Game Day with the OSU Marching Band

The break of dawn is still hours away as a solitary uniformed band member walks briskly across the desolate campus, street lamps lighting his way. Toting an instrument case, he cuts through parking lots to avoid the early morning dew on his freshly shined patent leather shoes. Eerily quiet on this early September Saturday morning, Ohio Stadium welcomes him to the home of The Ohio State University Marching Band. 

The OSUMB goes through a military uniform inspection prior to every game. Photo: Crockett Photography.

Anyone who has attended an Ohio State football game has witnessed the band charge through the tunnel of Ohio Stadium onto the field with impeccable military precision, breaking flawlessly into “Buckeye Battle Cry.” Seeming effortless, the members of The Ohio State University Marching Band put in endless hours, not only during the week, but on game day itself. Long before the first cleat hits the field, the band gathers at the Steinbrenner Band Center inside Ohio Stadium to perfect every aspect of what is known as “The Best Damn Band in the Land,” or TBDBITL.

Approximately seven hours before kickoff, sections of the band begin to assemble. On this particular game day, kickoff is at noon. At 5:00 a.m., one hour before TBDBITL’s official report time, the band’s Student Staff members are on hand at the band center’s instrument and uniform rooms, where hems are stitched, buttons replaced and horns repaired. Despite careful preparation, touch-ups are always needed. Student staff members always stocks Windex for last-minute horn shines, and carry valve oil at all times.

Meanwhile, the band’s 29-member percussion section, gather to perfect the precision timing of the pre-game ramp entrance which will lead the 192 marching band members onto the field of Ohio Stadium. They practice numerous “ramps,” some with vocals and others where each member is absolutely silent to simulate the inability to hear when it’s time for the actual ramp entrance. This is due to the overwhelming cheers of over 100,000 fans coming from inside the stadium.

By 5:45 a.m. the band center has filled with members in full uniform. It’s early, but the energy is uncontainable as the percussion break into cadence. Members take their assigned seats, high-fiving each other, chanting “O-H-I-O Let’s Go Bucks!”  The intensity grows; all members are attuned to the rhythms that will cue them to play “Buckeye Battle Cry” precisely at 6:00 a.m.

OSUMB Baritones at a Saturday morning rehearsal. Photo: Crockett Photography

For the next hour, the band works on breathing, tuning, and articulation. To train the ear, the band sings the notes of “The Navy Hymn,” comparable to a professional choir.  At one point during the intense music rehearsal, director Dr. Jon Woods hears something that excites him; “Awesome!” he exclaims, and explains that the band exhibited “sheer power” through their playing.

The band has come a long way from its humble beginnings.  The group was first formed in 1878 as a 12-piece drum and fife corps, most of whom were beginner musicians, to provide music to which ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) cadets could march.  After 1881 the band was removed from ROTC and was led for 15 years by various student leaders until 1869, when U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Band veteran Gustav Bruder took over direction of the band.  Bruder instilled discipline and organization to the group, and by the early 1900’s membership had increased from 15 to 64, while performing at OSU sporting events in addition to providing marching music for the cadets and taking part in weekly ROTC uniform inspections.

In 1920, with 100 members, the band was led down the field by the first strutting drum major, Edwin “Tubby” Essington. By the mid 1920’s, the band was performing the first ever floating formations on old Ohio Field. Since this time, numerous marching band innovations have been developed at Ohio State, and brass instruments designed especially for marching bands were also first used at OSU.

In 1930, under the direction of Eugene Weigel, the band size grew to 120 members. By 1976 the band was set at its current size, 225: 192 regular marchers and 32 alternates. Because of its military roots, the band remained an all-male group until in the fall of 1973, when women were first given the opportunity to try out.

Also under Weigel’s direction in the 1930’s was born the tradition of Saturday morning Skull Session. Beginning 2 hours prior to every home game kickoff in St. John Arena, Skull Session is a concert set in a pep-rally atmosphere, where the band plays their entire pre-game and half-time music. This was, and still is, seen as one last chance for the band members to go over the show in their head, or “skull”. The event is always accented by a visit from the coaches and the team.  Free and open to the public, fans pack into St. John Arena up to two hours before the performance, so early arrival is essential.

Approximately 14,000 fans pack into St. John Arena for the OSUMB Skull Session before every home game.

At approximately 7:30 a.m., the morning sun finally breaks over campus buildings, slicing across the practice field on the south side of Ohio Stadium. A large crowd has gathered along the sidelines to watch the band rehearse; another astounding way to witness a performance, even without tickets to the game!

By 9:00 a.m., the morning sun has penetrated the band’s wool uniforms, now damp with sweat. A short break is followed by a final viewing on the band center’s big screen of the morning’s rehearsal.  Eyes droop and heads drop briefly in the darkened room. It’s been a long day already, topping off a long week:  daily 2-hour rehearsals, challenges, penalty drills, music memorization checks—all in addition to class schedules and homework.

The week’s exhausting efforts begin to come to fruition when, four hours after game-day report time, the band marches over to Skull Session in St. John Arena, where 10,000 eager fans await their arrival, greeting them like rock stars. It’s game day!

About: Heather Blackmon-doForno

As a member of the Ohio State University Marching Band, I quickly grew to appreciate the dedication and pride each Big Ten Marching Band exhibits, as well as the traditions, history and culture of each school they represent. Being a passionate world traveler, my trips to Big Ten schools have always involved an effort to go beyond the game, scoping out the best local places to eat, delving into local history, viewing the campus architecture and learning about quirky folklore.