Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

The (virtual) show must go on

Band, take the screen!

For Walter Aguilar, there’s nothing quite like walking into an empty Michigan Stadium.

“This is the way it was the first time I walked into it almost four years ago,” said Aguilar, a U-M senior and the Michigan Marching Band’s 56th drum major. “Even after three years, going through the tunnel still gives me goosebumps.”

By this time in any other fall, Aguilar would have spent many afternoons and evenings practicing on Michigan Stadium turf, and yet, a photoshoot in September was only his second time in uniform on the field.

Band in the stadium

Aguilar leads a small number of band members at an empty Michigan Stadium. (Photo: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

In fact, with the students surrounding him, the photo session marked Aguilar’s first time leading band members in person as the Man Up Front.

A senior studying public policy, he joined the marching band as a member of the horn section. Coming to U-M had always been a dream for Aguilar and, while the move from Grand Rapids to Ann Arbor was at times overwhelming, being a part of the band provided an immediate community.

Over the years, he was impressed by student leaders and felt compelled to lead as drum major himself. Such a goal usually takes years’ worth of auditions and practice.

“It’s an intense process,” Aguilar said. “The drum major should be the best marcher in the band, so you’re working on that constantly. Every day you’re trying to become a better marcher.”

A typical Thursday afternoon would be consumed with pregame sequencing, marching formations, and show rehearsals. But these musicians focused on attaching the new personal protective equipment to their instruments and asking each other about remote classes.

Some of the students were seeing each other in person for the first time. While it was announced that Michigan football would be returning this fall, the Michigan Marching Band will not be joining on the field.

For the first time in its 123-year history, the band has gone completely virtual. While Michigan football continues on, with its first game Oct. 24, the marching band is preparing its first show, to be released digitally in early November.

Everything has changed, from how rehearsals are conducted to how students are expected to play their instruments in a health-informed, socially distanced way.

Planning a virtual season

2020 Band Members

Members of MMB #123. (Photos: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

Creating such an unusual season required months of research and planning. The band is technically a performing arts course offered within the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. The band comprises 400 members from all levels and majors. However, unlike other classes, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March, it not only affected the band’s 2020 plans, it interrupted the 2019 ensemble’s concluding events.

“Our first question was, ‘How do we finish the semester?’” said John Pasquale, who has been band director since 2013. “Then it was, how do we hold drum major auditions and prepare for the upcoming season?”

Typically the band’s season ends with a collective “Spring Meeting” where the new drum major is voted on, and major show highlights are released for next year.

In the 400-member Zoom, this year’s drum major, Aguilar, was voted in.

The directors, along with U-M faculty and staff, spent the rest of the summer planning several contingent seasons. The directors based their planning on current studies on the spread and prevention of coronavirus, guidelines from the CDC and WHO, and state mandates, among others.

“The biggest variables for us were whether we could continue in person or not. Then it was figuring out if we could operate in an indoor or outdoor space,” said Richard Frey, the band’s associate director.

A band new experience

Instruments covered in PPE

Michael Grasinski (center) and Sean McSweeney (right) rehearse with their clarinets covered by personal protective equipment. (Photo: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

Traditionally, marching band holds class outside on Elbel Field, across from Revelli Music Hall. From 4:45 p.m. to 6:15 p.m., students rehearse that week’s show music, practice elements of the pregame sequence, and conclude with rehearsing drill formation.
Now, the virtual marching band class is composed of both synchronous and asynchronous lessons on Canvas, the university’s educational platform. Class components vary from recorded video demonstrations to Zoom meetings and breakout sessions.

This year, Band Week lessons have been asynchronous. Members submitted videos of themselves performing marching techniques like lock-step and MMB entries — the high steps you see when the band takes the field while running out of the tunnel. All members then received individualized feedback from student leaders.

Managing a large ensemble is no easy task, and the marching band relies on a hierarchy of leadership positions to handle everything from musical performance to marching formations. There are 12 instrument sections, each led by a section leader and supported by a small team of rank leaders. This allows multiple eyes and ears on the field to help peers learn the shows and drill, and that can be helpful, since some sections might have more than 60 members.

Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography

This year, student leaders have taken on increased responsibility, adapting how they would normally provide instruction to a new virtual format. For Michael Grasinski, a senior studying aerospace engineering, the greatest challenge is not being able to give feedback in real time.

“I only get one shot,” said Grasinski, the clarinet section leader. “Usually, I’d be able to demonstrate, ask clarifying questions, and watch the student implement my feedback immediately. Now I have to do my best to identify all the possible problems and provide solutions in one go through a text box.”

Band Week, usually held in the last two weeks of August, is a pivotal experience for every member. From sunup to sundown, students learn the fundamentals of marching in a Michigan style. In between rehearsals, sections break away to host bonding events and share meals.

To prepare, Grasinski had to record demonstrations of marching fundamentals and provide music recordings to set an example for the section. During the first couple of weeks, he and a few student leaders held socially distanced, optional, small group rehearsals for members to get additional attention. Masks were worn at all times, and, if the students were playing, PPE covers were worn over their instruments.

All efforts are aimed at a recorded show. While there will be no marching, individual members’ performances will be combined into a video presentation. Titled “Hail to the Frontline Heroes,” the first show will honor front-line medical and service workers. (See the video above, added after the story was published.)

Community and COVID

Band kids at Elbel

Clarinet section leader Michael Grasinski (center) leads a student-organized socially distanced marching rehearsal at Elbel Field. (Photo: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

Within a university of nearly 40,000 undergraduates, the marching band is a way to find a smaller community of friends. Students from the U-M Flint and Dearborn campuses also make up the band, and many will stay the night at section houses to avoid commuting to the early morning game day rehearsals.

Maintaining the effort to build community has been crucial this year. Trivia nights, video calls, and TED-talk themed events via Zoom have helped.

“The other leaders and I coordinate a bunch of social events so that there’s no shortage of opportunities for new and returning members to get to know each other,” Grasinski said. “We’ve done Kahoot quizzes, Jackbox games, and Zoom ice breakers.”

Maintaining those close section bonds is especially helpful to students taking classes out of state. Kelly Souza, a sophomore English major and piccolo player, said the virtual band class has been a way for her to feel connected to Ann Arbor as she continues classes from her home in Maryland.

“The decision to take classes remotely was a difficult choice to make,” she said. “However, the virtual band has helped me stay connected to members as well as happenings around campus. For me, some form of band was better than no band at all.”

The future of Band #123

Michael Grasinski on porch

Clarinet section leader Michael Grasinski takes virtual marching band classes from the front porch of his house. (Photo: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

Adapting to a virtual classroom has brought new ways to connect and learn. In early October, an additional curriculum was designed so students could choose their own adventure and select master classes taught by faculty and staff.

Pasquale taught a mini-course in leadership fundamentals, bringing in guest speakers like the conductor of the marine band and Ross Business School professor Lance Sandelands. Other classes include instructing musicians how to spin flags or teaching business support like fundraising, public relations, and social media marketing.

“We really wanted to be able to offer our students an experience they would not typically get in the MMB,” Pasquale said. “This provides a behind-the-scenes view to our program that is oftentimes overlooked during regular rehearsal schedules. For example, Dr. Frey is instructing a class on show design.”

Eventually, the students will have the opportunity to put those skills to the test. For the first “Hail to the Heroes” show, musicians will upload their videos according to predetermined guidelines. The goal is for students to design the second show themselves.

The Man Up Front

In addition to marching fundamentals, all candidates for drum major must master twirling, the strut, and the backbend. The drum major’s backbend has been a staple of Michigan gameday performance since the late 1960s. In the 1990s, drum major Matthew Pickus made the move even more difficult by removing his hat for the backbend. Pickus’ iteration is now the band’s norm.

Walter Aguilar leaps

Walter Aguilar is the 56th drum major in the MMB. (Photo: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.)

Aguilar has been perfecting his backbend since freshman year. With his sister recording on her phone, Aguilar taught himself through trial and error — an experience that resulted in a lot of falling backward.

