bass, the bass
    (3 votes)
  • 4%
    Every B1G Band should do a dance like this, every show
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    I can do that! (drum major moves - you’re a liar)
    (0 votes)
  • 12%
    Of course they’re great... they have Twirlers!
    (8 votes)
65 votes total Vote Now


Every time I think a week is going to maybe be a snoozer due to limited action, the Bands seem to step up and give us some high quality shows.

Win: The Ohio State University Marching Band (+9), Oct. 7th “Brutus in Wonderland”

Serious question... why has nobody else in the B1G come even close to matching Ohio State’s drill up until this point? We all literally have the same amount of time - they actually have less because I don’t think they repeat shows and they usually have more home games than other B1G schools. We live in a copycat world, where the best ideas from the top bands seem to diffuse throughout the conference. So, why hasn’t a Purdue, or a Michigan State, or an Illinois looked at what Ohio State is doing with regard to drill and at least tried to match it 50% of the time?

Ohio State gave us show based upon Alice in Wonderland, including “Alice’s Theme”, “Wonderland”, “Mad World”, and even a bit of “Carmina Burana”. From the intro, I think you guess that the drill was fantastic. Of course, the typical stick shapes and story-telling drills are always fun, but they also do things like the circles at ~1:30 that just look so sharp (and really don’t require a lot of effort - this is something that other bands could do more of, if they tried).

Beyond that the sound was also great. Everything was clear, concise, no phasing, and there is plenty of musical interest in the arrangements throughout.

I do have to say, though, that after all these years of watching OSU drill, it amuses me a bit that OSU continually feels the need to mock Michigan as part of their show, but I never really see the reverse from the Wolverines. Of course, Michigan fans are so conceited, that I’m not sure that they would bother to recognize even their most hated rival (I keed a bit, but keep in mind that both my parents and most of my Aunts and Uncles are Michigan alums, and more than a few are pretty full of themselves).

Place: Illinois Marching Illini (+9 or +8), Oct. 6th “The Music of Pink Floyd”

OK, I’m torn. In the first article this year, I wrote this:

50 Year Anniversary Movie, Musical, or Album: -1. Oh man, this is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. That would actually be a cool show. Still, rules are rules.

However, now that it has come, and indeed Illinois has provided us with a very cool show, I’m having a hard time going through with it. The whole point of the 50 year anniversary deduction was to punish those schools who were formulaic in their shows, leading me to have to see the same thing 10 times. Yet, so far, few have done the 50th things that I thought were cool, whereas I’m still getting the same Taylor Swift and Beyonce shows every week that makes me want to pull my hair out. Anyway, I’ll let you, the reader decide if a penalty point should be awarded...


Should 50 year penalty apply to Dark Side of the Moon?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Yes, rules are rules and if you don’t stick to them, we have chaos
    (10 votes)
  • 38%
    No, this is one of the greatest albums ever and should never be penalized
    (22 votes)
  • 28%
    I’m still pissed that you deducted 5 points for Rush two weeks ago
    (16 votes)
  • 15%
    I’m going to smoke a doobie while syncing the album to Wizard of Oz
    (9 votes)
57 votes total Vote Now

The rules also call for an award of +3 points for any Pink Floyd tune (along with Aerosmith and others) for being one of the best-selling artists who never get featured.

Anyway, enough about the rules. Tunes included “Breathe”, “Money” and others, including the pre-3-in1 conclusion with “Eclipse” (which is just an awesome song to end a show with).

The performance is great. Unfortunately, I think we’re missing some of the better sound to microphone setup and high winds, but it’s still pretty clear that the music is concise and the drill looks very sharp, especially with those orange capes under the light. I will give this to the Illini as well - whatever artist they are playing, they always seem to match the tone and mood of the original music. This isn’t the kind of show that requires big trumpet licks or massive drumline breaks, and the Illini know that and match the mellow sound that makes the album so great.

I do want to compliment the rifles in the show as well. I’m not sure that I saw those from the Illini, before, but they look sharp under the lights.

Show: Minnesota Marching Band (+5), Oct. 7th “Suit Up”

I really liked this show. I almost put it into a tie with Illinois because I thought the sound was very good throughout and it’s a pretty long show with a decent amount of drill sets. However, in the end, I think I just felt that Illinois captured the sound of the original artist a bit better (it was a tough call, though).

