A decade from now, college football games will be played during halftime of marching-band competitions. For we are witnessing, at this very moment, an unprecedented interest in all things band-related, a Sousapalooza that has turned even members of the drum-and-bugle corps into unlikely sex cymbals.
For starters, there is Drumline, at once a major motion picture and a majorette motion picture. The film, which in the first three weeks of its release grossed a surprising $44 million, is set in the world of black college "show bands" and concludes with a dramatic drum-off that plays like a more percussive, less concussive fight scene from Rocky. "It's a sports movie," says director Charles Stone III, and at least one reviewer has described Drumline as "Remember the Titans with tubas." Whatever you call it, Drumline is the best vehicle for drumsticks since the advent of the Hooters waitress.
At the same time, in real life, university bands are behaving badly. Virginia's president apologized last week for his Cavalier—and cavalier—pep band's treatment of opponent West Virginia at halftime of the Continental Tire Bowl. The band performed a skit that portrayed Mountaineers fans as pigtailed hillbillies, eliciting this declaration from the bowl's executive director, Ken Haines: "The pep band is not welcome at future Tire Bowls."
So pep bands are talking trash ( Columbia's president apologized for a Lions band member's double entendre, during half-time of the school's football game against Fordham this season, alluding to sexual scandals involving Catholic priests) and being trash-talked to: Columbia basketball coach Armond Hill apologized last season for a gay slur he leveled against a member of the Cornell band.
In short, fl�gelhorn is becoming a lot like football, only more competitive. Sixty sousaphonists tried out for 28 spots in the Ohio State marching band this season, and only one of them got to dot the i in Script Ohio each week. At the Fiesta Bowl last Friday night two senior sousaphonists were honored as i dotters—Kevin Smith and Adrian Wright—but only after winning an epic i-dot-arod that is known among Buckeyes bandmates as a "dot-off."
"It can be dangerous," Buckeyes band director Jon R. Woods told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "In practice, we've had collisions, and some people have had to go to a dentist." This season Nebraska football coaches couldn't say the same thing.
Inevitably, it has come to this: "We've started to refer to our kids as musician-athletes," says Ed Dempsey, marketing director of the nonprofit group Drum Corps International, which oversees the planet's most prestigious (and precision) all-star marching-band world championships. Indeed, a stress test performed by Indiana's medical school on performing members of the elite Star of Indiana drum corps elicited readings equivalent to those of a world-class marathon runner in mid-race.
These days there's nothing mellow about the mellophone. Bands that compete in the Drum Corps International championships are like traveling sports teams—not affiliated with any school—and rehearse an average of 60 hours for each minute of a performance. (Each performance at the finals lasts 11 minutes.) Musicians range in age from 14 to 21, travel 18,000 miles each summer and perform six nights a week. The reigning world champs, the Cavaliers of Rosemont, Ill., have members from Japan and Europe. The Blue-coats of Canton, Ohio, have 55 members from Texas alone.
The best euphonium players know the same euphoria experienced by elite athletes. As Dempsey says, "It's the feeling of a 19-or 20-year-old kid standing on a football field at the end of a performance with 25,000 people screaming." You are Snare Jordan. The Cavaliers won the 2002 world championship in August before 25,000 spectators at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium.
Bob Hope and Woody Hayes have dotted the i in Script Ohio, but pep bands are now appealing to a younger celebrity demographic. Drumline is derived from legendary show bands such as Florida A&M's Marching 100, Howard's Soul Steppers and Jackson State's Sonic Boom of the South, whose members carry no sheet music, memorize 70 songs a season and perform hits like Lil' Flip's This Is Why We Ball with the actual Lil' Flip.