Episode 32: The band plays on, featuring John Pasquale

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Episode 32: John Pasquale — “The band plays on”

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship editor of Michigan Today.

In this episode of Listen in Michigan I’m chatting with John Pasquale director of the Michigan Marching Band. Okay, if you’re listening to this before Saturday at noon, we’re getting ready for the Ohio State game and you better believe these musicians are ready. Anticipations are running high. Super high. For some of these kids it’s their last home football game as a member of the marching band. For others it’s their first Ohio State game in the Big House. For all of us fans it is, or was depending on your listening habits, The last home football game of the decade. For me this is an excuse to officially crash a band practice and just be near the energy these talented musicians create. I really can’t tell you, I seriously go nuts for a drumline I can not help it.

I’m walking toward Reveille Hall right now. It’s like quarter to five on a Thursday afternoon. Members of the drum corps are out in front of the building just playing around on their instruments. I swear to God nothing beats walking down Division and hearing these sounds. It’s just college town, USA.

And I will not pretend this is my first marching band podcast. Jim Tobin has spoken to Albert Aaron Haim who perfected the famous “Let’s go blue” riff and I’ve hung out with Jerry Billick who arranged some of the most iconic versions of marching band productions you’ve ever heard. Check the show notes for those clips if you haven’t heard them. But frankly I just wanted to speak to the latest guy who is following in the footsteps of the legendary William Reveille and George Cavender. [External Noises]

For a guy whose only other job has been teaching public school in Dallas, John Pasquale seems bewildered at his good fortune while proving he is absolutely up to the task. I mean he is a tuba player with three college degrees. He’s an international conductor author, lecturer, and he holds the Donald R Shepherd chair and conducting here at U of M. He serves as associate professor of conducting, associate director of bands, and director of the Michigan marching band, as I said, and also athletic bands. If you’re listening to this, you’re probably a hardcore band fan like me or possibly a former musician. I’m sure you had an amazing time marching across the field in your polyester uniform rain or shine, snow, all of it. You have memories and connections to your time in Ann Arbor that are beyond compare.

John Pasquale: In a word, jealous. But that’s neither here nor there. As the home football season wraps up, I figured we check in with John and the band for the final home game of the decade. Here’s John.

Holdship: I just love driving by the field and hearing practice whether it’s first thing in the morning I’m like yay it’s coming!

Pasquale: On Saturday mornings there is no better place to be than on a college campus on a Saturday morning. I would argue this one for obvious reasons but I mean I am biased but there’s just something about the tradition of the MMB that has been so well-established and I mean the band program here at Michigan has basically put college band on the map and just with the with the tradition and the history and legacy and there’s just something about a sunrise happening, you’re hearing the victors playing and the fans are cheering. Oh it’s such a great thing.

Holdship: Why do we love it so much? I love it!

Pasquale: Know it’s people ask a lot. I think it’s an identity to people. It’s almost like in their DNA. I mean we have a flag that is an identity to us as or any country any citizen has their identity visually through a flag. Orally, however, we have anthems. We have songs or we in our case we have school songs that are the embodiment of the institution. And I think that anywhere in the world bom bom bom bom bom. Anyone is going to recognize it immediately and it brings up your memories your probably livelihood. It’s so interconnected. It’s just fascinating. I’m all over the world and like I was in the airport in Shanghai. Just on the escalator and I hear someone bom bom bom bom bom in the middle of the night.

Holdship: Because you had a shirt?

Pasquale: I had some M on it it was hilarious. It’s just so cool.

Holdship: Plus even in the generic sense beyond Michigan Marching Band like just the sound of a drum line like just the guys…

Pasquale: Just gets you going doesn’t it?

Holdship: Yeah just playing around tapping their drums you know it’s like just the rhythm of it. Something about the rhythm.

Pasquale: It’s it has a reaction for many people some are like oh this is great. Others like “here go the drums again” but it’s you know for me I love it when they’re just we we call it hacking when they’re just kind of tapping away or doing whatever and it’s it isn’t organized but it just means that there’s something coming. And when they play together I mean I wish everybody could have an experience in the stadium on the center ladder during pregame when the band comes just running out of the tunnel and the crowd is going crazy and the sound of it is it’s palatable on the skin and I just wish everybody could experience that because to be honest that’s pretty damn cool. [External Noises]

Just this past week, not this current week but this past week with the terrible weather, on Tuesday with the wind chill of 9 degrees and we were outside because we had to prepare for the show on Saturday we didn’t have a choice and so I’m like “Well, all right let’s see how this goes”. The sounds were just atrocious because the instruments were frozen but our students how they reacted and how they ultimately rehearsed and got the job done was one of the most inspiring moments of my entire educational career.

