What it takes to be in the Michigan Marching Band

The University of Michigan Marching Band is one of the most prominent collegiate bands in the United States of America. The marching band began in 1896, when Harry dePont invited all musicians on campus to a meeting with the notion of starting a band for the University of Michigan. Merely two years later, the band became a fundamental aspect of the Michigan football team. That same year, Louis Elbel wrote “The Victors” on the train ride home after Michigan defeated rival University of Chicago. John Philip Sousa has declared “The Victors” declared one of the best marches ever written.

Today, members of the Michigan Marching Band, led by director Scott Boerma, play “The Victors” to unite the University of Michigan community as one. Senior Paul Gorbsky of Edmond, Oklahoma is one of those band members.

Paul began playing the clarinet in middle school, and joined the Edmond Memorial High School band as a freshman. Although there are legal requirements in Oklahoma mandating that marching bands can practice no longer than sixteen hours a week, Paul was still committed because he enjoyed spending time with his fellow band members. Nonetheless, Paul remained dedicated to the band as the prospect of college was rapidly approaching. With a primary focus of math and a secondary concentration in the marching band, the University of Michigan met Paul’s requirements. He arrived in Ann Arbor in the Fall of 2008 as an Honors Student with an invite to join the prestigious Michigan Marching Band.

One of the most demanding features of being in the Michigan Marching Band is football Saturdays. Because there are more members in the band than are able to march on the field every single week, each band member has to prove they are up to the level required by the Michigan Marching Band. As such, there are weekly challenges where everyone shows off their marching skills. The staff then evaluates everyone and picks 215 students to represent the band during pregame.

The band begins practice at either 7:30 am or 10:00 am (depending whether the game starts at noon or 3:30) on Elbel Field. These practices are open to the public, as many friends, family members, or others can come and watch the band perform. Following the two and a half hour practices, the band “tailgates.” Family members then graciously donate their time and effort to cook food before the band prepares for the football game. After the tailgate, the band goes into Revelli Hall, a practice facility that is named for the director William Revelli, one of the most renowned directors in University of Michigan history. After changing into their uniforms, the band engages in a routine called “visualization,” where they go over both the pregame and halftime shows to prepare for the upcoming performances. While this is happening, the drumline is out on the steps of Revelli Hall in what is called the “step show,” which an can be seen in this example. Michigan fans gather around and watch the performance, and once it is complete the rest of the band exits Revelli Hall and lines up in their parade block that marches to the stadium. The drum major, Jeffrey McMahon (2011-Present), checks every band member to make sure that their uniform meets the distinguished standards of the band.

After inspection is complete, the band marches to the stadium to a while the drumline plays a cadence that has specific calls and rank moves. Following the march to the stadium, the band is inside the tunnel prior to the pregame show.  Paul attempted to put this incredible feeling into words, describing it as “definitely one of the highlights for all band members…It’s hard to explain what it is like to come out of the tunnel and all of a sudden be surrounded by thousands of people on every side…I feel that I am a part of something bigger…I feel the legacy of the hundreds of thousands who came before me and are holding me to the highest standards.” From the perspective of a fan, this is perhaps the most unique aspect of any football game. As the tunnel starts to fill up with band members, the crowd starts to erupt in excitement. The PA announcer exclaims, “Band…take the field!” and Michigan Stadium explodes into euphoric cheer. After the football team runs through the “Go Blue / M Club Supports You!” banner, the band enters the stands in the middle of the student section. The band has a repertoire of songs that they play in many different situations, including “The Victors” after every Michigan touchdown. Paul describes the band’s objective to keep the crowd engaged and help set up cheers to give a single voice to the stadium.

One of the more hectic parts of being a band member is learning the halftime show, as members have to learn a new show for every home game, which is challenging when there are five straight home games. The band has to learn the music and coordinates in one week, but they manage to excel at in week in and week out. Each show varies from the next and includes themes from boy bands to opera to techno. Finally, when the game is complete, the band goes onto the field and performs the halftime show again, as well as tradition sounds such as the full version of “The Victors” and “The Yellow and Blue,” which is Michigan’s alma mater. Following this performance, the band will march back to Revelli Hall where they can watch the band and interact with visiting band members, in which the Michigan Marching Band will try to build friend relationships with their “national band family.”

In regards to away games, the Michigan Marching band only travels to Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame since these three are Michigan’s biggest rivals. Other games are difficult to travel to because of the extensive travel times and trying to find vacant hotel rooms for 250 people in a college football town on a football Saturday.

After completing his senior year (with one football performance on January 3rd, 2012 at the Sugar Bowl), Paul reflects on what the marching band means to him. “For me, being in the Michigan Marching Band is mostly about having the responsibility of upholding the tradition that the band has worked so hard to build over the past 115 years. You don’t try to compete or try to win…there is just something about it where you cannot give anything less than 100%…there is an expectation of excellence.”

His most memorable experience as a band member occurred his freshman year in 2008 at Ohio State in the brisk November air. He remembers being extremely cold as they waited to take the field, however, as soon as the entry cadence started and pregame began, he completely forgot about being cold because he was so engaged in the music. “I specifically remember the resounding sound around the stadium almost the second we started playing ‘The Victors.’ Even today it still brings a smile to my face…the people in the stadium didn’t dislike me, specifically, but they despised what I represented – the history and legacy of the University of Michigan.”


About: Brett Smith

Brett hails from the great state of Delaware, and is a recent University of Michigan graduate, earning a degree in Sport Management. While at UM, Brett served as the Vice President of Michigan's Club Baseball team. Go Blue!