Marching Band Maintains the Game Day Beat
By Christine Neff
At the end of each halftime show – as the band plays its last note, the dance team and color guard strike a final pose and the twirler catches an airborne, flaming baton – East Carolina University’s Marching Pirates hear an awesome sound: the roar of 43,000 cheering fans.
At that moment, said Adam Agee, an ECU sophomore and assistant drum major, “You feel like a rock star.”
But getting to that point takes more grit than glamour. The group of talented students and staff that make up the marching band work hard, week after week, to entertain and motivate Pirates’ football fans.
Preparations start long before the first football game of the season. Christopher Knighten, band director, starts planning shows in the spring when the football schedule is announced.
“We’re at the point now, with this program, where we try not to repeat a show at a home game. This year we’re doing six different shows,” he said.
Knighten and his staff of graduate assistants and instructors pick the music and choreograph the drill (the formations the band creates on the field) based on how much time they have in between games to teach new material.
During a week-long camp in August, the band learned one halftime show, the pre-game show and some of the stand music. The other five shows are taught throughout the season.
Training more than 240 people at one time can be chaotic, so Knighten relies on students to teach each other.
Forty percent of the band members play a teaching role at practice, helping other students learn new drill. It provides good experience for those students seeking education degrees, who make up 60 percent of the program, Knighten said.
At a recent Monday afternoon practice, the band split into sections to rehearse music for a “Movie Themes” show, which features songs from “Back to the Future” and “The Magnificent Seven.”
“Trombones and tubas, don’t rush the rhythm. Hang back, and let it groove,” Jesse Rackley, teaching assistant, told his brass section.
Will Goodyear, percussion instructor, worked with a group of about 20 percussionists. “We have an enormous amount of material to learn,” he said. “We’re always learning new pieces of music for the halftime show and to play in the stands.”
Drum Major Tremayne Smith, an ECU junior who watched from the sidelines, said game day performance is always on his mind. “Whatever we get done at practice is put on the field, and on Saturday, at any given time, there are 43,000 people watching,” Smith said.
That prospect might strike fear in more timid hearts, but not in these performers.
Courtney Stearn, featured twirler, said she gets “an adrenaline rush” in front of the crowd.
“When the band plays that first note in the pre-game show and the crowd reacts, I have no choice but to respond to that. It’s a wonderful feeling,” she said.
Come game day, the band meets two hours before kick-off at a practice field on College Hill. It does a quick rehearsal and then parades, in uniform, to the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, stopping along the way to play for tailgaters.
After the pre-game show, which includes the playing of the national anthem, the band takes to the stands, playing music and starting cheers as the crowd joins in.
“We try to keep a lot of the college game environment going by playing between plays, particularly when the other team has the ball,” Knighten said. “It’s always an exciting time because we sit right in the middle of the student body, and there is a lot of energy on game day.”
Smith said the band plays an integral role in motivating the crowd, which in turn motivates the team. “The band gets it going. If (our team) is down, and the band can get motivated, the crowd will get going and the team will get going,” he said.
This season, with a highly ranked football team to support, band members feel a heightened sense of excitement and responsibility in their role.
“Everybody in the band knows how important this season could be, not just for our football team but for our entire school,” Agee said.
He hopes the football team finishes the season without a loss. But, he added, “If they don’t win another game we’ll still be behind them.”