“Experience is an Identity”: The Collegiate Marching Band and Expressions of Communal Identity

  • Issue: Volume 62, No.2
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2022.62.sr.11562


The communities formed in higher education institutions often view marching bands as an essential representation of communal identity. Marching bands are able to project this communal identity through musical and visual performance practices that are strongly associated with the ensemble and the campus community by extension. This experience aligns with Pierce’s concept of a type of sign he called an index, which creates a connection between sign and signified object through an individual’s experience. In the case of marching bands, members of the institutional community experience marching band performance practices as part of that community, so the connection between the band’s performance and the individual’s identity as a member of that institutional community is particularly impactful. Because of these crucial connections, marching band performance practices are meaningful for a large audience. That audience is, as a result, invested in protecting those practices. This essay examines the distinct performance practices of three collegiate marching ensembles - the Michigan Marching Band at the University of Michigan, the Sonic Boom of the South at Jackson State University, and the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band of Texas A&M University - as indices of institutional identity. These performance practices are examined both historically and through contemporary practice. The discussion includes the perceptions of marching band directors at these institutions, who are aware of the importance of their ensembles to the campus community. Directors make performance decisions based on the relationship between the ensemble and the audience, a relationship that the ensemble shapes through each performance.

When one thinks of a marching band, specific images and sounds tend to come to mind. Most Americans would cite colorful uniforms, flags and pageantry, blaring brass and pounding percussion as typical elements. Even among enthusiasts with more marching band experience, it is often assumed that one style of marching band performance is dominant, namely the drum-corps influenced performance style found in many high school band competitions. However, this monolithic concept of what a marching band is belies the stylistic diversity that exists among collegiate bands. Differences in performance practices are driven by the marching band’s role as a representation of communal identity for its audience, especially the educational institutions that are the typical contexts for marching bands. Audiences feel a large sense of ownership in marching band performances. This can be seen even in live performances, where audiences respond to performance elements that especially speak to their sense of identity, whether it be applauding specific formations or singing along to particular pieces. Performers and audiences have a vested interest in maintaining particular performance practices because they are not just elements of the ensemble’s musical or visual identity; these performance practices have a direct link to ideas of communal identity for the audience.

In this essay, I will examine how different performance practices convey a sense of distinct identity to audiences in marching band performance. This expression of communal identity can be seen in live performance, where the audience interacts with the performance, so I will root my discussion in performance description. I will then summarize the influences and historical context that have shaped the band’s performance tradition into what it is today. I have also elicited responses from ensemble directors, who are cognizant of the important role their ensembles play in reflecting communal identity. The marching bands covered in this work - the Michigan Marching Band at the University of Michigan, the Sonic Boom of the South at Jackson State University, and the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band of Texas A&M University - represent diverse performance practices that have developed in connection with the communal identity they represent. This meaning is conveyed through shared symbols, both musical and visual, and expresses a strong sense of institutional identity that embraces alumni, students, and those who otherwise identify with the institution.

While distinctive traditions have developed in collegiate marching band programs, most programs spring from similar historical roots. Both social and military functions led to the establishment of bands on college campuses. Land grant institutions established by the Morrill Act of 1862 required that colleges offer military training in order to receive federal funding, and the second Morrill Act of 1890 expanded the scope of land grant institutions to establish segregated institutions (Clark 2019, 20). By 1916, these programs were formalized into the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) by the National Defense Act (Leal 2007, 479). On other college campuses, bands were organized by students for social purposes, including supporting college teams at athletic events. While not military in function, these groups often modeled themselves on the instrumentation of the military-style bands at other institutions (McCarrell 1971, 20-22).

The military marching style that was the original template for these ensembles was expanded in the early twentieth century in order to more adequately fulfill their function as entertainment. Under the direction of Albert Austin Harding starting in September of 1905, the University of Illinois is often considered the first band to break military ranks in order to form a block “I” on the field (Camus 2001). However, Fuller notes that the marching band at Purdue University under the direction of Paul Spotts Enrick is “recognized as the first band to form the block letter ‘P’ on the field” (Fuller 1995, 3-4). Which band was the first to do it in truth is beside the point; what is clear is that a trend of moving away from a strictly military style of marching into something more audience-driven was starting in marching bands of Big Ten institutions, the athletic conference itself having been established in an early form in 1896. This adaptation recognizes the relationship between the marching band and their audience, as these early formations are a direct expression of institutional identity. This change takes on significance historically as many marching band programs would develop, imitating many of these ideas.

