Oct. 14, 2010
Sign up for a weekly email newsletter (WDEmail) about Auburn athletics, including The Auburn Experience among other exciting features.
By Jack Smith
The Auburn University Marching Band lines up in the bowels of Jordan-Hare Stadium, awaiting their appointed time. As the band's pregame video plays on the jumbotron, the crowd roars.
Head Drum Major James Earl Corley, clutching his mace with chin held high, emerges from the tunnel flanked by drum majors Daniel Toner and Daniel Johnson. A brief hush comes over the crowd as Corley and his two assistant drum majors work their mace routine, spinning and twirling the maces in perfect synchronicity--before spearing them into the turf of Pat Dye Field. The crowd erupts.
Corley spins toward the band members waiting in the tunnel, and with a few sharp blows of the whistle, his shoulders bouncing emphatically, the percussion rolls and cymbals smash as the band, led by the majorettes gracefully balancing their batons, begins its patented quick jog in place. They file out of the tunnel and onto the field as the PA announcer sets the stage.
The crowd is on its feet as the band hits the familiar notes of "War Eagle." The band begins its high-step march down the field as the crowd claps and sings along....."War Eagle, fly down the field, ever to conquer, never to yield...."
It's the highlight of what has already been a long day for Corley and the 380 members of the award-winning Auburn University Marching Band. The game kicks off at 11 a.m. on this fall Saturday, a brutally early appointment for these college students whose day began with practice well before dawn on a field off Hemlock Drive east of the stadium, where the band toils for days during Preseason Camp each August and hours each and every week during the season.
For Corley, that magical moment when they take the field is worth the sacrifice.
"They really like when we throw that mace into the ground," Corley says through a broad smile. "You can't put it into words. You have such an adrenaline rush when we come out and hear the crowd."
The precision of their march, the sharpness of their sound, the crisp choreography of the majorettes, flag and dance line that fans have come to expect, it all starts well before the Saturday pre-game and halftime shows that are such an integral part of the gameday experience at Auburn. The preparations begin well before the week's practices, where new songs are learned and movements perfected.
For some of the band members, it all started years ago when they first learned their instruments. While most marched in high school bands, they all audition as they come through Auburn University's intensive, 10-day Preseason Camp held every August. Aspiring band members work for 12 hours a day in searing summer heat. Most have marched before, but not the way Marching Band Director Dr. Corey Spurlin expects.
"We assume nothing when they get here," Spurlin said. "We have to re-teach them the marching style that we do. The jogging in step is a totally new concept for them."
New band members come in for two days before the veterans arrive every August. Like an apprentice learning a new trade, they start with the most basic fundamentals. They learn the proper posture, the perfect elbow angle and the correct position of their chin--10 degrees above parallel. They learn to mark time before they ever march a single yard, lifting the heel exactly one-inch off the ground with the ball of the foot rising a half-inch.
As they progress, they learn the halftime marching techniques. First is the smooth roll step, where balance and weight distribution are key. Band members are taught to walk with their heels down first and toes pointed high as they roll their feet forward in a smooth motion. The step teaches them to play and march without jarring their instrument so the sound fans will hear is as smooth as if they were playing in a comfortable concert hall.
They learn to march backwards, which isn't as simple as it sounds. They stay on the balls of their feet without letting their heels touch, a technique that must be mastered to avoid falling down on the turf. Then they are taught military-style flank turns that must become second nature for the fluid halftime show that will eventually evolve.
Then band members begin working on the signature style of the pre-game show.
"Once we're comfortable with their halftime technique we have to teach them the pre-game technique, which is a high-step march and is completely different," Spurlin said. "Once we're comfortable with that we have to teach them the jog that we do for pre-game, which is how to move your feet rapidly in time. Kids don't really know how to do that when they get here."
When those fundamentals are down pat, Spurlin teaches his band members their version of x's and o's. "Once we teach them all that, we have to teach them how the step relates to the grid on the football field," Spurlin said.
For fans who've ever wondered how the band marches in perfectly straight lines, it's all about timing and the size of their steps. The common step is eight steps for every five yards on the football field. "On the eighth count, the arch of their foot must hit the five-yard line," Spurlin explains. "That's how we keep the lines straight."
It gets more complicated when they move from marching in straight lines to the shifting formations that comprise a halftime show. They can rely only on muscle memory and the band members standing to their left and right to ensure fluid movement as a unit, whether they are forming George Jetsons' car as they will at an upcoming Cartoons show, or other formations that fit the week's music, which so far this year has ranged quite impressively from Sinatra to Lady Gaga.
Each show is custom-made with special musical arrangements never heard before and movements that Spurlin plots on a computer program much like an offensive coordinator would diagram a play--with 380 players. Each is represented by x's (trumpets), p's (piccolos) or r's (trombones) on a chart. Each player gets a number to go by their letter so they know exactly where to start--and finish--each routine.
While the Auburn University Marching Band has a reputation for excellence as winner of the Sudler Trophy in 2004, the Super Bowl of band awards, and as one of eight bands in the country to participate in the ESPN/Paramount Pictures "Battle of the Bands," Drum Major Daniel Toner says the band's role is bigger than winning competitions and entertaining crowds before games and at halftime.
"We just try to get everybody amped up for the game, get them ready and get them excited," Toner says. "We try to get as much energy in the stadium as possible so that when kickoff comes we're ready to support the team as much as possible. The crowd really gets behind the band more than I have ever seen at any other school."
Senior Auburn student Rebekah Weaver of Birmingham and her friends camped out in front of the student section gates shortly after sunrise on a recent Saturday, so they could get a front-row seat to the pre-game show. Cheering the band's grand entrance into the stadium is a gameday highlight.
"It's just the spirit," Weaver said. "You know the crowd is fired up about the football game when we get that pumped up about the band video. I've been to other games, and they don't have anything on our band. Our band has so much spirit and they are so genuine about what they are doing. We all just love our band."
The Auburn Experience is a new feature that will highlight a different element of the Auburn Gameday Experience and what makes it special each week.
Auburn Experience Archive: