The drum major’s hands hold us at the ready. Her white gloves are narrowly visible through the bells of the tubas, which are illuminated by the stadium lights. I am a freshman, standing two steps off the twenty-five-yard line and holding my gilded tenor saxophone. On command, I snap my heels together, initiating the swell of pride that pushes my shoulder blades together and props up my chin. A drum tap later, 300-plus horn and battery players step off in sync, left foot first, and burst open the air with a sound like steaming tea kettles. Our box formations expand like a kaleidoscope into—hopefully—even lines across the field.
I hardly remember attending classes at UMass Amherst; I may as well have gone to Marching Band School. For four years I faced the world with the UMass Minuteman Marching Band (UMMB) at my back, and by the time I graduated in 2018 I felt I had lived a lifetime. Leaving school, I mourned the loss of my band kid identity, and for a year afterward, I felt I didn’t belong anywhere.
So I joined the Florence Community Band in Massachusetts and began rehearsing weekly, sitting—not marching, unfortunately—next to many folks who really have lived a lifetime. At the holiday band banquet, I surveyed the room full of my bandmates boogying and goofing around, and I thought, “Wow, band kids never grow up.” These were the same people I had marched with, only masked with gray hair and wrinkled cheeks. Despite the effects of time, the band spirit still bound them together, securing a home there through the years.
I realized then that I would never actually lose that part of myself and would always have this place of belonging. For many like me, marching band isn’t life-changing; it’s life-defining. We are a community including everyone from grade-school beginners to alumni who haven’t played in decades. We share a language of marching terms and inside jokes. We celebrate our own holidays; at UMass these include Banana Wednesday and Bandoween. We indulge in the same cuisine; the “Bandwich,” with its traditional tomato juice-soaked bun, is a universal term at UMass.
Beyond the undergraduate years, marching band continues to influence the lives of its alumni. We may find ourselves applying a steady roll-step technique while carrying a full cup of hot tea or using the management skills of a section leader as a teacher or office executive. But what really defines a band kid is a belief system, which, in the case of the UMMB, can be summed up by a few of the “Starred Thoughts” conceived by former director George N. Parks. Though meant to be jotted down by an audience of bandos, these can be translated into real-world aphorisms which, for me, only become increasingly relevant with time.
Starred Thought #1:
“Band is for everyone”
I never met the great Mr. Parks, director from 1977 to 2010, but I feel like I know him. He built the UMMB to what it is today, erasing its 100-year history as a military-style band with high-step marching and regimented approach, and introducing the smooth roll-step with a focus on fun and entertainment. He boasted a band over 300 members strong (today it is over 400 under the direction of Timothy Anderson), whose only requirement was a desire to be there.
There has been a deaf marcher and marchers in wheelchairs. One man marched with the UMMB for thirty-nine years as an employee of the university. From confident trumpet players to euphonium eccentrics, cliquey flutes to flamboyant color guard, everyone is accepted and, furthermore, crucial to the band community.
The group is also full of what we call “Band Santas.”
Although it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see a bunch of bandos running around the field dressed in red-and-white suits, Band Santas are not actually visible as such. The concept was realized by Mr. Parks, who used Santa as a model for how leaders should present themselves, and continues to be key to maintaining inclusivity.
First, you believe in Santa. Alto section leader Christina Solem (class of 2017) described the Santas she looked up to: “They made you feel like you belonged. They praised you, they celebrated the things that you were doing right, and they helped you work on the things that you weren’t. They were really good at making people feel special.”
Second, you become Santa. The upperclassmen have a responsibility not just to represent a standard that the rookies idolize, but to take them under their wings and get them to believe in themselves. They make band special for the next generation because someone made it special for them. As a leader, Christina became Santa without even realizing it. “I was just trying to get other people to see band how I saw it. I was just trying to show them how amazing this thing that I love is.”
She remembers welcoming Aaron Riobe (class of 2017) into the sax family. He joined his junior year with no previous marching or playing experience. Despite his bubbliness and friendly demeanor, Aaron was bewildered by his reception that first day on the field. “People who I had never met were greeting me very cheerfully,” he said. “I did not understand the optimism and kindness. Obviously, most classroom environments are not like that.”
On a campus comparable to a small city, the UMMB is a sanctuary for students seeking somewhere to belong. However, not everyone is certain they will fit in. Dave Soreff (class of 1989), shook his head adamantly when I asked if, before joining, he had identified as a “band kid.” With a passion for banging on drums, he arrived at band camp skeptical, unsure what all the “hubbub” was about. Soon enough, percussion instructor Thom Hannum became a father figure (a Santa), to him. As the nature of the group embraces the unsuspecting introvert, the skeptical sports bro, and everyone in between, Dave quickly broke out of his comfort zone. Today, he uses what he learned about performance in his career as a musician.
In a group known for its radical inclusivity, everyone is essential and has a spot on the field. There is always a Santa to remind you to believe in yourself and, inevitably, you will do the same for someone else. When I attend homecoming, I can see the positive energy that I left behind with the now-seniors, who are passing it onto the freshmen, who will pass it on next, like a family recipe. I see that and know that I am still a part of it.
Starred Thought #2:
“You’re at your best when things are at their worst”
The UMMB is called to attention on a field in Lawrence, Massachusetts. We are there to show off to the audience of high school students, and later, to engorge ourselves at the annual Burger Burn band picnic. The ensuing “hut!” descends from the heavens and the crowd goes absolutely wild. We don’t move a collective muscle; we haven’t played a note yet and already we feel like superheroes—capes are a part of the attire.
When Mr. Parks introduced “energy, excellence, and enthusiasm” as the defining characteristics of the UMMB, the band began to generate its signature spirit: lively, powerful, contagious.
Linda Hannum—who married percussion instructor Thom Hannum after meeting in the UMMB, a common occurrence—was a freshman trumpet player the same year that Mr. Parks, at age twenty-four, took over as director in 1977.
“George got us to believe that we were the best band anywhere and taught us optimism through that belief.” The band still ends every rehearsal the way George did: “How are your eyes? With Pride! And who’s got the best band anywhere? UMass!” This tradition ends every day of frozen fingers and forced enthusiasm with the promise that we can get through anything together. “Once we believed it, we began to convince audiences as well,” explained Linda, “and as the band got bigger and bigger, so did the belief.”
Linda reflected on what she took away from the UMMB and still applies to her life today: problem solving. “Problems are opportunities for creativity,” George would say. “Figure it out, make it work, get it done,” Linda echoed. This has been a factor in her success throughout everything she’s done in life, including picking up rowing at the age of fifty and opening a hair salon.
Aaron Riobe claims a similar effect, naming the “willingness to try, and to keep trying” as a personality trait enforced by the band. “The UMMB taught me I can do anything,” he wrote to me in an email, I assume with fervor. “My proudest accomplishment to this day is joining the marching band. It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life. Often, in stressful situations, I think back to walking onto the practice fields for that first rehearsal, with immense fear, anxiety, stress, absolutely no clue of what I’d gotten myself into or why. I overcame that. So, I can overcome whatever I’m facing.”
When I asked alumni what their biggest takeaways were from the UMMB, “how to fake my enthusiasm until I believe it myself” was an overwhelming response. “Call it shared pain,” Ed Broderick (class of 1964) pointed out. “But we bond over that.”
George Parks died of a heart attack at age fifty-seven on September 16, 2010, following a performance in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. The band had already hunkered down for the night in the town’s high school gym, prepared for an early and much-anticipated arrival at “The Big House,” Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, when the news broke.
“Gasps and sobs came from all corners of the gym,” John Leonard, one of the assistant directors, wrote in a blog post about that night. The story he tells, though, “is less about the details of someone leaving, and more about the interesting way that people connected afterwards when things were at their worst. What I remember most are the people. The amazing people that came together closer than you thought a band family could.”
In the minds of the students, there was never any doubt that the band would go on to Michigan the next day. Exceptional student leadership, exchanged glances of empathy, and Mr. Parks’s spiritual willpower carried the UMMB to perform a medley of Madonna songs for their largest audience to-date—110,000 people. The on-field partying and personality was a hit in the stands, a contrast to the traditional style of Big Ten bands like Michigan State, which emphasizes tight drill formations.
Drum major: “Hey band?!”
Band in unison: “Hey what?!”
Drum major: “Make it crazy!!!”
And just like that, it feels as though the day has a fresh start. You are any and all combinations of too hot, too cold, too hungry, too tired, or too sore, and you may have split your pants down the middle during that last spread, tilt, and wail, but none of that matters. Focus is directed exclusively toward making the finale of the post-game show crazy, so that’s what you do.
Starred Thought #3:
“If you’re the only one right, you’re wrong”
Looking up from the practice field, I observe a V of geese flying overhead, as they do every day during the season. Our arc, in contrast, is haphazard and unshapely. “Dress the form!” someone shouts from its center. Everyone shuffles about until they land more or less exactly where they started. When most people strive for individuality, it’s easy to forget how to be a part of something bigger than yourself.
We succumb to the shenanigans of early-morning warmups, sweat through a full show run-through, and play the school’s fight song a hundred times before the football team arrives at the stadium. The audience sees us wholeheartedly cheer on the team, even when their score doesn’t match our enthusiasm. But there have been goosebump-inducing rehearsal performances to empty stadiums.
Many name their “wow moment” as the first time the band plays together as band camp ends. And there was a rehearsal of “Hot, Hot, Hot” when we so exuberantly booked it across the field to our next set in the allotted thirty-two counts that it resulted in three casualties (one twisted ankle and two collided saxophones).
We put in the work for ourselves as a band, because what is most important is the creation of something as a group. Aaron wrote of his first-ever UMMB performance at Gillette Stadium, “I felt, for perhaps the first time, what it was like to accomplish something so grand that was only possible from being on the same page as hundreds of other people.”
Marching band is about more than teamwork; it’s about letting go of individuality.
The impact of our field shows is only made possible by the notion that no one person is bigger than the band. If you’re too cool to do the Ooga Booga, a sixteen-bar dance move incorporated into every field show as early as 1991, you’re the one who looks ridiculous. If you like to show off and play really loud, you’re making your section look and sound bad. If you are technically on your exact dot but everyone else in the line is a half-step forward, you’re the one who’s wrong.
“Even the percussion section, which is usually a bastion of people who consider themselves slightly hipper and cooler than everyone else, bought into it,” admitted Dave Soreff. “We were but a small part of a bigger machine, and you have to be a cooperating cog to make it all run smoothly.”
The student leaders, too, aren’t necessarily the best players or marchers but the ones who want to offer a share of their enthusiasm to others. Linda was UMMB’s first female drum major and described it as a difficult position to be in.
“If you believe that the audience is looking at you, then you’re doing it wrong,” she explained.
There is no glory in the role, or at least there shouldn’t be, despite being on a literal pedestal at the front of the band. The drum major is the pilot, and the band trusts the pilot to get them to their destination.
If there is anything that brings the UMMB together so fully and completely, it’s performing “My Way”as the finale to every show, a tradition since 1978. It was the last song Mr. Parks ever conducted. A head of red hair bobbing emphatically, body ready for takeoff, he would pour his entire being into the performance. The night he died, many circled up in the gymnasium to hum it, as a means of consolation. There is an eeriness in imagining the hundreds of somber voices carrying it through the dark halls as a sort of hymn.
At homecoming, UMMB alumni trickle down from the stands with or without horns and rejoin their old ranks as the band arcs around Thom Hannum, who stands with his hands up, palms down, bringing our mouthpieces to our lips.
In that moment, generations blend together, and I am suspended in time, shoulder to shoulder with current and former members I have never met. But everyone knows exactly what to do; everyone knows that old family recipe by heart. When the time comes for us to sing a verse, we wrap our arms around each other as we sway back and forth. Holding a horn, or drum, or flag, is just where it begins, and then it never, ever ends.
Alexa Nickandros is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She studied cognitive science and French at UMass Amherst. She would like to thank UMMB director Tim Anderson for his guidance and support during this project.