6 Weird Things You Experience In A Marching Band
Playing loud enough to be heard in the background of an ESPN broadcast is pretty much the most a college marching band can hope for. But that doesn't mean it's not a fiercely competitive activity. Cracked wanted to know if the middle school stereotypes about "band geeks" hold true all the way at the top, so we sat down with John, formerly a trombonist in the Virginia Tech marching band, and Derek, a saxophonist with a Big Sky Conference team, and they told us ...
Tryouts Are A Grueling, Weeklong Bootcamp
Band candidates have to audition, of course. Countless students (no, really) dream of participating in traditions such as "dotting the 'i'" or banging a comically oversized drum, so sadly some cuts have to be made. But unlike an acting audition, which can be over in minutes and is at the discretion of an actual director, marching band tryouts can last about a full week's worth of 16-hour days, and even if you survive the musical gauntlet, internal politics still might screw you over.
Back-stabbing hurts more when you have full-body sunburns.
"Tryouts are five days of nothing but playing and playing and playing from dawn to dusk," said John. "People get blisters on their lips and get dehydrated so much that their tongues become sandpaper. In Blacksburg [where Virginia Tech is], we get temperatures in the 80s with high humidity, so many people trying out end up passing out. You are destroyed by the end of the band tryouts."
"Each year I had to compete for one of the 32 trombone slots. You usually get 40 or so people who have played it all their lives, and this is the only place to go. The band director doesn't even get to choose who makes the band -- it's the section leader, an older student, who picks -- usually only picking people they like."
"A silver trombone? Hit the pavement, fancy pants."
All right, so a bunch of people make it through the world's most unimpressive bootcamp and are accepted into the band. Turns out, the worst is yet to come, because ...
It's Extremely Demanding Both Physically And Mentally
Those instruments are pretty weighty. A trombone can weigh 15 pounds, and a tuba can weigh 20. That's not so bad until you realize you are lugging them around for hours on end, playing your heart out all the while. Halftime shows can last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes and be filled with moves complex enough to make Michael Jackson look like a drunken hippopotamus.
Wait for it ...
"It was definitely a workout," said John. "It takes a long time to master running and playing at the same time."
The constant movement also means you're gonna sweat, baby. Band uniforms are often made of wool, even in Southern states with humidity over 90 percent. It's like they've learned nothing from the Civil War.
Nothing says "Classic Gameday Spirit" like old-timey heatstroke.
"Your band uniform is going to get soaked from all the sweat," said Derek. "Even during the colder months, we wear underwear and nothing else under the uniforms. We are marching a lot, and even in near-freezing temperatures where you walk out onto the field shivering, by the end of it you are roasting. Our sousaphone [tuba] player would often button down the top of his uniform once off the field and lay down on the cold ground. He looked like a crazy person, but those hats and thick wool uniforms really heat you up fast."
And just like any football team, the band has to learn a playbook -- although theirs is full of new songs and marching patterns instead of tactical ways to destroy the other team's spines.
It's A Full-Time Job (With No Pay And No Benefits)
NCAA athletes spend 20 to 40 hours a week practicing, and only 20 hours of that can be "official" practice. For marching band, up to 30 hours can be official practice. However, most people spend extra time outside of practice, working on songs and routines before games.
"It depended on the day, but I definitely had at least 25 hours a week on-field practice," said Derek. "Altogether? Forty hours. Forty-five? It was like a full-time job."
But there is compensation of some sort, right?
"No one got any scholarships for band at VT," said John.
"Many of us had to decide on working at the Carl's Jr. or staying with band," recalled Derek. "There's no way you can be a full-time student, band member, and part-time employee, especially until the new year."
"We've got the theoretical physics department working on a way squeeze
in 25 hours of practice per day."
Even in a high school marching band, the costs to the musician are often more than $7,000 a year. Some schools such as the University of Southern California offer small "band grants," while some schools just give money in the form of awards. Other musicians, like those at football and band giant Ohio State, are dependent on people donating money to their favorite section (unless you are the drum major). So when those upperclassmen are picking new band members, that's in consideration, too: Do they have rich patrons? Or if not, can they shake those sexy woolen outfits hard enough to get the attention of some?