As the twentieth century progressed, collegiate marching band style at many institutions continued to develop in this direction, prioritizing audience engagement over strict military style. In Big Ten institutions, The Ohio State University introduced the eight-to-five marching step in collegiate marching bands. In contrast to the longer stride of military marching, which resulted in six steps for every five yards on a football field, this new style meant that marchers would take eight steps for every five yards. Crossing a visual boundary every eight counts rather than six lined up more smoothly with musical phrases, creating a match of musical and visual for the audience (Fuller 1995, 5-6). As with the shift to block letters on the field, this is a stylistic adaptation designed to better express ideas for the football audience. Many stylistic developments of collegiate marching bands especially through the middle of the twentieth century can be viewed in this light, such as the predominance of picture-type formations in the 1950s, as well as thematic shows and choreography (Fuller 1995, 6-7). In the last decades of the twentieth century, a large influence on many marching band programs was the new popularity of youth drum corps, as represented by Drum Corps International (DCI). In this style of marching, marchers employ a rolling step typically referred to as a glide step that keeps their upper body still while their feet continue to march, allowing performers to continuously march and play. Visual designs have evolved that require marchers to take varying steps, march backwards to keep their instruments pointed at the press box, and create curves and asymmetrical forms on the field. For collegiate and high school marching programs that perform in competitions, this style of marching has become prominent.

As we consider how a marching band may convey ideas to its audience, Charles Pierce’s theory of semiotics provides a valuable framework. Pierce identifies three types of signs that convey meaning: the icon, which stands for something else through resemblance, whether physical, aural, or otherwise; the index, which an observer connects to an object/idea because they have experienced both index and the signified object/idea together; and the symbol, a sign that is linked to something else through linguistic meaning that is culturally agreed upon (Pierce 1955, 104-115). When considering how a sense of identity is conveyed through performance, the index type is particularly relevant. An indexical sign is particularly potent because the connection it creates between a sign and its signified object is made through the person’s experiences, or, as Pierce says, a “connection with the individual object...with the senses or memory of the person for whom it serves as a sign” (Pierce 1955, 107). Ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino notes that “indices have a particularly direct impact; we typically do not reflect on the reality of the object that the sign calls forth, but we simply assume its reality as commonsense because it is part of our experience” (Turino 2008, 9). A large portion of the audience for marching band performances are either current or former students of the institution. The specific musical selections and formations on the field become strong aural and visual indices to these observers’ own experiences as students. Dr. John Pasquale, director of the Michigan Marching Band, described this process:

If [the band] play[s] The Victors here, that instantly ties [the audience] to their days in the dorms, and going to specific restaurant in Ann Arbor, and all the experiences that they’ve gotten as a student and as a person as a part of the family that’s associated with our institution. … It’s just that experience is an identity that they identify with on a very personal level (Pasquale 2015).

Through indexical signs, marching band performances create intense meaning for their audiences because those connections were forged by those individuals through their own experiences at those institutions.


The Michigan Marching Band

Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home stadium of the University of Michigan, is a massive structure capable of seating over 100,000 spectators. Nicknamed the “Big House,” the audience for a home football game is usually massive. The vast majority of the audience, who know what happens between the teams warming up on the field and the start of the game, wait for the performance to begin. On the ground level across from the home side, you can see the Michigan Marching Band’s members - headed up by a couple of drummers - lined up in the tunnel. The drum major stands out of the tunnel, facing them, ready to bring the band on the field.

“Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Michigan Marching Band! Baaaaaaaand, take the field!”

With a cadence tempo of somewhere around 200 beats per minute, the entire 230-member band streams out of the tunnel. The audience claps along with the fast beat. Each marcher takes the field with a quick high step, the upper half of their leg nearly coming parallel with the ground. They continue stepping once they have reached their spot on the field. Two columns become six lines, flanked by additional lines of flags on each side; baton twirlers run out to join the group. The lines fan out in groups in both directions to form the first block “M” of the pregame, and the crowd cheers. Throughout the pregame, which has not seen any major changes since the late 1940s, the band will play multiple songs associated with the University of Michigan: “The M Fanfare,” “Varsity,” “Go Big Blue,” and “The Victors.” The last two are typically accompanied by loud singing from the stands as the audience participates in the performance from their seats.11. A recent performance of the Michigan Marching Band pregame can be viewed at https://youtu.be/dVULYOlVsrg.

The style of marching demonstrated in the Michigan Marching Band’s pregame performance is what most would consider the definition of “band pageantry.” It is traditional by design; the pregame is the place where, in the words of John McCluskey, “The music featured ... is largely centered on two themes: nationalism and celebration of the host institution” (McCluskey 2019, 39). The high step featured in the pregame is the historically traditional step of Big Ten marching bands. Multiple “M” formations, plus recognizable institutional repertoire, allows the audience to become part of what is occurring on the field. The overall motion of the drills, marching from one end of the field to the other, is reminiscent of the early military marching influences on collegiate marching programs. In contrast, halftime performances are where the ensemble presents stylistic variety and innovation. In the 2015 season, for example, the show themes and associated repertoire ranged from a collaboration with the New York Philharmonic that featured all art music to a show featuring the music of Earth, Wind and Fire. The New York Philharmonic show was particularly innovative, featuring brass and vocal students from the School of Music along with guest artists from the New York Philharmonic in a halftime show of Western art music, including Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

The Michigan Marching Band began as a volunteer student organization in 1896, and was performing regularly at football games starting in 1897, although athletic events were not the primary or only context for performance at the time (McCarrell 1971, 20-21). The band’s style largely developed along the general lines described above; first came block letters and letter formations in the 1930s, followed by picture type formations in the middle of the century (Cavender 1966). These ideas were easy to follow, with clear pictures being drawn on the field by the band and an announcer clarifying ideas for the audience. Considering repertoire, performances of the 1960s and earlier featured primarily marches, musical theater, art music, and Tin Pan Alley style songs. While that repertoire does not disappear - a performance on November 3, 1973 was “A Tribute to Gershwin” - the repertoire becomes more contemporary. The band performed “Smoke on the Water,” which reached number 4 on the Billboard pop singles charts in the summer of 1973, on September 29 of that same year (Blue Books 1973). A halftime show on September 16, 1978, featured multiple songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack; both the soundtrack album and film had been released in the last two months of 1977. That halftime show ended with a “disco line”; although choreography was not further specified in the annual Blue Books that archive all paper materials related to the Michigan Marching Band, choreography had become a semi-regular part of the band’s performances by the mid-1970s (Blue Books 1978).

For most of the twentieth century, the Michigan Marching Band marched primarily with a modified high step. In the 1990s, the drum corps influence was brought in by director Gary Lewis. At this point in time, many drum corps alumni and staff were now working in music education at different levels; in 1995, the assistant marching band director, flag instructor, and percussion instructor at Michigan all had backgrounds in drum corps (Blue Books 1995). Audiences were so invested in the traditional style that the group historically performed that this shift was, initially, not successful. Pasquale remembers, “[Lewis] changed the high step for the entire halftime show... to the corps style, and it was like they had punched the savior in the face. I mean, square in the face. It was not received well. And then a couple of years later, it was like it’s always been that way” (Pasquale 2015). The band now marches their halftime show with a drum corps style glide step, but has kept the pregame traditional with high steps. Pasquale summarizes this approach:

[T]he halftime parts of our shows are ... extremely contemporary style shows. We push the envelope. We do current kinds of music, we march in a corps style… Pre-game, however, hasn’t changed in 71 years. We still march 230 people, because that’s how it’s always been. We haven’t changed any forms, we haven’t changed any music. It is what it is, it’s always been that way and it’s always going to be. And it would be stupid to change it, because it’s so iconic that people are instantly engaged, they’re tied in, it’s an identity to the football experience here at Michigan (Pasquale 2015).

This balance allows the group to maintain that expression of identity that is so strong in the pregame while providing space for innovation in the halftime performance. Michigan did not reject the drum corps influence, but used elements of the style strategically while maintaining elements important to communal identity for their audience.

In addition to the educational benefit to the students involved, when planning performances the staff of the Michigan Marching Band continue to think carefully about their audience, and how their performance connects with them. Michigan performs in one of the largest stadiums in the Western hemisphere, and as such has a large and diverse audience. In considering a season, Pasquale noted that they try to appeal to the wide variety of demographics in their audience with a variety of repertoire and styles:

When you have 115,000 people that surround you, from ages quite literally one to 100, [we’re] trying to hit the entire demographic throughout the season, also try[ing] to do ranges of genres and try to hit different kinds of… themes throughout the season. … When we’re trying to hit every demographic, that isn’t just age or expectation, but it’s those that are traditionalists, or more modern, or those that are drum corps fans, or those that just want to hear Sousa marches all day long (Pasquale 2015).

When audience members are displeased with performances, many of them feel free to share their concerns with the Michigan Marching Band staff, including the director. Pasquale discusses the intense scrutiny that audiences paid to the band’s performances, down to checking tempos for the fight song, where one audience member checked each performance (Pasquale estimated they performed it eighty-four times a game). The band and the staff recognize, however, that people take such a specific interest because it matters to them, which in the end is good for the band. Pasquale recognized this interest as an assertion of ownership over identity: “They care very much about the product and so they take personal pride in it and it’s an identity to them. Even though they aren’t in the band, they take pride as though they are, and it’s a part of their Michigan spirit identity” (Pasquale 2015).


The Sonic Boom of the South

At halftime at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Mississippi, the visiting band, the Grambling Tiger Band, has just finished their performance. The home crowd shifts in anticipation, waiting; no one is leaving their seat to get refreshments now. As the home band drum majors take the field, the band is in lines near the south endzone.

“Having performed at Motown’s 25th anniversary celebration…” The band members lean back, and take two slow, long steps forward, each accented with a snare hit.

“...this band has been showcased during halftime of several NFL games…” The band takes a high step, then freezes; they start to move forward in slow, deliberate, high steps, again with only snare hits as accompaniment.

“...an inductee into the NCAA hall of fame, from coast to coast, and all over the land, this band is known for its musical excellence and marching precision!” The band kicks into a high tempo running step with the drums accenting each beat and step, building momentum and pushing the band onto the field. Alternate lines charge forward, while the others turn around and “run” backwards, then turn to follow the other lines, creating long, rushing lines that take the field. The crowd reacts with screaming and applause; they recognize this field entrance as the Tiger Run-On.

“Fine tune your sensory apparatus to the utmost and the acme, the supercollider of bands, the Jackson State University Sonic Boom of the South!” The lines break up into four-person squads that pinwheel to create new diagonal lines that answer the announcer with loud, slow power chords that announce the band’s arrival.22. The author was present for this 2014 halftime performance, which can be viewed at https://youtu.be/GDSqDas29Mg. The recording beings after the Grambling Tiger Band has left the field.

This halftime performance opening provides a brief glimpse into the performance style of the Jackson State University Sonic Boom of the South, a leading band in the Southwest Athletic Conference. Their performance style emphasizes body movement in the marching step, known as “swing and sway,” as well as dance. Former Director Dowell Taylor noted, “We add a little flash with the swing and sway and the use of the plume.… We buy the type of plume that gives flare and movement either with wind or head movement so it gets out with the action” (Taylor 2014). Most halftime performances feature athletic dancing from the drum majors as well as a feature for the dance team, the J-Settes. In many halftimes, like this one, the band themselves dance while the drumline and bass instruments keep the music moving. Musically the Sonic Boom performs primarily commercial hits of Black artists from multiple decades. A prominent example is the song they used to close this performance, The Temptations’ “Get Ready,” which has come to represent the band itself. Like other university bands, they have a letter formation representing their institution that they perform frequently, a floating “JSU” that unfolds one letter at a time. The drill elicits loud approval from their audience as each letter is revealed. It becomes a call and response; the bass instruments provide a short cue, and then the audience responds with “J,” then “S” and “U.”

The Big Ten style demonstrated by the Michigan Marching Band (among others) was influential for many marching programs at the collegiate and secondary level, including bands of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) such as Jackson State. William P. Foster, whose tenure as band director at Florida A&M University (FAMU) is often cited as the model for other HBCU bands, was so struck by the sound of the Michigan Marching Band that he sought out Jerry Bilick, who wrote the arrangements for the group at the time, in order to learn how to replicate the sound at FAMU (Walker 2014, 101; Milburn 2019, 10). Jorim E. Reid, a FAMU alumnus who studied under Foster before directing the marching band and North Carolina Central University, notes that Foster took the Big Ten high step and made it a little higher, and made the upper-body side-to-side motion wider and more pronounced (Kelderman 2010, A4). In addition to the higher step and increased motion of individual marchers, FAMU was among the earliest collegiate bands to regularly utilize choreography for the band members (Malone 1990, 69). By 1963, this choreography was largely developed by students, keeping the dancing contemporary and relatable to a young Black audience. Jacqui Malone describes central tenets of the dance style, “angularity, off- centeredness, and asymmetry,” as important attributes of African American dance, in particular angularity (Malone 1990, 61). Despite the influence of drum corps, the Sonic Boom remains “traditional,” as Taylor characterized it. During his first tenure directing the ensemble in the 1980s he introduced some drum corps techniques, but he noted that the style had largely fallen out of favor in most HBCUs (Johnson 1987, 5; Taylor 2014).

HBCUs have a more vital influence, one that possibly induced Foster to develop the Big Ten style in the way he did: Black American marching traditions. The marching music of Black Americans historically has been found both within and without the military. Black musicians in North America have been part of American military music from colonial times; Eileen Southern notes that at that time a typical assignment for a Black man in the militia was as a musician (Southern 1997, 64). Musical experience in the military led to Black brass bands in the nineteenth century. The brass bands of New Orleans were particularly influential, and importantly for our study, used marching primarily for entertainment instead of military functions (Clark 2019, 12). This idea of marching as entertainment made its way into the military, as James Reese Europe’s band in the 369th Infantry Regiment marched with “syncopated marches and… rhythmical body movements that accompanied their playing” (Malone 1996, 144). Robert Clark also cites the Black minstrel tradition as an important precursor to the HBCU marching style, where musicians would parade the day before a show as promotion. Such performances would include military-style uniforms, a drum major whose moves dazzled the audience, and a musical selection of military marches and popular dance songs. Clark goes on to point out several similarities between these Black minstrel bands and the HBCU bands of today, including “dancing, entertaining performance techniques such as baton twirling for the drum majors, and repertoire that consists of both ‘classic’ band works (especially marches) and popular music” (Clark 2019, 17).

While band had been a part of Jackson State since the 1920s, the marching band program at was established in 1940 by Kermit Holley Sr., who also led high school programs and started the band at Alcorn State University. The performance style of the band developed slowly under each succeeding director. Harold Haughton, who became the Director of Bands in 1971, introduced distinctive elements such as the “Tiger Run-On” and transitioning the majorette team into a dance team, elements that continue to be present today. Lowell Hollinger, the current Associate Director of Bands, noted that “[Haughton] is really given credit for the marching style and the drills that we even today still do… everything we know about the Sonic Boom today, as it relates to drilling, as it relates to the [dance team] J-Settes and everything happened under Harold Haughton’s era” (Milburn 2019, 35). It was during this era that the name “Sonic Boom of the South,” a suggestion from a student, became part of the band’s identity (Milburn 2019, 36). These traditions are protected and preserved, in part because many of the marching band staff are Jackson State alumni themselves. Three of the most influential band directors in Jackson State’s history - Haughton (1971-1984), Dowell Taylor (1984-1992, 2012-2015, 2017-2018), and Lewis Liddell (1992-2009, 2011-2012), in addition to current director Roderick Little, are all Jackson State alumni who marched in the Sonic Boom as a student.

Directors of the Sonic Boom know what their audience expects, and use those expectations to keep performances engaging. In speaking about band choreography, Taylor noted that it is “another element that’s demanding, but it is a part of our show. It’s expected…. Sometimes we don’t. We do it intentionally because they become so accustomed to it they expect it, so we take it away. Then the chorus grows, what’s going on, the band’s not dancing!” Taylor used the same intentional approach when thinking about the Tiger Run-On in the 2014 season:

Believe it or not, we didn’t do it [the Tiger Run-On] the second week this year, but it was by design because I knew we had three home games… two home games back to back, then I had to go to Nashville. So I needed to get that out of their heads so that when they see it in Nashville, we have a big draw there, so they were in Nashville and when they saw it back then they were happy again. We’ll do it again this week for people who didn’t go to Nashville (Taylor 2014).

The band can play with audience expectations because they are aware of how important these elements are to communal identity. If an element is missing, the audience builds anticipation for its return.

Musically, the Sonic Boom has continued to introduce contemporary commercial music that resonates with their audience. The audience demographic for an HBCU game is different from the Big Ten audience, and their musical repertoire is chosen accordingly. The Sonic Boom’s repertoire was founded in Black musical traditions from the beginning; William W. Davis, the first full-time band director at Jackson State, had been an arranger and trumpet player for Cab Calloway, so he brought that jazz repertoire and style to arrangements he made for the band at Jackson State (Milburn 2019, 35). As a director, Taylor continued to pursue the music of the students in the band, particularly hip hop: “The students love it because that’s their music. I’m not interested at all, but I tolerate it because my parents tolerated me, so I’ve got to understand where they are” (Taylor 2014). In combining modern hip hop with other commercial Black musical repertoire of the past fifty years, the Sonic Boom creates a sound that resonates with their specific audience and their cultural identity, both in terms of institutional favorites like “Get Ready” and a broader range of Black American musical culture. For Little, this wide range of music has become an integral part of the band’s identity: “I think our band program is like a chameleon band program… We could sit across the field from any band, be it a (predominantly white institution) band or a (historically Black college or university) band, and play all different types of styles because of all the different idioms we’ve had over the years” (Rowe 2021).

