Game Day with the Marching Illini

The Marching Illini enters Memorial Stadium for pre-game. Photo courtesy of the Marching Illini.

Music is something everyone encounters every day. Hop in the car, there’s the radio. Walk down a city street, there are street musicians. Crawl to the bars, you’ll have to yell above the music. Head to a party, it’s a dud without a playlist. Every situation is enhanced by music, and football game days are no exception. The members of the 350-­strong Marching Illini (which include drum majors, musicians, flags and the Illinette Dance Team) are in charge of providing what every fan looks for in an exciting football game: entertainment, cheers, and a soundtrack to every part of the game (they leave the winning responsibility to the Fighting Illini football team). But behind this duty is a huge commitment; there is no performance without practice. In addition to almost daily rehearsals, the Marching Illini runs non-stop on game days. The following is a snapshot of what goes on in the musical arena of 11 a.m. game days.

7 a.m.
No one is more exhausted at the end of game day than the Marching Illini (well, perhaps the football players are an exception). When most students are still snoring at 7 a.m., the members of the Marching Illini are lined up on the yard lines at Memorial Stadium. For those that oversleep and arrive late to rehearsal, they should expect to be pulled from the day’s performances, and another instrumentalist will eagerly take their place.

After basic stretches, the band practices fundamentals, which can consist of basic 8 to 5 steps (8 steps per 5 yards) and refreshers on different types of marching steps, including the glide step, fast and high chair, and ankle-­knee. Then, it’s time to run through halftime. Those that have been ‘pulled’ from halftime walk over to the sidelines. The alternate system in the Marching Illini is a competitive and dreaded, yet largely accepted, way of making sure the best of the best are performing. Throughout the Marching Illini’s rehearsals in the week leading up to a game, individual marcher’s performances are scrutinized by staff and section leaders. If someone makes one too many mistakes, does not have the music adequately memorized, or has racked up unexcused absences, they’ll be pulled from either halftime or pre-game. The drill for the performances has less spots than there are members, so this system does not leave holes on the field. Each week, the Marching Illini perform a different halftime show, but every show contains the beloved “Three-­in-­One,” a mixture of the pieces “Pride of the Illini,” “March of the Illini,” and “Hail to the Orange.”

Once the band’s performance is up to par with the standards of the director, Professor Barry Houser, it’s time to run through pre-game. Complete with an exciting run-­on cadence, pre-game consists of an entrance piece, a patriotic tune, the visiting team’s fight song, “Illinois Loyalty” (Illinois’s fight song), “William Tell” (a favorite for the student cheering section, Block-­‐I), and “Oskee-­‐Wow-­‐Wow.”

8:30 a.m.
At the conclusion of this hour and a half rehearsal, the band heads to the Harding Band Building for lunch (it’s amazing how much food can be consumed by the Marching Illini this early in the morning!). At 9:30 a.m., the Marching Illini members change into their orange-­and-­blue uniforms, and then head to the Armory to warm‐up before assembling in a parade block.

10 a.m.
An hour before game time, the band parades out of the Armory, instantly cheered on by spectators that have gathered to see the Marching Illini’s march to Memorial Stadium. The drum line starts it cadence, while the other instrumentalists add in their own sound effects and movements, many of which are inside jokes accumulated over the years. After the march through campus, the Marching Illini arrives at the gates of Memorial Stadium, where the official game day finally begins.

At this point, only several hundred orange spots dot the stands, as the rest of the fans have yet to arrive to the stadium due to tailgating or a malfunctioning alarm clock. Once the Marching Illini gets situated in the north end stands, directly below Block I, they start to mosey down to the field, mingling and watching the football team practice before it’s their turn to take over the field.

10:40 a.m.
Twenty minutes before kickoff, the Marching Illini literally run onto the field (a march‐run that is) in what is simply called the “run-­‐on.” And in what seems like a heartbeat later to the performer, pregame is over, the ball is kicked-­off, and the Marching Illini head back to the stands to cheer on the team until halftime.

And finally: the most exciting part of game day arrives for the Marching Illini. As the Marching Illini gets ready to perform, many members are quickly running through the drill for the performance in their heads. Once they hear the drum majors’ whistles, they march onto the field and the halftime performance begins.

The band’s halftime performance concludes with “Three-­in-­One,” the piece where Chief Illiniwek, the former mascot of the University of Illinois, used to dance. At the end of this piece, Chief fans chant “Chief” and hold their arms in the air, copying the mascot’s end position on the field. Subsequently, the Marching Illini march off the field.

Following the game (which hopefully ended with a win for the Illini!), the Marching Illini do a brief post-­game show with the football team in Memorial Stadium. Atfer that, the band marches out of the stadium and to the Education Building, where a musical performance takes place which highlights the major pieces of that game’s show. Finally, the band is dismissed following a chorus of “UMGAWA!” And later that night, the members of the Marching Illini, friends off and on the field, will meet again and fully unwind at the post-­‐game band party.

About: Kirsten Keller

Kirsten is a sophomore in news-editorial journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She plays piccolo in the Marching Illini and works for The Daily Illini, the University's daily newspaper. Kirsten is originally from Downers Grove, Illinois.