Holdship: Really?

Pasquale: Since I’ve been teaching 20 years. It was it was unbelievably impressive. You know and people ask what’s the best part of the job and I mean it could be the performances, it could be the biggest stadium in the world or in America excuse me or just I mean pick the best part about it is our students. We have the best students ever. They are brilliant. They are intelligent. They’re creative. They are dedicated. We are very very lucky here.

[External noises]

On a Friday afternoon. We have the stands full of fans to watch our rehearsals. They have have picnics and they have pizza delivered and you know I mean it’s just those kinds of things or we like we have four sets of twins in the MMB just.

Holdship: I didn’t know that!

Pasquale: Right? And that’s just mind-boggling to me.

Holdship: Oh my God that’s the best story ever!

Pasquale: It’s great.

Holdship: Four sets of twins? Right now?

Pasquale: Four sets of twins currently or you have some that have had grandpa, father, daughter, and future children are going to. I mean it’s just that kind of thing just makes band in general really special. The band program here has been so good for so long that it’s it is basically the standard in terms of how to perform, how to engage with the public, how to be inclusive, and I mean it’s just it’s a model in every regard you know. And I truly attribute that to the students and also keep in mind in the entire band program we have eleven ensembles. The marching band’s just one of those. And so when the entire program is seen just the quality of the ensembles from the School of Music, Theater and Dance to the eight non-major ensembles that we have, it’s just we touched so many lives and as we thinking about it the MMB is the most visible classroom on campus.

And when you think about it that way. And then also I would argue one of the most visible classrooms in the world.

[External noises]

So many people are surprised at how challenging it is. You know there’s a stigma about band students. I would invite any of them to come and try it.

Holdship: You walk around the tuba and try to lift your knees that high and play and remember all that stuff.

Pasquale: Exactly and having it memorized every single week changing completely while going to school at a top tier institution while trying to get an internship at NASA while trying to put things on Mars. I mean when you add it all up I mean it’s very impressive what these students do.

Holdship: So one of my questions was if you were able to sit down with Dr. Reveille and George Cavender how would that conversation go down.

Pasquale: I would ask them for advice. You know sirs how am I doing? How can I get bette. Am I keeping the standard that that has been set by you? I mean we take that very seriously. Our alumni have done a brilliant job in setting the standard with which we try to uphold every day. And so I just hope that we are. You know every day I’m like “Is that how this is supposed to be?” We have a picture of him in our conference room and it’s a pretty prominent picture and it’s place very prominently. And I often wonder like “Sir what do you think?” So I’ve only ever wanted to be a teacher. My father was a corporate executive and it was almost assumed that I was going to go into the family business but I really wanted to do was teach.

And then I realized in high school that I was pretty good at my instrument. So I’m like maybe I should think about this. And that was an interesting day when I told my family that I was going to major on the tuba because I really wanted to be a band director. And they were like what? You’re going to do what now? Oh it’s a phase you’ll get over it. It’s fine. But you know ever since then it’s been a calling and I have loved every second of it.

Holdship: Well I think clearly you obviously respect to the students very much…

Pasquale: Very much so.

Holdship: …the way you’re speaking about them. Well and I guess they know what they’re walking into.

Pasquale: They do. So actually no they don’t. You know those that are incoming have no clue.

Holdship: But they know what’s kind of what’s expected of them in terms of obviously they know what program they’re applying to and why it’s why they want to come to this specific program

Pasquale: You know, and we also are very careful to help them nurture themselves. The MMB has about 400 people in it but we only marched two hundred and seventy six during halftime and 235 during pregame because they have to earn their spot every week. So that helps for many reasons. One it is life lessons but two you have to you have to be able to perform at a certain level before we would put you in front of such a large audience.

Holdship: Well and that’s clearly why our alumni are so fanatical perhaps.

Pasquale: Energetic is the term that I use.

Holdship: About their connection to the band.

Pasquale: Sure.

Holdship: I mean our band alumni are really passionate. You know I was looking at just looking at you know different stories about why I love marching band and stuff like that and just you know the camaraderie obviously and the life lessons and finding your place and finding your people and all that kind of stuff.

Pasquale: This past fall when we were going to the Ohio State game our department administrator…

Holdship: Maggie.

Pasquale: …passed away suddenly on the trip going down there. That was that was, I’ll be honest, that was the worst day of my life and for many many reasons.