Many of the most notable aspects of the Sonic Boom’s performance style are reflective of the larger communal identity of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Shared traditions like the prominence of choreography, body movement in the marching step, a dance squad, a colorful band moniker, and an emcee guiding the audience through the performance are traits shared to greater or lesser degrees by many HBCU bands. Major elements such as these create a communal performance identity for HBCU marching bands. These institutions even feature additional performance contexts, such as “zero quarter” (before the pre-game) and “fifth quarter” (after the game) that are expected by audiences at HBCUs, but are generally not found at predominantly white institutions. Marching bands from different athletic conferences and institutions find their communal performance identity nested within these larger community expectations. The Sonic Boom of the South continues to find their own identity within the larger HBCU community; as Little observed, the Sonic Boom has a distinct identity conveyed through performance: “It’s funny because through all those different metamorphoses and all those different directors, people still regard the program as the Sonic Boom of the South” (Rowe 2021). Marching bands on HBCU campuses like the Sonic Boom continue to be a powerful and public element of campus identity, with a public impact that “extends far beyond their entertainment aspect” (Essoka 2014, 134). Taylor observed, “Marching band here is like Elvis Presley… the marching band in this environment is probably one of the best public relations mediums the university has to offer” (Taylor 2014).


The Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band

It is October 31, 2015. When halftime starts at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, the audience waits to hear the voice of Lt. Col. Jay Brewer, class of 81 and senior assistant band director, who has announced the band since 1981 (Brewer retired in 2020).

“Ladies and gentlemen, now forming at the north end of Kyle Field, the nationally famous Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band.”

The drum major steps forward to call to the band; they respond with yells. The drum major gives a whistle command, and the band brings their instruments up, while the bugle rank at the front of the files flare out their instruments with their banners. With a baton signal, the drum major and band steps off in their precise lines at a steady tempo of 104 beats per minute, playing the “Aggie War Hymn.” By the time the band gets to the second phrase of the march melody, another whistle command has sent different groups of marchers in different directions, creating a complex interweaving design that the crowd immediately reacts to with applause. The band unfolds into three long blocks of marchers and moves on to their next march at the same tempo, “Parade of the Charioteers.” Continuing down the field the group splits into six rectangles that continually weave through each other; the blocks eventually feed into diagonal lines that come together to form a three-diamond formation, with marchers continually moving through their part of the shape. The marchers are packed densely so it appears to be a constantly moving form, even as the formation stays in one place on the field. The crowd again recognizes the complexity of the maneuver and responds. After two more marches - a British march and the trio from “National Emblem” - the band makes their final formation, a giant block “T” that covers most of the field, to enthusiastic cheering.33. This halftime performance can be viewed at https://youtu.be/fxS8RJb-wc0.

The military style of marching employed by the Fightin’ Texas Aggies Band of Texas A&M University is instantly recognizable. The band marches with the traditional six steps to every five yards, a military step that creates a long, constant stride. They only perform marches or music written in a march style, and they consistently perform at a tempo of 104 beats per minute. The formations on the field are all constructed of straight lines moving horizontally, vertically, or diagonally on the field, and the general motion of the entire ensemble is from the north to the south of the field, in the style of a military review. Within formations, the motion appears almost constant. The formations, while constructed of simple shapes, are complex in how close the marchers are, and in exceptionally tight turns and intersections. The individual ranks and files of marchers are incredibly close in their formations, with intersections so intricate viewers cannot easily discern how they are executed.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that the marching band has always been part of the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M, the band does not have a continuous history of exclusively marching in a military style. In the 1930s, as the band was built up and began to gain a reputation under director Col. Richard Dunn, the band was creating some of the same picture-type formations that were developing at other marching band programs. Alumni photos reprinted in a commemorative history of the band show the band making a star formation at a Thanksgiving Day game in 1934, and the outline of Texas at the 1940 Sugar Bowl game (Powell and Powell 1994, 24-27). Director Timothy Rhea corroborated this with photos he had seen of the band at the time: “They really didn’t start the precision drill stuff under [Dunn]. We’ve got pictures of [his tenure] where they’re drawing out an owl” (Rhea 2015). The credit for the distinctive military style of the ensemble was Dunn’s successor, Lt. Col. Edward Adams, who directed the band from 1946 to 1973. In addition to rebuilding the band after World War II had drained the band of its personnel, Adams also decided to turn to a stricter military style of marching to define the band’s visual identity. He distinguished this from the type of step seen at Big Ten institutions at the time, saying, “We wore a military uniform and were part of a Cadet Corps. If we appeared in a review at a fast clip with a short choppy step with our knees raised, we would look downright foolish” (Leftwich 1976, 45; Powell and Powell 1994, 32). While directors continued to develop new maneuvers for the band, this military style continues to define the Texas Aggie Band visual performance style.

