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2005-09-29

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The Making of a Football Saturday

BY DOUG WERNERT
Magazine Editor
Published September 28, 2005

It is 9:30 a.m., six hours before kickoff on a warm, sunny September morning in Ann Arbor. Members of the Michigan Marching Band are slowly starting to arrive at Elbel Field, casually carrying their instruments. Some practice marching, some practice their music and some throw around a football. A Labatt's Blue beer truck drives down the street, honking its horn to the beat of "Let's Go Blue." Standing on the field - named after Louis Elbel, who wrote the fight song "The Victors" back in 1898 - the top of the scoreboard at Michigan Stadium, located less than a quarter-mile from the field, is visible.

Director Jamie L. Nix - casually dressed like the band members in a T-shirt and shorts - makes a quiet entrance. A blond, tan, 32-year-old man who received his master's degree from the School of Music in 1999, Nix looks only a few years older than many of the students he directs. Nix came back to Michigan in 2001 to become the 13th director of the marching band, and when asked about the tradition he inherited, Nix laughed and said "If you think about it, it can make you nauseous."

That's how it works in Ann Arbor, where for several Saturdays in fall, football takes over the city. Roads are redirected, high school fields become prime tailgate spots (at $40 a space) and students' books and pens are replaced with a beer cup and a maize and blue T-shirt

The tradition began more than 100 years ago. The band started in 1896 as a student organization with no real financial support or place to play. After a strong performance in front of then-University President James Angell, the band was granted space to practice in University Hall, which was located where the present-day Angell Hall stands. The band made its first appearance at a football game in the fall of 1898 and hasn't looked back since.

Throughout the early 1900s, more traditions formed. J. Fred Lawton and Earl Vincent Moore penned "Varsity" in 1911, adding another hit to the band repertoire. In 1932, the band created the script "Ohio" prior to the Michigan-Ohio State game, giving way to a tradition that is still used in Columbus to this day. In 1953, under the direction of famed director William Revelli, the Alumni Band joined the regular band on the field during the homecoming game. Named "The Blast From the Past," this tradition still continues today.

Nix knows the history ("The things we do are from 30 years ago, 70 years ago. All the pregame stuff is very traditional," he says) and the high expectations that the Michigan faithful have for the band. "The fans, the alumni, everyone expects the band to be the best there is."

With such a legacy to live up to, feverish preparations are necessary. Students hoping to join the band's ranks move in almost two weeks before the school year starts, devoting a hellacious first week to only marching and learning all the steps. "You're being asked to do a lot of stuff you've never done before. None of it feels natural, but you get used to it," says LSA freshman horn player Jim Kozich.

Practicing in the parking lot at Elbel A-- whose blacktop surface is painted to resemble a football field - the band puts in 12-hour-a-day practices, memorizing the steps, the formations and the music - like a football team learning the plays in their playbook. Three hundred ninety-six people tried out for the band this year, vying for one of the 235 pre-game show spots or a slot in the 265-member halftime show, which means a spot on the field, the holiest of grounds inside Michigan Stadium. Nix estimates that the band knows about 30 songs before the first game, including the tunes for halftime, the Michigan songs and the selections they play while sitting in the stands opposite the student section.

During the weeks leading up to the opening game against Northern Illinois, Nix drills the band hard, working on every last detail of the songs, his favorite phrase being "take it back," indicating he wants the band to try a section of the song again. Standing 10 feet up on a ledge on the George R. Cavender Tower - named after the band's fifth director, who served from 1971 to 1979 - and using a microphone headset to communicate his intentions, Nix expects excellence and gets it. "We try to put in a lot of hard work during the week, so we don't have to stress too much on game days," he says.