Holdship: I’m so sorry. There were so many people who loved her.

Pasquale: Thank you. I mean she was an incredible human. The fallout from that in terms of the support public support all over the world was so inspiring. I mean from I mean we were going to OSU and they couldn’t have taken better care of us. And we were not in a very good place for many many reasons. Right. I don’t remember the game. I don’t remember what show we did. I don’t remember. I don’t remember the score. I mean I do now after the fact seeing it but I don’t remember that we lost. I don’t remember. I really don’t remember any of it except for how well they they took care of us in a very very difficult time. You know and that is a testament to what we’re doing with bands. I mean it’s about music it’s about being a three dimensional human being. It’s about inclusivity and support and you know it’s a truly remarkable art form.

Holdship: Talk about grit too I mean just that game this past season that in the pouring rain.

Pasquale: Oh yeah. Every time we play Notre Dame It’s a monsoon. I don’t know what’s going on it’s very strange. Yeah it was. You know that kind of stuff seems it doesn’t faze us at all. We’re out in it every day it doesn’t matter. You know it’s this, it certainly builds character and we have a lot of character over the last couple weeks. A lot of it banked up I’ll be honest with you.

Holdship: Oh my God I was laughing last night at rehearsal. Kids were literally putting their cases in like premade like parts of the snow.

Pasquale: In the snow banks.

Holdship: They had already created a shelf for themself for where they are going to but their case in the snow. That is tragic.

Pasquale: You know these past couple weeks have made me question my professional life choices. I’m a Southerner right. So this, I’m like what are we doing here. It’s so cold.

Holdship: Oh that’s great. Well, what were some of your favorite shows this year like?

Pasquale: My favorite show this year so far was the collaboration we did with the College of Engineering and NASA. That was such a neat experience. We also did a show to honor Maggie. That was the Mary Poppins show that we did at the end of September. That was her favorite music so we honoured her that day. That was a great show. The Veterans Day shows are always my favorite.

Holdship: So you came up playing tuba.

Pasquale: I did. A tuba player.

Holdship: Do you have affinity for your… When I first came last night I was standing near the tuba players and I don’t know you’re like make it angrier or it needs to be louder or something like that and I heard them going. Come on let’s destroy it. That’s what he wants. Kill it. It was really cute.

Pasquale: Great. We’re gonna have a conversation about that this afternoon.

Holdship: Oh no!

Pasquale: No it’s very funny. Yeah I mean we, to be a tuba player you have to be a special kind of personalities so we all kind of band together pardon the pun but yeah they’re all great.

Holdship: So if an alumnus showed up today and went into your classroom or joined a practice how would things be the same and how would they be different.

Pasquale: The expectations are the same. We, you have to perform at the highest possible level. Period. That’s our job. I think they’ll see that we take the tradition and legacy very seriously. It is something that we constantly are talking about and also trying to uphold. I think that they would see that the pace of how we rehearse is different. Things happen very very quickly. I think that the style of the show is a bit different. I mean times change. You have to evolve that way. But marching band hasn’t really changed that much if you think about it. You’re on a football field in a polyester uniform holding an instrument, making pictures with your bodies. I mean that part really hasn’t changed. It’s just how you interact with that. That’s how things have changed. People say that the tempos of songs have changed a bit over the years. That’s interpretive. But for the most part things really haven’t changed very much.

My job is, I put shows on the fields you know and I teach brilliant students. It’s the best job ever. Frankly things that keep me up at night are the students safety are their experience. But I trust them to do their job. I trust the staff to do their job by the way we have the best staff ever. They’re really good at it. And by the way they operate this thing. I just stand up there and just wave my arms around and smile and look pretty. They take care of everything else. I’m serious about that and so because of that I don’t really, we don’t really have any stress. It’s just I mean it’s energy, it’s excitement, it’s maybe anxious sometimes but stress I think is maybe not the right word because we aren’t trying to cure cancer. We’re not putting things on Mars. We’re not keeping the country safe. Those I would argue are stressful jobs. We just get to do our hobby. I mean marching band’s a hobby and I get to do that every day of my life.

Holdship: What’s up with the back band situation. I’m going to ask you a stupid question ever.

Pasquale: You know that’s an excellent question.

Holdship: Where did that start?

Pasquale: So the backbend itself has been around for quite awhile. So a drum major Matthew Pickus. He was the first one to take the hat off and touch his head to the ground. Obviously that was huge. And by the way that is extraordinarily difficult. So since he has done that there’s been a bit of a tacit expectation. So when I was first hired here twelve years ago there was still an option. The drum major could take the hat off or could keep it on. Which obviously makes it significantly easier.