The Band Is Completely At The Mercy Of How Well The Team Does
The notable scarcity of sousaphone enthusiasts around the world means most people watching the band are doing so only because the football team is on timeout. If the team does well, then the band rises with them. And if the team does poorly, the team takes them down:
"VT would charter several planes just so the band could get down to Miami for the Orange Bowl," said John. "We flew down two years, but one year we had won a few less games and we took the bus instead."
Amateur rules apply only to the athletes, so the school is willing to pay for large per diems, hotels, and plane tickets just so that the band is there to give their brassy support. Schools get paid to go to bowl games. For example, the Orange Bowl pays each school $18 million just to play -- those trombone players could live like kings!
It pays to look this good.
Except they don't, not always:
"My team only made a bowl game once," recalled Derek. "Once the team began losing more, the band was punished. The team still got to stay in relatively good hotels, but we got really sketchy motels and a $5 per diem. Some road trips we were just brought on the bus to a stadium 200 miles away early in the morning and brought back late at night so they didn't have to pay either of those costs."
Nothing limbers you up for synchronized movement quite like four hours crammed in a bus.
This even trickled into academics.
"If they did good, suddenly everything was easier for band members: Papers could be turned in later because of games; assignments for us were canceled. But if the team was losing? Professors didn't care -- no special regards were given for us despite needing to be on the road for the entire weekend."
"Sorry, guys, but your education comes first, at least until the offensive line remembers what 'block' means."
Hey, you band nerds are good at multitasking: Marching and playing at the same time proves that. Just toss homework in there, too.
Bands Can Actually Affect The Outcome Of A Game
"The marching band can actually get a penalty called on them," explained John. "We were playing Old Dominion, and some of their band members had stepped out onto the field. It was by accident, but the referee saw that and called a penalty on them. Since they were, they got a 10-yard penalty. The band has not been allowed onto the field during play since a Stanford game where the band went onto the field and was mowed down by the other team."
Which, if you've never seen it, you're welcome.
And it can get worse. If a band plays when the play starts, it can be a 15-yard penalty. "You'd be surprised how many times we tried to goad the other team to play during inopportune moments."
But bands can also use their powers for good.
"The coach was really suspicious, like, all the time," said Derek. "Every once in a while, our director would jog over to the coach then come back, saying to play a certain tune during the huddle. At first we didn't catch on, but after a few games we asked and the director told us: The coach was actually using songs we played to signal a certain play for the quarterback."
"Huddles aren't that long, so most of the 'signals' were just quick ones. The opening bars to 'The Alabama Song' by The Doors were used most often for a certain running play. 'Build Me Up Buttercup' was a really long pass. There were a bunch of others, but we only used those once or twice. For a quick change in plays he didn't want over the radio, he used us."
How we managed to play Rush and "Born To Run" all season without anyone catching on is still a mystery.
That's right -- the coach was so paranoid that the headset was being listened in on, he used the band as a secret code. And you thought band wasn't cool ...
What? That makes band cool now, right? Shut up. Jerks.
Bands Play More Than Just College Games
Just when a bunch of college band kids thought they were done with the wedgie-filled days of high school, they'll soon discover that high schools are often very keen on bringing them back.
"VT would send us to high school games every Friday," said John. "Throughout [one particular] game the other team's coach kept complaining to the referees that we were a distraction to his players, but since no rules were broken, his players had to deal with hundreds of trained band members playing rousing themes before each important play. It got to the players, and [the high school that invited us] won 42-0."
That's when you turn it up to a volume commonly known as "irreparable hearing loss."
That isn't an isolated incident. Derek also encountered this.
"The dirt-poor public high school would always get trounced against this private school every year," he recalled. "During my senior year, their school had gotten rid of their band program and asked us if we could play for them. Our director said yes, and we changed into the old gross high school uniforms and played their fight song. The public school looked stunned. They were so used to a small 12-person band. I'm not sure if it was us or an improved team, but they beat the private school for the first time in 24 years."
At which point we assume credits started rolling and the band began playing "Don't You (Forget About Me)."
"Most of the time we are hired out or voluntarily attend funerals or perform at weddings of alumni."
Just imagine it: Your disappointed mother sitting there, all alone at your funeral, when 50 kids in bright red uniforms show up, blasting "Camptown Races" and forming a giant middle finger that spans the graveyard. Truly, band is the gift that keeps on giving.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder at Cracked. Have an awesome experience/job you would like to share? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org!
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Unshakable Beliefs You Develop Growing Up A Redneck and 5 Brutal Realities Of High School Football (From A Coach).
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