Just a few hours before the first University of Texas football game of the season, Longhorn Band director Scott Hanna stands on a platform inside “the bubble,” the practice facility north of Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Below are his students — about 365 musicians, a few dozen flag-wielding members of the color guard and one baton twirler.
“Be smart when it’s time to play,” he says though a megaphone. The band has been rehearsing its halftime show but playing at less than half the volume they'll play on the field. “Pace yourself.”
The band will soon take the field in front of tens of thousands of people to play the national anthem; the Texas fight song; the school song of that day's opponent, the University of Tulsa; and, at halftime, a three-song show.
Not unlike the football players who are warming up nearby, the members of the marching band have to preserve their energy for the big show, that moment when they come out of the tunnel and provide the soundscape for one of the country’s largest stadiums.
It's the first game of the season, and nerves are high. The band members, dressed in orange practice gear, play a few lines from “Smooth,” one of the Santana songs featured in the debut show, and repeat the steps that they’ve had only two weeks to practice.
After the first few attempts, when the students are still trying to stay in formation and play the right notes at the same time, Hanna comes back on his megaphone to utter one of his catchphrases: “That was good, but let’s do the same thing, more better.”
“More better!” the band shouts back.
Military marching bands have been part of American history since the American Revolution, but college bands didn't start until the 1800s. The Notre Dame band, founded in 1845, played at its first football game in 1887, and in 1907, the University of Illinois band performed a show during the team's halftime break. That's the same year that Paul Spotts Emrick, a Purdue marching band instructor, was inspired by the V formation of a flock of birds in the sky and instructed his band to form a drill that looked like the letter P, the first recorded time that a marching band broke from the military-style procession.
Originally, military bands played to help communicate instructions to men on the battlefield, but over the years, a band's performance could add reverence, patriotism or enthusiasm to a memorial, ceremony or parade. After World War II, when many military veterans either went back to school or re-entered society with a fondness for regimen and precision, many who had played in the band during wartime took that same know-how and applied it to high school and college football games, when a big field turned into a blank canvas during the 20-minute halftime break.
That's also the era when television — and televised football and holiday parades — became more prominent in American society, which boosted the popularity of local marching band organizations.
Vincent DiNino, who was the UT marching band director from 1955 to 1975, exemplified this evolution. “He was the person who turned the band into what we know it as today,” Hanna says. A musician in the military, DiNino later brought that attention to detail and understanding of how music influences a crowd to the University of Texas, where football coach Darrell Royal was taking the team to its first national championships.
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No matter if a band is playing in front of tens of thousands of football fans in the state's capital or just a handful of them in a small East Texas town, they add something special to the experience of watching a football game. More importantly, Hanna says, a marching band program allows students who don't play sports to participate in the excitement of athletics without donning pads and a helmet.
That doesn’t mean marching band isn’t athletic. High school bands usually host at least a week of camp before the school year starts and daily practices to get students in shape so they can play their instruments and keep in formation on the field at the same time. Most college bands don't have as rigorous a schedule, but with so many more fans in the stadium, the pressure to perform on game day is intense, Hanna says. Musicians have to make an immense amount of sound in a nontraditional performance space in front of a crowd of people who, for the most part, paid to see a football game, not a musical performance. From Hanna's perspective, his band's halftime show becomes an invitation for people to experience live music in a way they might not have seen before.
College band life
A high school marching band plays the same halftime show for each game of the season, spending time perfecting a complicated set of formations to compete against other high school bands at festivals and in the statewide University Interscholastic League contest.
At the college level, however, bands perform a new halftime show for each game, so with some exceptions — such as a recent "flossing" display by the Ohio State marching band — the formations aren't as complicated, and there are no collegiate band competitions. An organization called Drum Corps International hosts marching band competitions for musicians ages 13 to 22, but it is unaffiliated with the NCAA.
“The only people we’re competing with is ourselves and the previous version of the band,” Hanna says. “That’s where the strong sense of ownership comes in. The band belongs to them.”
Like the high school marching band experience, college-level band is where students of all backgrounds and disciplines interact. Engineering and finance students play alongside music studies and nursing students to learn six seven-minute performances in between the rest of their classes.
“It can be easy to spend most of your time with the people who are studying what you’re studying, but it’s a chance for them to meet majors they wouldn’t otherwise meet,” he says. “This becomes the group that they belong to. This is your family when you come to university, in all the senses of that word.”
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Hanna says he is proud of the quality of the band's performances this year, but he’s been involved in college-level marching band long enough to know that the real value is the experience of learning the shows, working together to execute them and keeping their composure in front of more than 100,000 football fans.
“It can take them a few years to catch on to what that means, and it’s transformative for many of them,” he says.
Every student in the band has to audition each year, and if they make the cut, they’ll get class credit for their time spent at the two-hour rehearsals during the week and game days. Most of the students who audition played in their high school marching band, but not necessarily.
“Music is always our highest priority. Marching is organized walking,” Hanna says. “We can teach that.”