“I don’t know how many videos she took of me,” Aguilar said. “I fell so often during the beginning, but I just focused on small victories. Can I bend back? OK. Next step — let me touch my head to the ground.”

Aguilar has led the virtual season by example, providing videos of himself explaining proper form and techniques just like he might have done on the field during Band Week.

“My focus has been on translating the traditions and excitement to new members in order to keep the community and spirit of the Michigan Marching Band thriving,” he said. “I want them all to know and feel valued by the band even though they are participating remotely.”

Like any senior, he’s looking for jobs and considering the possibility of graduate school.

Despite the uncertainty, Aguilar remains optimistic and grateful for the virtual season and the support from his closest family and friends.

“Representing the university, the alumni, and the 55 drum majors before me is a dream come true,” he said. “It’s an experience that I’ll never forget.”

(Lead image: It took Drum Major Walter Aguilar about a year to perfect the iconic Michigan backbend. Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography. For more stories on the arts at Michigan, visit arts.umich.edu.)

Comments

  1. James (Jim) Bauer - 1955 Arch

    MICHIGAN has been a part of my life since 1942 when my Uncle took me to a Michigan football game at which I caught “The Michigan Fever” and it lives eternally within. Michigan instilled within three very important life lessons. Academics, Social Skills, and an “eternal living, light for acquiring and living a loving life of people and countries” . The last is the greatest life lesson the “The University” instilled within and not recognized until later in LIFE: and slowly ‘this’ gift of the University awakened within!I am unable to express my inner feelings of “THIS bountiful gift bestow within ME by MICHIGAN
    Jim Ba!

    Reply

  2. Marshall Smith - 1962, 1963

    How about a video?

    Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      Coming soon…

      Reply

  3. Dan Chapel - 1960

    Would love to have some band music included.

    Reply

  4. Dianna LaBonte - 1997

    Wow…awesome work everyone! I’m simply amazed at all the talent and hard work that each band member has done to make this season the best it can be. The drive and will to persevere despite the crazy challenges this past year has brought is truly astonishing. A great example of what a champion and leader is about. MMB has given me another reason why I’ll always be proud to be an alumni. Keep the momentum going….GO MMB!!

    Reply

  5. Karen Graybill - 1982

    The Marching band was one of my favorite memories of Michigan. I hope to see a video soon!

    Reply

  6. Michele Schuckel - BSN ‘95

    Michigan Marching Band is such an important part of football Saturdays and fostering our collective bleeding Maize and Blue. Thanks for the reminder of the community brought to all of us by the band and for sharing the creative ways the current members are fostering connection. To any current members who may see this: We’re all missing you and are looking forward to when you can again safely Take the Field. Go Blue!

    Reply

  7. Jessica RickertDDS - 1975

    Traverse City high school’s marching bands have taken the field many times this 2020 season with ZERO Covid cases. Other marching bands are also on the fields every weekend.
    What “secret magic” do the high schools know?

    Reply

  8. Herbert Meyer - 1961 and 1962

    I so wish the UMMB the very best in this virtual world. George Cavender was our conductor of marching bands when I was in the UMMB and we had good times. That was when the band was all men. It’s better today.

    Reply

    • Jade VanderVelde - 62

      My dear husband came for the football and I came for the UMMB. What a great place. Great to see my cousin Herb.

      Reply

  9. Lisa Ruschak - 2005

    Yes, a video please! Maybe even a set of songs for sale

    Reply

  10. Anamaria Kazanis - MA2000

    I have always been amazed and proud of our MMB, athletes, clubs members, …, balancing their course load with their dedication to the MMB, sport, club, …, etc!!
    GO BLUE

    Reply

  11. Alisande Cutler - 1960

    I wish someone could persuade advertisers and sponsors to broadcast the half-time show!

    Reply

  12. Ron Welf - MSE 1968

    Love following the MMB. Revelli and Cavender were quite the pair. Being drilled by an ex-Marine, and Revelli could be a real tyrant at times. But they got the best from us all. Great experience and character building. Including a Rose Bowl and several other wonderful trips during my 4-year membership. Keep up the great work.

