Life as an LSU Tiger Bandsman: Ride the Bus

Chris Graythen

When it comes to trips involving the full Golden Band from Tigerland, the story involves much more than the game.

Now that preseason week is over, it's time to look ahead towards football season proper. Typically school starts two weeks before LSU's first football game, so there's a bit of a breather for bandsmen to get adjusted to the daily grind of a college schedule, including getting used to four days of rehearsal a week. I, like most of my fellow bandsmen, usually welcomed it because we were all exhausted. It also meant that football season was close, though still painfully far away.

Unfortunately the 2013 LSU Tiger Marching Band does not get this usual two weeks without a football game. Instead, due to the season kicking off sooner this year, the band has only one week to prepare the Pregame and halftime shows for the first game against TCU. In fact, the band's staff adjusted the 2013 preseason week schedule to compensate for this lost rehearsal time. They will also be rehearsing at 8:00 AM the morning they leave for Arlington since their rehearsal schedule has been comparatively shorter than recent years. While it can be done - TGBFTL regularly puts shows together in one week - it adds some more pressure to the process.

While the quick turnaround between preseason week and the first game is unusual, week one neutral-site games can more or less be considered the new normal. In my four years with the band, two of our opening games were at neutral sites (Atlanta in 2010 and Arlington in 2011). This year's kickoff in Arlington is LSU's third neutral site opener in the last four years, and next year's game against Wisconsin in Houston will be the fourth in five. Since these games are nationally-televised, what would they be without the polished presence of the Golden Band from Tigerland?

***

The band usually makes one full-band trip during the regular season, either to a neutral site game or a close SEC game, though the latter has been infrequent recently. With the advent of games like the Cowboys Classic, it appears this trend will continue for some time - the full band has traveled to a regular season SEC game only twice since 2008, both to Auburn. The last time Tiger Band's full contingent made a trip to regular season game that wasn't on the Plains was in 2007, when LSU took on Ole Miss in Oxford. So as stated previously, infrequent. This 2007 Ole Miss trip was also the same one where a bus broke down, forcing its inhabitants to switch buses on the interstate. For some reason, I don't think it's a coincidence the full band hasn't been back.

However the logistics of full band trips work essentially the same, regardless of their destination. Repetition of the process each year makes transporting all 325 bandsmen and band staff, probably around 340 people total (gives or take a graduate assistant or two), obviously makes it easier. However it does not make it any less impressive. That is to say, it's a lot more than just loading up a few buses.

The Friday morning before the band departs sees the Band Hall abuzz with activity as all of the pre-trip housekeeping gets attended to. Obviously the band members report with their luggage (including uniforms), instruments (if they can fit on the bus), and whatever else they may need (in the case of the piccolo section in 2010, I remember seeing a canister of cheeseballs bigger than some Eastern European countries). However, they cannot load up until the buses arrive, and there is still much to be done!

Before any wheels get turning, Tiger Band members get the greatest pre-trip present of them all: an envelope of money to be used for meals. The amount varies depending on the trip and if there is a provided meal sometime during its duration, but regardless, it feels like Christmas has come a little bit early. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the band managers, office staff, and brothers of Kappa Kappa Psi, who are responsible for handing out these precious little gifts, as well as doing loads of other things. You'll be hearing much more about all three parties in the future.

Once you have your sweet, sweet envelope of meal money, it's time to load the bus. Loading up the buses takes the patience, concentration, and skill of a chess master if you want to do it properly. If you don't, you'll end up being the first person who throws their stuff underneath the bus and have a wrinkled uniform for the game on Saturday - I made this tragic mistake on my first trip to Auburn in 2008 (whoops).

Speaking of buses, there's seven of them which bring the band to their destination. And two Louisiana State Trooper units. And an equipment truck which hauls the larger instruments, though I'm not sure if they leave in advance of the main convoy. The point is, Tiger Band rolls deep when it goes somewhere. If you think you see them on the road, look in the front window of the buses for a gold sign that says "THE GOLDEN BAND FROM TIGERLAND" and a number denoting which bus it is. If one bus's sign happens to have an "X" instead of a number, don't ask questions and just go with it.

Busing to your destination is a fairly non-descript experience. There's chatter for the first hour or two before people quiet down, fall asleep, or do homework. Sometimes you'll watch a movie or two, but everyone always wakes up when it's time for the most important part of every road trip: FOOD.

For trips like the one to Arlington for the Cowboys Classic, the band will typically stop at a mall en route to the destination for lunch. Considering these trips - especially the neutral site games - occur on Labor Day weekend, malls are already a little bit more crowded than usual for a weekday. When you add 325 hungry 18-23 year olds to the mix, it becomes chaos. The lunch rush gets worse, a lot worse, especially if there's a Chick Fil-A, Subway, or Cane's. Since everyone goes to those, I usually wound up going to whatever generic burger or sandwich joint happened to be there. Sometimes I got lucky and had a good meal...sometimes. Regardless of meal quality, lunch is always relatively brief because the band needs to get to its destination!