Hanna, who has led the marching band for four years and was the associate director of the band for the 17 years, has about a dozen graduate students and three faculty members who work with the band, and all of them conduct, teach and are involved in the music department outside the Longhorn Band.
Hanna and his staff, as well as the student leaders, put together potential halftime shows that then have to go through a committee to get approval. The graduate students can help arrange the music and write the drill, or the movements on the field, for their portfolios.
“There’s this amazing experience that students have of being woven into the fabric of the institution,” he says. “You wouldn’t have if you were just a regular student.”
When Hanna was a euphonium player in the Louisiana State University band, he learned to write drill on paper. Today, they can use computers to plot out the formations, and band members can look at them on their phones instead of carrying around small sheets of paper.
As for the music, Hanna and his team build the shows around themes and a diverse playlist that will appeal to the many kinds of fans who attend games.
Universities across the country are amping up their game day experience with pyrotechnics and the Jumbotron, which Hanna says adds some pressure to come up with a halftime show that will impress crowds week after week.
The first halftime show of the year honored Hispanic Heritage Month with songs from Selena, Carlos Santana and Shakira. One game this year featured a medley of sports music, and during the game that took place over the first weekend of Austin City Limits Music Festival, the band performed songs from Metallica, Shawn Mendes and Paul McCartney.
“The life cycle of a pop song is about 35 seconds,” Hanna says; they have to be careful when playing songs that have been recent radio hits so the songs don’t become earworms by the time the band hits the field.
Hanna says that when the football team isn’t winning very many games, he often hears from fans who say the band performance is the highlight of game day.
“When they do well, it makes it more fun for us, but our thing has very little to do with the success of the team,” he says.
But after a winning season, more students apply for band the following year. “When they won the national championship, the applications for band were ridiculous,” he says.
Life after band
If it were up to Jessica Martinez, she’d never leave the marching band, which is one of the reasons she plans on becoming a band director after she graduates next year.
The Arlington native played the flute and piccolo on the field, but now she’s the 4-foot-11-inch drum major of the University of Texas Longhorn Band.
She’s only the fourth woman to hold the job, Hanna says, and the second woman of color.
During high school, Martinez applied only to colleges that had large college bands, including Louisiana State University and Texas Christian University. For eight years, marching band has been her life. “You to get to learn music, learn all this stuff with your friends, do all this outdoor stuff and then show it off for a season,” she says.
As drum major, she doesn’t get to march as much as if she were in formation, but she loves playing the character who leads the band in its signature wall-to-wall procession and as the members walk in a single-file line to write the word “Texas” in script on the field.
“It doesn’t make me as nervous as I thought it would. I have a part just like everybody else in the band, so as long as I perform like I rehearse, I’ll be OK,” she says.
There’s also comfort in numbers. She might be the only one in a white drum major uniform, but the band works as one. “It’s not like I’m doing this by myself,” she says. “It’s my family away from home.”
Her ultimate goal is to be a band director at a middle school and then also teach and lead high school marching bands.
“I enjoy teaching people how to start on their instruments. Taking them from zero to 100, you can set them up right so you don’t have bad habits later,” she says. “It’s a nice feeling to start someone on this art.”
Martinez’s parents were among the dozens of relatives and friends standing on the sideline inside the bubble during that first game day rehearsal.
“She was born to do this,” says her dad, Jesse Martinez. He was there with his wife, Maritza, and his other daughter, Elizabeth, who is the band director at Mansfield Summit Middle School. Her grandparents and boyfriend were also there to watch Jessica’s home debut.
“Following her here has allowed us to be part of it all,” Jesse Martinez says.
Jessica knows that many of her fellow bandmates and future students won’t play music professionally, but she sees value in learning how to play and march. “There are so many other things you get from it: how to be organized, how to work together, how to compete and perform in front of other people," she says. "It gives you a lot of skills that you’ll have forever.”
Although she won’t start applying for band director jobs until next summer, she plans to apply the skills she’s picking up from Hanna when she takes on her own band next year.
If the Longhorns do well in the postseason, the band will continue playing after the Nov. 17 home game against Iowa State. The entire band travels to in-state away games, but only a smaller group travels to the out-of-state games, such as the Nov. 23 game at Kansas. No matter how well the football team does this year, after the season, Martinez and her fellow seniors in the band won’t return to the field unless they join the Longhorn Alumni Band, an organization of more than 3,600 former band members who now raise money to support the current band.
The group gives about $30,000 in scholarships to band students and helps cover the food and travel expenses for when the band travels to away games. Hanna says the number of band scholarships is increasing, and he hopes to see every student in the band get a scholarship at some point.
Small factions of the alumni band perform at private events throughout the year, but once a year, during the last regular home game of the season, the alumni band takes the field for its annual reunion performance to once again experience that exhilarating feeling — a feeling new band members can’t really prepare for, Hanna says.
“If you’re an 18-year-old scared freshman whose head is spinning around, to suddenly be vaulted into an indispensable part of the university — that immediate elevation is kind of overwhelming.”