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A band defined by its crowd

BY GABRIEL BAKER
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 6, 2008

If you haven't already noticed, tradition infiltrates nearly every aspect of our university. But as much as we like to think all customs were introduced in the 1800s by mustachioed, trapshooting old men, tradition is actually something more tangible and vulnerable to change. It's something in which we play a part. Every year, the University finds new ways to bend its conventional values to keep up with the times. It throws something into the Michigan crowd and sees what sticks. And sometimes these gimmicks stick around for more than just a year. Sometimes they become tradition, whether you like it or not.

Nowhere is the tension between tradition and progressive experimentation more evident than in the Michigan Marching Band. Balancing the historic "fanfare" repertoire with updated crowd-conscious halftime selections is a tricky feat, especially considering they have to satisfy 100,000 plus onlookers and another half million alumni in the process. But the strategy is relatively simple: Keep the pre-game traditional and leave the new spectacles for the halftime show.

New Michigan band director Scott Boerma admits that halftime is an ever-evolving creature. Each year, he and the other heads of the band look to the students, band members, alumni and their families for new musical and thematic inspiration.

"Every halftime show is kind of an attempt to connect with some faction of the audience, because you're not going to please everybody ever," he said.

And it's extremely hard to please fans of all ages when the concept of halftime has changed so dramatically. Nowadays, when we think "halftime," we casually imagine fighter jets soaring over upper-level seats, parachutists dropping from the sky and full-blown circus floats maneuvering around the field.

The overall direction of halftime performances, on a collegiate or professional level, seems to be toward more clutter, more extravagance, more variety. And, in a way, this mentality takes a toll on how we listen to the music. It's hard to listen to a military band and not think the sound is too sparse and outdated. We're used to full brass and percussion that vibrate the metal bleachers beneath us. Flawed or not, the common perception is that show bands need to be musically and visually stunning in order to stay fresh and innovative. Playing Guitar Hero clips on the JumboTron isn't just an attempt to connecting with a faction of the audience; it's a determined effort to stay with the times.

The historical glitz and fanfare of the pre-game show permit the band to do these kinds of experiments during halftime. All it has to do is bludgeon the audience with enough renditions of the fight song before moving on to the untested material. It's amazing how resilient and untouched Michigan's pre-game show has remained over the decades. So many bands across the country perform "The Victors" that you'd think it was the national anthem. Even John Philip "Godfather of the March" Sousa said it was the greatest college fight song ever written. It's safe to say "The Victors" will never fall from prominence, but who's to say other songs won't rise to the same distinction?

How can we be sure that 20 years from now we won't still be hearing "Livin' on a Prayer," but this time out of tradition instead of adrenaline-fueled irony? It's completely, scarily possible. The audience has the power to decide what lasts and what falls into distant memory.

In the 1980s, the University introduced the short-lived mascot "Willy the Wolverine" to a very offended Michigan crowd. Even though college mascots were a staple at practically every other school across the country, Michigan would have none of it. A gimmick like Willy was out of place with the school's historic legacy. So, instead of passing it off as a publicity stunt for the movie "Red Dawn," which would have been brilliant, the University buried the memory of Willy and hasn't looked back.

Another trend that never caught on was a band nickname. Decades ago, the band was temporarily known as "The Transcontinental Band," but easily grew out of favor. What band doesn't play shows across the country? Boerma says there's a simpler reason for not having a nickname: "We don't need a silly logo to show that we're the greatest marching band in the world, everybody already knows it."


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