Once you get to your final stop, you either have the night off or - in the case of a neutral site game - you get to unload your bus only to hop onto another. There's always some big happening going on in advance of a big neutral site game, and the band's presence is all but required. In my junior and senior years I played at these events. Before the Cowboys Classic in 2011 a small group, maybe about 50 of us, played at a student recruitment event in some fancy Dallas hotel. It was reasonably stiff and lots of people clapped politely as we went through the usual playlist of school songs and stands music. All in all, it was a nice way to entertain some people after spending several hours on bus, if not a little stodgy.

It was a stark contrast to our pep rally in 2010, which may have been one of my favorite Tiger Band performances ever. It happened at a small downtown Atlanta concert venue known as the Tabernacle, so aptly named because it originally opened as a Baptist-affiliated infirmary in 1910. Since the building was constructed so long ago, it wasn't exactly what you'd call huge; at least it didn't feel that way. The event was also significantly more dressed-down (or liquored up) than the recruitment one we played at in 2011. I'm not sure who put it on (Tiger Athletic Foundation, if I had to guess), but a small group of us (and the full contingent of the incomparable Golden Girls) crammed onto the stage to play for a crowd that seemed bigger than what the room could hold. The building that felt like it could fall apart at any moment. It was loud, it was uncomfortable, but oh man was it fun.

Anyway, with that out the way, it's time to go to sleep. The next day is the best damn day of them all. The one you've been preparing for all these weeks. It's finally football season, and damn it, life is beautiful.

***

Full band trip gamedays themselves, neutral site or not, are hectic affairs. The timing of loading up the buses depends on where your rehearsal for the day is, and no two games are alike when it comes to rehearsals. However the band tries to follow its typical gameday rehearsal schedule. For the 2013 LSU Tiger Marching Band, they're likely rehearsing at a local high school - in 2011 it was at Flower Mound High - eight to nine hours before kickoff. In the Texas heat they'll run through Pregame (a modified version), the halftime show, work on whatever else needs to be done, and then probably eat a meal before getting dressed and busing off to AT&T Stadium. Maybe another small group will play at a pep rally as well, much like we did in 2011 for ESPN's College Gameday, but there isn't much deviation. It's an efficient process and, if all goes according to plan, the band will likely be in their seats two and half hours before kickoff. This is an example of one Tiger Band's biggest mantras, words I knew well for four years: "hurry up and wait."

STORY TIME: As mentioned before, rehearsals are different each full band away game. In our 2010 trip to Atlanta we rehearsed with North Carolina's band in the Georgia Dome prior to kick off to work on a combined National Anthem. In rehearsal everything went off without a hitch. It seemed like it would be a rendition of the National Anthem that everyone in attendance would remember. Getting over 600 people play the Star-Spangled Banner at once is really quite a feat, and it felt like we were poised to pull it off. Our bands were in sync, everyone knew their cues, and it appeared everything was going to be swell when the game rolled around.

Boy, were we wrong. With around 70,000 pairs of eyes staring at us, either UNC's band was playing behind the beat (set by their director), or we were playing ahead of it. It's been three years and I'm still not sure which it was. The result was an odd-sounding piece of nearly-antiphonal music that was not at all what Francis Scott Key had in mind (listen for the cymbal crashes in the above video). The look on the face of UNC's band director was not a good one, and by the time it was over his entire head was as red as the Georgia Dome's seats. Everyone adjusted as best as they could, but it was noticeable to everyone on the field - I remember audibly swearing when I wasn't playing. But hey, no one notices when two prominent college marching bands almost botch the Star-Spangled Banner in front of 70,000+ people and possibly millions of others watching on live, national television, right? Right?

Anyway, the band plays a modified form of its ever-popular Pregame show for these games, and then makes way for the opposing team's band to play their show. Or - as was the case in 2011 - no one, since Oregon did not bring a band due to the fact that their classes had not started. However, it's important that each band receives equal billing during the game, because these games aren't all about LSU - as much as we may want them to be.

Once the game begins, you're usually running on adrenaline. It's not uncommon to see bandsmen dozing during TV timeouts. But with the band operating like it normally does for games in Tiger Stadium, there isn't a lot of time to rest, especially if the game isn't on CBS. By the time it's over you're spent; all you want is a comfortable bed and a warm meal. However, you have to wait for the stadium to clear, load the buses once more, and then wait in traffic to get back to your hotel. Usually this ride is loud only briefly. It doesn't take long for the weight of the day to catch up with the members of the band, who listlessly get off the bus and make their respective ways back up to their rooms one last time.

So after the Tigers (hopefully) best their opponent - whether it's strangling the life out of the previous year's national runner-up, or surviving on a last-second defensive stand against a depleted ACC team - the next morning an exhausted Golden Band from Tigerland loads up the buses one last time and goes home to Baton Rouge. And the next Saturday, they'll be home in more ways than one.

Part III of this series detailing what a normal home gameday is like for the Golden Band from Tigerland will appear next week.


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