By Jack Fowler
With the advent of fall comes the quintessential activities and traditions that we all expect. Pumpkins, football, sweaters, leaves, days that start off too cold and become too hot and then become too cold again- Autumn has arrived. Many people will preoccupy their time and their social media profiles with these and many other seasonal activities. Some, though, will be thinking of only one activity: marching band.
We’ve all seen bands before. In high school, plenty of people did band for a class, or to appease their parents, or because they just really like walking while playing outdated instruments. However, many teenagers see band as an opportunity to achieve their own slice of stardom after high school, when they play for a college marching band.
And this is where the idea of band changes. Just as ball can be considered to be life, so too can brass. Collegiate marching bands are an integral part to America’s beloved Saturday tradition, college football. And while the star football players almost always overshadow them, the game day experience is fundamentally different without them.
So what is life like behind the scenes in a, more-or-less, professional marching band?
To fully grasp the lifestyle, we should observe one of the most prestigious bands in the country: The University of Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Marching Band.
Founded in 1869 as a forerunner to UT’s ROTC program, the band began to play during games in 1902. Since then, it has grown to be one of the most famous and demanding marching bands in all of collegiate sports. Sporting a roster of well over 200 musicians and performers, the Pride is as integral a part of Knoxville Saturdays as tailgating is. Their largest claim to fame, moreover, is the large Power T that they form on the field, which football players run through to get to their sideline (I highly recommend checking this out on YouTube. The reverence with which orange-bleeding Tennessee fans hold it appears blatant).
But what does it take to join such an organization? How do college students come to perform such precise, choreographed performances on a national stage.
I was able to learn of these trials and tribulations firsthand from a former member of the Pride, who I’ll call John. John joined the Pride at the beginning of his freshman year, during which he played in every football game. Unfortunately, at the onset of his sophomore season, John seriously injured his back. While he persevered through his recovery on the sidelines, he could never quite return to his full form. He quit halfway through his junior season, before his back gave out on him completely.
Discussing all of this with John, he had the air of an honorably discharged veteran. He told me that music had always been an integral part of his life, though he didn’t always like to play instruments. However, that changed when his family, staunch Volunteer fans, brought him to a home game in Neyland Stadium. According to his aunt, John, “didn’t even notice the football or the cheerleaders: just the Pride of the Southland.” And thus, a fan was born.
As he grew into his musical talents, John always wondered what it would be like to join the elite organization. He learned to play the baritone in his middle school band, and he mastered the fundamentals during the rest of his tenure before college. Finally, when he returned to Neyland during his sophomore year of high school, something in him clicked. “I made up my mind: I was going to join the Pride.”
Easier said than done, he soon learned. The tryouts themselves proved to be strenuous and challenging. John took private lessons, for nearly 6 straight days, just to practice his two audition pieces.
Once he was accepted, the real challenge began: juggling band and college. Although the Pride is registered as a one-hour class on a member’s schedule, the band practices 4 days a week, for a total of 7 hours of marching and playing music. And on game days, the Pride members are up and playing hours before the game. For noon games, they have to be on the field, in full uniform, by 7 a.m.!
As the Pride forms its iconic power T, the crowd knows that the game is about to begin. The ritual requires several routine songs, but they will not be the last. During the game, band members must stay alert and focused, as they have to play music after almost every down and touchdown. During the course of an average game, John says that the band plays, “around 200 times a game,” covering various genres from 80’s hits to a cover of the Game of Thrones intro. As for Rocky Top? They play that anthem around 30 times a game.
Despite the arduous challenge of the Pride, John still misses the experience. He talked at great length about his first ever game back in 2013, when the Vols hosted Austin Peay State University. He said that being on the field is a completely different experience than sitting in the stands in Neyland stadium.
“Neyland is so much louder on the field,” John remarked. “It’s this huge moment of ‘Oh my God’,” what with the fans and the players and trying to perfectly execute the routine. But despite the arduous, intimidating task, John can’t wait to do it in the future as an alumnus. Every Alumni Weekend, alongside with the current band roster, Pride alumni pick up their instruments and return to the field for a grand showing. It’s a truly great demonstration of the old and the new, and I have personally seen many grown men cry after they leave the field and their instruments behind.
I’m certain John will be one of the men bawling his eyes out in a few years. If there’s anything that I learned from my interview with John, it’s that doing band requires a true passion for music and their school. These students strive all week to perform in the heat or cold for their team and their school, and anyone that can do it for four years is a musical gladiator.
Go Pride. Go Vols.