So all the other schools that do the backbend wearing the hat, while it’s probably not the easiest thing you’ve ever done, it’s way way easier. So now it’s a part of the audition where if their head doesn’t touch the ground they typically don’t advance to the final round.

Holdship: Wow.

Pasquale: Yeah. And talk about stress that I would argue is a stressful environment because not only is every eye on you you have sky cam you have a steadicam.
Holdship: My heart race just thinking about it.

Pasquale: Right. Like six inches from your head that would be a stressful thing to do. But you know thankfully we’ve had really talented students doing that job and they’re really good at it. And so it’s, when their head touches the ground and the crowd just erupts, that’s a really special moment it’s really really great.

Holdship: All right. That’s it for the 2019 football season and the Michigan marching band. It seems the more things change the more they stay the same. It’s all about the camaraderie laughter discipline and as Pasquale puts it, life lessons. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can put up with that metronome but I hope you enjoyed this little peek into the world of marching band here at Michigan. It’s time to switch gears now and get ready for winter sports. It’s going to be fun to witness Juan Howard’s first season as coach at Chrysler Arena. All right. You can find Listen in Michigan at Google Play Music, iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher. So please give us a shout out and it’d be great if you would subscribe. Okay, that’s it for now. I have something really good cooking for next time too. Well not technically cooking. It happens to do with… wait for it…Squirrels! Okay, till then, Go blue.

[External noises]

There is a season

What better time to catch up with the University of Michigan Marching Band (MMB) than on the eve of the infamous rivalry showdown with Ohio State on Nov. 30, 2019? The game marks the last home football contest in Michigan Stadium for the decade.

2018-19 University of Michigan Marching Band Drum Major Kelly Bertoni.

2018-19 University of Michigan Marching Band Drum Major Kelly Bertoni. (Image: MMB Facebook.)

MMB director John Pasquale is the one in charge of these marching musicians now, following in the hallowed footsteps (bootsteps?) of legendary predecessor William Revelli and his successors. Pasquale is a tuba player with three college degrees, and though his only other professional gig was teaching public school outside Dallas, he was made for the MMB. As an international conductor, author, and lecturer, Pasquale holds the Donald R. Shepherd Chair in Conducting at U-M. He teaches classes in rehearsal pedagogy and aural analysis of ensemble sound.

As the especially “weather-centric” 2019 football season comes to a close (torrential rainstorms, blizzards, wind, etc.), we are using this episode to crash a practice and get a tiny taste of life amid the elements in the MMB. On this particular evening, leftover snow from an unseasonably aggressive blizzard lines the perimeter of the field.

In the conversation here, Pasquale’s passion for teaching is palpable, his respect for Michigan students is sincere, and his drive to excel is unwavering.

Pasquale also talks about the heartbreaking loss of Maggie St. Clair, the MMB’s longtime director of administration. The beloved St. Clair died suddenly on Nov. 24, 2018, the morning of the Ohio State game. She had been with the MMB for more than 30 years. The band carried on in Columbus that day, thanks to the support of their marching band compatriots both at OSU and around the world, Pasquale says. In September, the MMB dedicated a “Mary Poppins”-themed program (her favorite) to St. Clair. The Maggie St. Clair Marching Band Scholarship Fund was established with a lead gift from Donald R. Shepherd in honor of St. Clair’s dedication and love for the MMB and its members.

Pasquale also shares insights about the remarkable poise demonstrated by 2018-19 drum major Kelly Bertoni under pressure. Bertoni is the 55th Michigan student to serve in the role, and, it should be noted “is a really nice person,” according to our student receptionist at Michigan News. (We didn’t call her out by name in the audio here, so I wanted to give Bertoni a proper shoutout.)

We’ve done plenty of deep and broad stories about the band’s history and legacy at several U-M publications over the years, including How we went blue, Strike up the band, and Revelli: The long note. This podcast is strictly for fun. Pure sugar.



  1. Debra Klueger - 1985

    Nice to hear this “highlight” of the MMB. Well done.

    Debra B Klueger DO
    MMB 1st Trumpet Section
    BS U of M 1985


  2. Cassie Atkeisson

    I’m so proud of John! He was my son’s middle school band director. David played the tuba also and John made a lasting impact on David’s passion and talent. My heart swells with pride when I read about John or hear his interviews. Dominate the World!


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