A decade from now, college football games will be played during
halftime of marching-band competitions. For we are witnessing, at
this very moment, an unprecedented interest in all things
band-related, a Sousapalooza that has turned even members of the
drum-and-bugle corps into unlikely sex cymbals.
For starters, there is Drumline, at once a major motion picture
and a majorette motion picture. The film, which in the first
three weeks of its release grossed a surprising $44 million, is
set in the world of black college "show bands" and concludes with
a dramatic drum-off that plays like a more percussive, less
concussive fight scene from Rocky. "It's a sports movie," says
director Charles Stone III, and at least one reviewer has
described Drumline as "Remember the Titans with tubas." Whatever
you call it, Drumline is the best vehicle for drumsticks since
the advent of the Hooters waitress.
At the same time, in real life, university bands are behaving
badly. Virginia's president apologized last week for his
Cavalier--and cavalier--pep band's treatment of opponent West
Virginia at halftime of the Continental Tire Bowl. The band
performed a skit that portrayed Mountaineers fans as pigtailed
hillbillies, eliciting this declaration from the bowl's executive
director, Ken Haines: "The pep band is not welcome at future Tire
So pep bands are talking trash (Columbia's president apologized
for a Lions band member's double entendre, during halftime of the
school's football game against Fordham this season, alluding to
sexual scandals involving Catholic priests) and being
trash-talked to: Columbia basketball coach Armond Hill apologized
last season for a gay slur he leveled against a member of the
In short, flugelhorn is becoming a lot like football, only more
competitive. Sixty sousaphonists tried out for 28 spots in the
Ohio State marching band this season, and only one of them got to
dot the i in Script Ohio each week. At the Fiesta Bowl last
Friday night two senior sousaphonists were honored as i
dotters--Kevin Smith and Adrian Wright--but only after winning an
epic i-dot-arod that is known among Buckeyes bandmates as a
"It can be dangerous," Buckeyes band director Jon R. Woods told
the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "In practice, we've had collisions,
and some people have had to go to a dentist." This season
Nebraska football coaches couldn't say the same thing.
Inevitably, it has come to this: "We've started to refer to our
kids as musician-athletes," says Ed Dempsey, marketing director
of the nonprofit group Drum Corps International, which oversees
the planet's most prestigious (and precision) all-star
marching-band world championships. Indeed, a stress test
performed by Indiana's medical school on performing members of
the elite Star of Indiana drum corps elicited readings equivalent
to those of a world-class marathon runner in midrace.
These days there's nothing mellow about the mellophone. Bands
that compete in the Drum Corps International championships are
like traveling sports teams--not affiliated with any school--and
rehearse an average of 60 hours for each minute of a performance.
(Each performance at the finals lasts 11 minutes.) Musicians
range in age from 14 to 21, travel 18,000 miles each summer and
perform six nights a week. The reigning world champs, the
Cavaliers of Rosemont, Ill., have members from Japan and Europe.
The Bluecoats of Canton, Ohio, have 55 members from Texas alone.
The best euphonium players know the same euphoria experienced by
elite athletes. As Dempsey says, "It's the feeling of a 19-or
20-year-old kid standing on a football field at the end of a
performance with 25,000 people screaming." You are Snare Jordan.
The Cavaliers won the 2002 world championship in August before
25,000 spectators at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium.
Bob Hope and Woody Hayes have dotted the i in Script Ohio, but
pep bands are now appealing to a younger celebrity demographic.
Drumline is derived from legendary show bands such as Florida
A&M's Marching 100, Howard's Soul Steppers and Jackson State's
Sonic Boom of the South, whose members carry no sheet music,
memorize 70 songs a season and perform hits like Lil' Flip's This
Is Why We Ball with the actual Lil' Flip.
At show-band schools the postgame is called the fifth quarter and
is every bit as dramatic, and down-to-the-wire, as this year's
Fiesta Bowl. Drumline's director was inspired, in part, by a
postgame battle of the bands he witnessed between Norfolk State
and Morris Brown, in which the former band landed the first punch
by playing, from memory, an ancient and obscure Earth, Wind &
Fire song, only to have Morris Brown counter with the next cut
off the same album.
After winning the national championship, Ohio State's football
coach, Jim Tressel, thanked "the best damn band in the land" for
its support. In the future, however, band directors will thank
football teams for their support. That movie, if it's ever made,
already has a title.
Revenge of the Nerds.
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
At show-band schools the postgame is every bit as
down-to-the-wire as this year's Fiesta Bowl.