|The best band in the land
By Kieran Darcy
TALLAHASSEE -- Two hours before the 7 p.m. kickoff, the band members assemble outside for inspection, as an army. Most of them are perspiring under their white, orange and green uniforms. Many of their instruments sparkle in the late-afternoon sunlight. They stand at attention, awaiting approval from their superiors.
After inspection, they return inside to finish their warm-up. They gather in the large rehearsal room, and run through the numbers they will perform later that evening. At the end of each one, they all jerk their instruments back into position, and clap their hand on their leg.
White calls all this "our Saturday ritual" -- the Saturday ritual of the Marching 100, Florida A&M University's esteemed marching band. The nearby Florida State Seminoles may overshadow Florida A&M's football team, the Rattlers. But the Marching 100 overshadows every other marching band in the country. They've performed at the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and a presidential inauguration. They even represented the U.S. at Bastille Day in Paris in 1989, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. And visitors to the NCAA's Hall of Champions in Indianapolis are greeted at the entrance by video of the Marching 100.
Why all the fuss? Well, the Marching 100 is credited with many innovations that have become standard practice in their field -- from fast-marching to animated formations to performing modern-day music. They're often referred to as one of the most imitated bands in the world.
Those who haven't seen them don't know what they're missing.
At 6:15, the troops begin processing to Bragg Memorial Stadium. Along the way, clusters of pedestrians take pictures and cheer them on. When the band files into the stadium, many fans stand and clap.
After they're in position on the field (the Marching 100 actually has about 400 members), the PA announcer introduces them. "It's time," he booms. "The most imitated band in the world. The most televised band in America. The Marching 100. Standard for the world."
The band is a bigger draw than the football team. Besides performing at games, they travel around the country to play festivals and compete in "battle of the bands" contests. This year, they've been on the road every week since Aug. 30.
The Marching 100 also does a lot of recruiting. Florida A&M attracts 500-to-600 high schoolers to its band camp every summer -- it's one place where band camp is actually considered "cool." Seventh graders sometimes try to sneak their way in, although that's against the rules. The band directors keep tabs on talented campers after they leave. They also contact high school band members who participate in the festivals and contests they travel to. The directors constantly update a database of 2,000-to-3,000 high school band members who FAMU can try to recruit.
They don't have a hard time attracting candidates.
"I've wanted to be in the Marching 100 since I was a little kid," says Jonathan Whitaker, a sophomore French horn player. "They've been my favorite band my whole life."
Part of the attraction is the variety of music they play, both marching-band standards and modern-day hits. The students suggest current songs they'd like the band to play. "I'm in charge of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms," Dr. White says. Then an arranger writes the music, and a choreographer comes up with a corresponding dance routine. This season, the 100 has added Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z's "Crazy in Love," as well as a tribute to the late Barry White to its repertoire. And they often form shapes such as an SUV or a helicopter while they perform their songs.
Making the band, though, isn't easy -- many people are cut during August auditions every year. Potential new members must get to campus to audition two weeks before classes start. And when the returning members arrive a week later, they have to earn their positions just like everyone else. Those who do make the cut enjoy some of the finest facilities in the country. The Marching 100 has its own exclusive practice field, the size of a regular football field -- complete with rest rooms, benches, lights and water fountains. They also have their own building in the Foster-Tanner Fine Arts complex on campus.
Nothing but the best for the best.
After the pregame show, which includes playing the national anthem, the Marching 100 files into its section of the stands near midfield -- there isn't room for them beyond either end zone. During the game, the drum section is the most active, often launching into several minutes of intoxicating beats that seep into your sub-conscious. Many fans tap their feet to the beat on the silver bleachers, or nod their head in rhythm. When the whole group kicks in with a traditional sports anthem like "The Hey Song" (Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll, Pt. 2" ) or one of the band's other concoctions, the crowd stands up and dances.
At halftime, the band pours from all four corners of the stadium onto the field. Hardly anyone leaves their seats. This particular halftime is a bit different. It's last Saturday night; and Delaware State, the Rattlers' football opponent, didn't bring its band. So a local high school band gets to play first. Also, this show honors the 25th anniversary of Florida A&M's 1978 Division 1-AA national championship team.