The innovations that the band has taken up with regard to their visual style are set on maintaining military style while pushing it to new standards of complexity. Rhea noted that “It’s always been minor changes, it’s never been anything about the [basic military style] - we’re going to march 8 to 5 for this segment, or something like that, we’ve never even considered doing things like that” (Rhea 2015). The drill has become more precise, and more complex, especially in terms of intersecting lines. One example is a drill that has now become identified with the Texas Aggie Band, the four-way cross. The band splits into four groups marching from each corner of the field, and then all four groups intersect on the diagonal in the middle of the field and continue marching straight to the other side.44. A halftime performance by the Texas A&M Fightin’ Aggies Band featuring the four-way cross maneuver can be found at https://youtu.be/YxyDQHQJ5bo. The four-way cross is performed at 5:30. The drill is essentially a development of the crisscross drills that Adams introduced in the late 1940s (Powell and Powell 1994, 33). These types of intersecting lines are so close that when they are charted, it appears that two people would occupy the same space during a single point of time. It is only through students angling their instruments and stepping between each other’s feet that the group can intersect in such a precise way, passing only inches from each other (Brewer 2015). Brewer noted, “it’s complicated, and particularly when we execute ... the midfield crisscross, it’s extremely difficult. No one in their right mind would have a marching band attempt that in front of 100,000 people, but we do that year in and year out” (Brewer 2015).

The band has held an even more conservative attitude towards its musical style throughout its history, maintaining a strictly march performance tradition. However, directors have added marches over the years that have become fundamental to expressing institutional identity. Dunn composed the alma mater “The Spirit of Aggieland” as well as the distinctive arrangement of the national anthem that the band continues to perform at home games (Brewer 2015). Band director Col. Joe T. Haney wrote another march that has become synonymous with Texas A&M, “The Noble Men of Kyle.” The introduction of that new march in the 1970s, as retold by Brewer, reflected the students’ protectiveness: “[T]he first time the Aggie Band read through ‘Noble Men of Kyle,’ they didn’t like it. Why didn’t they like it? Because it wasn’t traditional. It was a little different. Today I can’t imagine our band not playing the ‘Noble Men of Kyle,’ because it is the tradition” (Brewer 2015). There are other marches and military-themed pieces styled as marches that have become expressions of identity; Rhea notes that “‘Patton’, ‘Strategic Air Command’, ‘Green Berets’, and ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’, those are expected every year, so those never change” (Rhea 2015). Other repertoire is added for halftime shows; film music like the march from John Williams’ soundtrack for 1941 fit into the consistent tempo and march feel that the band performs.

These visual and musical performance practices are protected by many stakeholders - administration, band members, alumni, staff, etc. - in order to preserve the sense of identity that is presented through the band’s performances. Rhea notes that “There’s an expectation from the school, from the administration, from former students, and everybody that was in the band. They don’t want it to change. They are rabid about it. When you change something, even a minor change, it’s a major thing around here” (Rhea 2015). Rhea suggests that part of what makes the style so appealing to the audience is its clarity. While it does not convey a specific idea like an animated figure, it is very easy for audience members to understand and appreciate the skill of the band in executing the military style:

I mean, you know what we do. It's either right or wrong, there’s no in the middle. It’s either straight or not straight … you either hit the ground together or you don’t hit the ground together. The precision of it is very distinguishable to the average Joe sitting in the stands, and because the band does it very very well, then [the audience] really appreciate[s] that (Rhea 2015).

Brewer agreed with Rhea about the clarity of the military style, and that it is fundamentally different from the corps-style marching that many incoming students are familiar with. Echoing the words of Adams from decades earlier, Brewer reiterates how intrinsic military-style marching is to the identity of the Texas Aggie Band and their audiences:

All types of performances have a purpose, and they have an appeal to audiences. Our band would look downright foolish if we had flags and we had twirlers and we had groups that moved around on the field and all that, and you had the percussion section sitting out in the middle of it - that’s not what we do here (Brewer 2015).