Minnesota gave us a show that they called “Suit Up”, but honestly, it was really just a spy theme show plus the theme from the Incredibles and the Cowboy Bebop intro, “Tank!”. I love the fact that they included Tank! It’s kind of obscure to pull something from a Japanese Anime intro (although I know Netflix did a live action version), but this tune is just awesome. I really wish that I was in a group that was capable of playing it.

Of course, the Gophers played it quite well. All of the music sounded good, but I think the version of the Incredibles also sounded incredibly clear. Overall, I’m really digging Minnesota’s sound this year - it might just be better microphone placement, but I don’t think that is it... I think they legit sound better than they have in the recent past. Maybe a successful season got more folks to join the Band or something.

Scoring note: I know that they were focused on the James Bond version of “Live and Let Die”, but I’m awarding half credit for a metal tune given Guns N’ Roses popularized version as well (so +1 point).

Others Receiving Votes

Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band (+4), Sept. 30th “Metallica x HMB”

I saw the intro video for this online last week and was super-excited to see the full show. Alas, so far, all I have is this unique snare cam go pro footage, which is still pretty cool and a unique way to see the show, but you don’t get to experience the full sound of the electric instruments (I saw the bassist for a brief second), nor the sound of the rest of the Band. Hey, the drums are good, though!

Regardless, I wanted to make sure that this video got posted so Iowa gets the points and the metal bonus. I just hope that they will post the full show, eventually... I get the feeling that a lot of readers of this column would like to see it. If you were there live, tell me how it worked out in the comments.

Wisconsin Badger Marching Band (+2), Oct. 7th “Tina Turner”

Finally, we get a Tina Turner show that not only plays “Proud Mary”, but gives us what I think are some of her better hits with “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and “Simply the Best”. The Badgers sound full and I think they’re doing some different things with drill than they have in the past (I even saw a curve a couple of weeks ago) without changing too much of their formula.

In the spirit of this week’s topic, we should also point out that OSU and Wisconsin are really the only B1G bands left that regularly feature the high step in their performances (although the Badgers do a bit of a variation that isn’t fully comparable). Just like the HBCU Bands, the Badgers provide a lot of visual energy during their halftime as a result, which I know their fans appreciate.

Did Not Play, Coach’s Decision

It looks like this is just Iowa and Northwestern this week. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what Northwestern played after Howard for Homecoming, but it was basically one tune and then they were joined by the NUMBalums (I still see a few folks I recognize - I’m still never going to join myself). They wore pink hats for breast cancer awareness, and it reinforced to me that we don’t need traditional hats for every performance... baseball caps still look good on the field.

Readers’ Poll


Which halftime show was your favorite?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    OSU "Brutus in Wonderland"
    (13 votes)
  • 25%
    Illinois "The Music of Pink Floyd"
    (13 votes)
  • 13%
    Minnesota "Suit Up"
    (7 votes)
  • 3%
    Iowa "Metallica x HMB (Snare Cam)"
    (2 votes)
  • 17%
    Wisconsin "Tina Turner"
    (9 votes)
  • 13%
    I suspect you would lose to most nursing home patients in a game of "Can you do this?"
    (7 votes)
51 votes total Vote Now

Last Week’s Reader Poll Results

Like me, the vast majority of you liked Maryland’s “Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration + Corazón Folklórico DC”. Thanks to one of their drum majors in the comments (which is pretty cool - that’s not something that I’m aware has happened before), the tunes were clarified as “Conga”, “La Vida es un Carnaval”, “El Son de la Negra”, and “Danza Kuduro”. They also clarified Mawty Maw’s relationship to the Band as part of their “Hip Hop” show as somebody who recorded a promotional video for the school, and where all the music was original to him. Anyway, +3 points to Maryland for winning the Reader’s Poll.

I know I’m being a bit lazy by not posting updated scores, but I’m going to blame it on the Illinois penalty to be determined. The truth is, a few of you were confused on how the scores work, so I need to update my graphics a bit (and it’s too late to do it, tonight). I’ll update the charts in two weeks. I say two weeks, because I’m going to take a bit of vacation next week.


It was a real pleasure seeing Howard’s “Showtime” Marching Band at Ryan Field. I know that we don’t necessarily look forward to playing lower division teams, but if you have to, I hope that one year one of them is a traditional HBCU that will also bring their band for your entertainment.