Twenty minutes are officially allotted for halftime -- but the show runs much longer than that. The clock ticks down to 1:00, then freezes. The Rattlers have been penalized 15 yards in previous games because their band extends halftime too long -- but not today. Players from both teams stand on the sidelines and wait for the show to conclude. "We try to stay warm and focus on the game," says FAMU starting quarterback Ben Dougherty. "But you end up peeking at them out of the corner of your eye. You can't help it. They're amazing."
"Young, old and ugly -- they all love the band," says FAMU fan Valerie Jones.
The band members, themselves, love it too -- they have to, to be as dedicated as they are. The Marching 100's motto is: "Perfection in music, highest quality of character, and precision in marching." They work extremely hard to live up to that. During the August sessions before classes begin, "they do nothing but eat, practice and sleep," Dr. White says. He's serious. Their schedule begins with breakfast at 7 a.m. They rehearse outside on the field from 8 to11. Lunch is from 11 to 1 p.m. Then they practice indoors, in smaller groups, from 1 to 4. Dinner is from 4:30-6. And then they're back on the field rehearsing from 7 to 11 at night.
"It's extremely demanding, physically, and requires tremendous endurance," Dr. White says. "Just like being a football player."
Marcellas Durham, who played for the Rattlers from 1954-1957, remembers how hard the Marching 100 worked when he was in school. "We used to have two-a-day (football) practices," he says. "We'd be out there at 5 in the morning. So would the band. We'd go to lunch at noon, and we'd still see them practicing. Then, when we'd go back out on the field around 3, and they'd be right there practicing again."
Dr. White and his assistant directors try not to burn the band out. They only practice for 45 minutes out of every hour, allowing for frequent water breaks -- they're just as concerned about heat stroke as NFL teams are. During the regular school year, they normally only practice from 3:35 to 5:40 every day. But some days, they practice twice, like on the day before the Delaware State game.
The heat was particularly oppressing on this sultry, late-September afternoon and evening, with the temperature hovering in the upper 80s and the band decked out in its heavy uniforms. Some band members prepare for that. "I practice hot," says sophomore French horn player Brandon Gilbert. "I usually practice in warm clothes -- sweaters, stuff like that. That way, game days aren't a big deal."
The band's schedule is packed. They perform every Saturday, and usually travel somewhere else to perform on Sunday. The band members really have to budget their time, hitting the books on the bus and in the hotel. But this doesn't last for too long. Once football season is over, the Marching 100's season is, too. They only regroup for a couple of special performances in the spring.
That's not necessarily a good thing. "The schedule can be stressful," says senior tuba player Antoine Mole. "But when it's over, I end up really missing it."
With 2:23 remaining in the game and Florida A&M trailing 14-9, Dougherty throws an interception in the end zone. The game has been poorly played, chock full of penalties and turnovers. Partly because of the extensive pregame and halftime ceremonies, it's almost 11 p.m. Many fans begin filtering toward the exits. But the band plays on.
The Rattlers make a desperate defensive stand, force a punt, and begin one final drive to win the game. With no timeouts and just seconds left, Florida A&M has time for one more play, from the Delaware State 13-yard line.
The PA announcer screams "No he didn't! No he didn't!" over and over again. A few fans rush the field, trying to tear down the goalposts. The rest dance in delight to the Marching 100's victory tune.
Normally, the band stays and entertains the crowd with several more songs after a game ends -- it's been dubbed "the fifth quarter." But tonight, they can't stay. So as the clock strikes 11:30 p.m., the 100 are marching back to their rehearsal building, several honking with their tubas along the way. When they arrive, they line up for a late dinner, heaping slices of pizza and pieces of fried chicken onto their plates, many with their instrument in their other hand.
They have to eat quickly. They were scheduled to leave at 11 p.m. for a seven-hour overnight bus trip to Jackson, Mississippi, for a battle of the bands on Sunday. They didn't end up leaving until 2 a.m. -- and arrived back on campus at 9 a.m. Monday morning, just in time for band members to rush to class in their uniforms.
"It can definitely wear on you," Whitaker says. "But when you get out on that field, in front of all those people, you forget everything.
"In that moment, it's worth it all."
You can e-mail Kieran Darcy at firstname.lastname@example.org.