    Reply

    • Jack Seeley - 1959

      I was privledged to be a MMB brass player in 1955..yes Reville was feared & at times not liked..but he demanded and got the best we as members could give..resulting in excellent playing & marching with no doubt who again had the best marching band in the land..the University of Michigan. GO BLUE!!

      Reply

  13. Sue Lerch - 1994

    I never understood the football game, but I went for the Michigan Marching Band. Hopefully there will be a video.

    Reply

  14. Michael Keebler - 1969

    Thanks Jessica for the great story. I also have enjoyed the UMMB since the 1950’s, since I grew up a block from the UM Stadium. I look forward to hearing the band in a future article.

    Reply

  15. Jeffrey Cohen - 87

    My son is in #123, a Virtual Show has been recorded, understandable 1st time ever issues to work out before release.

    Reply

  16. Jim Forman - 1967 BSEE

    My 5 seasons as a proud MMB member (Euphonium) were without a doubt, the highlight of my college career. The values of hard work, quality above all, leadership, and appreciation for the artistry and pageantry, shaped my life ever since. A few years ago I had the privilege of entering the field through the tunnel and the thrill, excitement, and adrenaline all came back in a rush.

    I know that the “Pride of the Wolverines,” the MMB, will drive through the current challenges, just as they drive it onto the field, always have, and always will! GO BLUE!

    Reply

  17. DOUGLAS GRIFFIN - 67

    What an inspiring story about leadership, dedication, desire, and effort. Kudos to all the band members and to the author of this informative and inspiring story. When the 300 + alumni watch the M Band at our Denver Pub on Saturdays in the Fall, a chill goes down our collective spines as they take the field. Go Blue!

    Reply

  18. Larry Lowe - 66,68

    i grew up in Ann Arbor and i remember warching the band practice at Ferry Field during the 50’s. it was awesome

    Reply

  19. Maggie Vazquez - 1977

    Years after leaving Ann Arbor, I went back for a Homecoming Game. The hair on my arms sprung at the sight of the band coming onto the field. Love, love, love the Michigan band.

    Reply

  20. Carol Patrick - 1965 LSA

    Michigan football and Marching Band were a big part of my student life. At that time—no females were allowed on the field—what a wonderful sight to see my sisters in the band and cheering on our Wolverines! Looking forward to the video.

    Reply

  21. karen Sue Stevens - BSN 1964

    My very favorite part of all those football Saturdays many years ago. I’ll certainly look forward to a video.

    Reply

  22. Steve Smith - 1985

    One of the greatest experiences of my Michigan years to be part of a group so excellent. I was never the greatest player (always just a “rank and file” member) and only played for 2 years but love those memories and days where EVERY person in the Band was giving 110%. The first time we played “The Victors” in Revelli Hall, the hair stood up on my arms–it was like a wall of sound filled up the room. So proud of the group now and how well the students give their all. Go Blue!

    Reply

  23. Mr. Lance E Sloan ​​ - 1994

    I’d love to see videos of the marching band virtual performances.

    Reply

  24. Philip Brunskill - 1955

    What a great story, Jessica. Good work. Can’t wait for the video. ~~ ” Band — Take the Field !! “

    Reply

  25. MICHAEL BAILEY - 1973

    My wife and I love the MMB. We have always enjoyed following them to the stadium and then hurrying to our seats to cheer them out of the tunnel. Please include a video!! Go Blue!!

    Reply

  26. kenneth copp - 1955

    Always a fan of the Michigan Marching Band culminating in my being the Band on field announcer in fall 1954
    “Ladies & Gentlemen – Presenting the University of Michigan Marching Band! – BAND…. take the Field!”

    Reply

  27. kenneth copp - 1955

    My first UM football game & watching the Band was in the 1940s when we, Boy Scouts, served as ushers in the stadium. Then I was a freshman in 1950 & later, in fall 1954, was chosen as the stadium announcer for the Marching Band where I had the honor of saying:
    “Ladies & Gentlemen …….. Presenting the University of Michigan Marching Band….. BAND, TAKE THE FIELD!!!!!”
    It was a great experience working with Dr. Revelli & George Cavender

    Reply

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