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The secrets behind the biggest Huskie Marching Band in years

September 3, 2018

When you think of college football, inevitably you picture a crisp fall day full of changing leaves and bright sunshine, tailgating fans and players running onto the field with glistening helmets. But it’s not just what you picture, it’s what you hear. College football, more than any other sport, means the distinctive sounds of marching bands.

The NIU Huskie Marching Band, long known as “The Pride of the Midwest” is renowned for its high quality performances and inventive halftime shows, but also for creating a great big sound with a comparatively small number of band members for an NCAA Division I university.

Until this year.

Growing the band

The 2018 edition might not be as large as, say, Texas A&M, which boasts the largest collegiate marching band with well more than 300 members, but this year’s NIU band will be close to 200 members strong. That’s an increase of more than 50 from last year.

Tom Bough, NIU’s Director of Athletic Bands, and a faculty member in the School of Music, says that the reason for the large increase comes down to two things. Support from a variety of constituents, and a recognition of the personal commitment required from each marching band member.
“We have had great support from our alumni, our friends, private donors, and the university,” Bough said. “Over the years, the university has consistently increased their scholarship support. We now have a really attractive four-year package for students who want to be in the band.

“We did the math and added up how many hours a student puts into the marching band in a semester. It’s literally 200 hours in the fall semester alone. That’s the equivalent of a part-time job. I’m really excited about the fact that the university is recognizing the sacrifice and the commitment it takes to be part of a band that is playing at football games, parades, basketball games, exhibition performances, all those things.”

Balancing out the band

Having a larger band is one thing, but how do you build it purposefully, so you have the right distribution of instruments to play the songs you need and want to play? Bough explains, helpfully, with a football metaphor.

“We work really hard to balance instrumentation,” he said. “The tubas are kind of the linebacker, that’s our bass line. We work really had to make sure we have the right amount of tuba players. Trombone and bartione, those are our power brass. We work really hard to find those students and recruit them and retain them. With the growth in the band, there’s kind of a pleasant equity among the sections. The strength of the players makes it work even when maybe one section is a little smaller than the other. Percussion here at NIU has been a strength for 20 years. We have a very competitive audition to make the drumline. It’s competitive to make the dance team, the color line and the flag line. The result is that the students that are selected are increasingly prepared. You win a spot in the drumline based on your ability to play the things we’re going to play.”

Creating the shows

Bough and his band need to create halftime shows for all NIU home football games. He says the key is to maximize resources to put on the biggest and best shows possible.

“We have five home games this year, which means we need three and a half halftime shows,” he said. “Let me explain that. Our first home game is Band Day. We literally will have 1,500 high school marching band kids standing shoulder to shoulder with us on the field. All of the bands learn the same music for that show, and we try to hold this monster thing together. With that many on the field we can’t move. Nobody can move. But we’ve learned all of this music for it and it would be nice to put some drill to it.

“So, we take that music and we bring some back for one of the November weeknight games. It’s a shorter turnaround than going Saturday to Saturday, so we have less time to prepare. It makes a lot of sense for us to take some of the music we have already learned and add 15 or 20 pages of drill. We call it ‘band day reloaded.’ It’s efficient for the students, and, it aids in preparation as the weather gets colder. We want all of our students to be successful academically, and by the time we get to November they’re starting to feel the pressure of projects and finals are coming up. It makes a lot of sense to repurpose some of the work we’ve already done.

“For homecoming, we actually put the alumni band out on the field with us in the drill. We collaborate with the Alumni Band Council to make sure the music for that show has a broad generational appeal. That’s a unique show.”

Every year, in conjunction with Rockford’s Phantom Regiment drum and bugle corps, the Huskie Marching Band hosts the Red and Black Classic, a high school band competition that draws around 8,000 spectators to Huskie Stadium. Last year’s event drew 3,000 high school band members from 30 different bands in five states who got to perform, meet NIU students, faculty and staff and spend time on campus. The Huskie Marching Band performs as part of that event, and that work shows itself again late in the season.

“Our Red and Black Classic show is literally our best foot forward, if you’ll allow a marching band pun,” Bough said. “That’s our most complex music, most complex drill, most complex band routines, drum routines, guard routines, everything. It’s a great way to celebrate Senior Night and go out with a bang. We’re always hoping the Huskies will be in the MAC Championship Game, and a bowl game. Those are just weeks after our last home game, so we can take from our shows and be ready for the postseason.”

Bough emphasizes that it’s not his marching band, or even the university’s marching band, but it’s everyone’s band. To reinforce that, the marching band has pitch meetings where members can present their ideas for a show.

“We go to a lecture hall and members of the band do a series of show pitches,” he said. “For instance, this year, our most dramatic show came from that pitch meeting. We’re using themes from Disney movies. A group of students got together and presented an eight minute multimedia pitch that strung together Disney songs. The students vote, and they loved it. The university was fantastic in helping us get the appropriate licensing rights. I arranged and wrote the music, and someone else will do the drill. We have a lot of creative people, and we want to give them an avenue to express that creativity in a really positive way.”

“Our own kind of crazy”

One of the great things about the marching band is that its makeup reinforces the fact that it truly is the university’s band. Most of the band consists of former high school marching band members from virtually every major on campus who have come to NIU to study something other than music, but who still want to be part of it all because they love performing and showing their school spirit. Bough estimates that 15% of the band each year is made up of music majors, and given the intense time commitments those students already have with their ensembles in the School of Music, he says they like to call it, “our own kind of crazy.”

“I’m really, really proud of the fact that we have music majors that march in our band,” Bough said. “They are excited to be here and they not only want to be in the band for a year, they want to audition for a leadership position, a section leader position, a drum leader position or be a soloist. They love it. One of the reasons those students are music majors is because they they fell in love with marching band at some point. For those music students, we’re particularly grateful and appreciative.
“For that percentage of music majors, we want to train them to be the next generation of educators. We want to train them to be successful in their jobs, as high school band directors, so that music education is served. The more kids have a great experience playing, the more kids that have a great experience marching, that just builds an audience for every single group in the School of Music.”
The Huskies football team and Huskie Marching Band kick off the home portion of their schedule, Saturday, September 8 at 6:30 p.m. versus Utah, the first PAC-12 team ever to play at Huskie Stadium.