Brewer summarizes the band’s distinct performance identity succinctly: “[P]recision military marching set to traditional march music. And that’s what we do, period” (Brewer 2015).

This military performance style, unique among collegiate institutions, is a musical and visual reference to the heritage of Texas A&M as a military education institution, as well as to the Corps of Cadets that continues to house the Fightin’ Texas Aggies Band. This historical context provides a foundation for the communal identity of the institution, so marching band performances become an important sign of that identity. As a representation of both history and the communal identity of the institution and people associated with it, this performance style is fiercely protected. As Rhea observed, “It’s very unique, you probably won’t find anything else anywhere close to it, and so everyone’s been very protective through the years at keeping it just the way it is” (Rhea 2015). The ownership that it seems that everyone at the institution feels about this performance style, from administrator to alumni to band member, signifies just how central it is to the communal identity of the institution.



These portraits of three distinct styles, while brief, begin to convey how distinct performance traditions express communal identity to different audiences through understood indices, or signs that are connected to audience experiences at the institutions the signs represent. These experiences are accrued over time, so each performance style reflects a historical tradition at that individual institution and, as in the case of Jackson State University and HBCUs, may reflect a larger, but still distinct, communal identity. These performance practices are not so immutable as to reject all additions. For example, starting in the mid-1980s the Michigan Marching Band added a new formation of tight, concentric circles to their pregame show, usually referred to as the “cake” formation, while playing an arrangement of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” While this formation is not as historically integral to the pregame as the other elements outlined earlier, it was popular among students and alumni, and is now performed around once per season. Even pieces seen as essential to the communal identity of the ensembles, such as “Get Ready” for the Sonic Boom of the South and “Noble Men of Kyle” for the Fightin’ Texas Aggies Band, were originally additions that were only accepted over time. Through these slow changes the performance identity of these marching bands continues to reflect and amplify the communal identity of their respective institutions, by both preserving historical performance practices and adapting as the community, and their tastes, slowly change.

These traditions are meaningful, and they are protected by stakeholders. As I spoke with band directors, both the individuals from the institutions profiled here and other institutions, the single greatest common experience reported was how engaged the audience was with the performance of the marching band. Most directors described interactions with individuals – typically alumni – who had specific feedback about the band’s performance. Barry Houser at the University of Illinois noted that “you’re always thinking about your history, because if you get too far away from it, you find out real quick from your alumni and fan base” (2014). Edwin Thomas at Grambling State University recalled that “Alumni send stuff to us all the time, saying ‘we need to do something like that’” (2018). Betsy McCann at the University of Minnesota noted that she had feedback about the mood of repertoire: “People like to hear more big, loud band music, I think. If we have a show that doesn’t incorporate something that is kind of in that vein… I’ll get comments on that” (2016). It is difficult to imagine an orchestral director receiving the same type of consistent feedback on such a wide variety of performance choices, even at the same institutions. These experiences reflect how invested audiences, whether alumni or current students, are in these performances and what they represent. The engagement of audiences attests to the importance of these performances as signs of communal identity.

The way that performance practices are determined for collegiate marching ensembles is a direct exemplar of how communal identity is formed. Practices are retained to preserve distinct institutional identity, but also are shaped by an ongoing series of dialogues between ensemble leaders, students, alumni, and other invested parties. All of the institutional profiles outlined in this essay reflect this type of slow process that is both historical, happening gradually over years, and communal, influenced by multiple stakeholders. This constant dialogue allows collegiate marching bands to enjoy a particularly close and meaningful relationship with its audiences and ensemble members over extended periods of time. With the advent of televised football and especially internet platforms like YouTube, marching band performances continue to keep community members connected through these mutually understood performance practices.



1. A recent performance of the Michigan Marching Band pregame can be viewed at https://youtu.be/dVULYOlVsrg.

2. The author was present for this 2014 halftime performance, which can be viewed at https://youtu.be/GDSqDas29Mg. The recording beings after the Grambling Tiger Band has left the field.

3. This halftime performance can be viewed at https://youtu.be/fxS8RJb-wc0.

4. A halftime performance by the Texas A&M Fightin’ Aggies Band featuring the four-way cross maneuver can be found at https://youtu.be/YxyDQHQJ5bo. The four-way cross is performed at 5:30.



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Last modified on Wednesday, 26/04/2023

Denise Odello

Denise Odello, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Minnesota Morris. She received her doctorate in Musicology from the University of California Santa Barbara in 2005. Her research focuses on community formation and identity expression in amateur ensembles, particularly wind bands.

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