I was in the marching band in school. The Band of the Fighting Irish. Even typing that makes me a little bit shivery with memories. Gamedays for band members looked a bit different than the typical student's "sleep-in, pick out gameday attire, pregame/tailgate, watch game, call it a day" routine, though. Gameday, for us, started every Monday with a new halftime routine. Four more days of three-hour practices would hone and polish that routine...rain, snow, or shine...with sectionals thrown in to learn the music too. Practice was never dull, especially during the most wonderful week of the year, Piccolo Spirit Week (Piccs on top!!).
Fridays were not so much a practice as part of the campus gameday experience. The 400 band members assembled at the Dome at 4pm, each section sporting their own t-shirt (and in the piccs' cases, often crazy headbands or, ahem, neon tights?). We warmed up and did a full marchout in front of hundreds of fans to our practice field, where we did a complete run-through, no breaks, of the pregame, halftime, and postgame routines, again in front of hundreds. And this was just Friday!
We'd march to the pep rally after Friday practice, perform again, and disperse until midnight, when we joined hundreds of others for Midnight Drummer's Circle under the shadow of the Golden Dome. Six hours later, we'd wake up for Saturday morning breakfast at the band building, marchout, practice, and morning meeting, with skits, speeches, and other reminders for gameday. Cramming into the band practice room with 400 of my closest friends...every week, I savored the sense of excitement and camaraderie (or survived the occasionally raging hangovers, senior year!).
Uniform time followed morning practice. As nerdy as it sounds, putting on those delicious wool-poly-blend pants and snapping on spats never failed to make me feel absolutely insane pride. Campus would be buzzing at this point, and the second I stepped out of my dorm, I'd start noticing fans' smiles being a bit brighter in my direction. The band is recognized, and truly beloved on campus. It wasn't uncommon to get stopped and asked to pose for pictures, either. Because who doesn't want a photo of their kid with a college piccolo player? (I need to ask Johnny Manziel for his tips on how to sell autographs and not get caught...)
The piccolos always headed over to Band Brunch in South Dining Hall after we got dressed and ready. Traditions like the saxophone-falto original song war...concluding with the singing of "God Smite the Saxophone" (to the tune of, yes, "God Bless America")...kept us and the fans who paid to eat dining-hall food amused. And every band brunch concluded with several surprise trumpets popping up to play the fight song, prompting every band member in the dining hall to immediately climb up on our chairs and shout along.
And Concert on the Steps...words can't describe. The piccolos always had the top several rows of steps at the Architecture Building, since our instruments were compact and our section was smallish. Cramming in shoulder to shoulder often meant we could hardly turn side to side, let alone get enough elbow room to breathe and play without compacting every body part to just make it work, but the rush of looking out and seeing this view made every second of sweating on those steps feel like a privilege.
Then came marchouts, which were alternately hot, rainy, freezing by turn, and endlessly perfect. Marching through walls of fans cheering for us as we shouted and played the best university fight song in the country could only be topped by our final destination, The Tunnel, where we crammed together closer even than shoulder-to-shoulder, clinging to each others' plaids, breathless with anticipation. The sheer adrenaline of this moment...I can't imagine topping it. On the drum major's whistle, we exploded in the trot out of the tunnel and took the field. I'll never forget the first time I ran out, saw 80,000 fans screaming, and summarily died and went to heaven. I'll never forget the last time I did it. To quote Rudy's dad, it was "the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen."
Games in and of themselves held many traditions...halftime apples, 3rd quarter "1812 Overture," Traveling Band, special picc cheers to each cadence...before we knew it, the games would end (for my class, usually with a loss) and we'd march out, back to the band building, only to do it all again starting Monday.
Not going to lie, there were days where I didn't want to be at practice, and if I hadn't been in the band I probably would have had just as much fun sleeping in on Saturdays and tailgating with friends. The band was my community though...my sorority, my safety net, my identity. Looking back on those gameday Saturdays has become the lens through which my entire college experience is colored, and I'll never associate fall or the sound of a drum with anything more forcefully than with blistered feet and the shrill tweet of a whistle calling me to march out, again, and cheer on the Irish.