Few experiences, if any, come close to the experience of a home game in the confines of Tiger Stadium. For close to a century it has been described as a raucous place where the LSU faithful perform their own weekly ritual, toeing the thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning with near abandon. If a Death Valley crowd of over 92,000 people is the congregation, the Golden Band from Tigerland is its choir, uniting a multitude of voices into one with each song, cadence, and cheer. Indeed, Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium would be incomplete without the presence of the LSU Tiger Marching Band.
However much of what the band does leading up to the game garners little attention from fans, outside of band families and the occasional former member. By the time 325 pairs of feet tread upon the green, manicured grass of Tiger Stadium, the band has already been active longer than many tailgates (the bad ones, anyway). Between its rehearsal and gameday performance schedule, the band's day is as booked as a typical fan's, if not more so. It has its own list of appearances to keep up before kickoff, all of which make for a long, arduous day. While exhausting, these are the days every member of the Golden Band from Tigerland will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
The first order of business on the Golden Band from Tigerland's gameday schedule is a rehearsal at the Indoor Football Facility (the IFF, for brevity's sake), typically six hours before kickoff. However, the process for gameday rehearsals begins much, much earlier than that. The band managers and staff are in the IFF far in advance before the full band is, placing tiny strips of electrical tape in a four step-by-four step grid on the indoor practice field. The grid allows for easy navigation and correction when band members and directors are trying to perfect the marching portions of each field show. The band managers, equipment managers, and members of Kappa Kappa Psi also haul equipment for each rehearsal, such as the PA system and conductor podiums. Without this advance group, gameday rehearsals would not go as smoothly as is necessary for the band to accomplish everything it may need to do.
Those responsible for setting up rehearsals are not the only ones who are working in advance of the band's full contingent. The auxiliary groups, our indispensable Color Guard and Golden Girls, arrive at the IFF well in advance everyone else to work on their routines for that week's field show. By the time the full band arrives to rehearse, the auxiliaries have been already been polishing their routines for an hour or more, usually ending as the band arrives. The extra rehearsal time allows these ladies to make their difficult, self-choreographed routines look absolutely effortless. Do yourself a favor and take a look next they perform in Tiger Stadium (or elsewhere) - it takes a lot of time and skill for them to make it appear so easy.
Eventually the full band begins its rehearsal, which is efficient, if not a little mundane. It's usually equal parts of rehearsing the music for that week's show, Pregame, and running through that week's halftime show. Typically gameday rehearsal lasts anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours, depending on how much needs to get done. The cool thing about these rehearsals is that they're open to the public and allow you the ability to see Pregame and that week's halftime show up close and personal. While you miss out on valuable tailgating time, it allows you to see and hear things from a perspective you wouldn't get unless you were sitting on the sidelines. If you're a fan of Tiger Band or marching bands in general, it's the sort of thing you'll want to see at least once.
Some weird things go on during gameday rehearsals. A band member who hadn't previously had a spot in Pregame or that week's halftime show may have to learn a spot that day. You read that correctly. I can recall a few instances of band members learning an entire halftime show or Pregame spot the day of a game because someone had gotten sick or just not shown up. Since it's crunch time for the band, the directors have to do whatever they must to have a successful weekend of performances. During my freshman year a piccolo player had to learn a tuba player's spot because they hadn't shown up. Before anyone asks, yes she had to march with a tuba, and I believe she did quite well.
Once rehearsal is over, the band breaks for a few hours. Most retire to the Band Hall, where the staff provides a "simple, but nourishing meal," which usually meant "some kind of pasta, salad, and a dessert." In my years it was usually from Jason's Deli, though I do remember getting far too excited when they ordered Jimmy John's once (aside: to this day I still refuse to eat Jason's Deli, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend). Regardless, I ate whatever meal they provided because it was free. It's also the last chance to eat before gameday gets into full swing, and you need every calorie you can get.
After they get dressed, it's time to head from the Band Hall to the outlying areas for one of the lesser-known parts of the band's gameday schedule: warm-ups! Each section has a warm-up and pregame ritual that they do before assembling along the street for the march to the stadium. If you tailgate around the area, you've no doubt seen these warm-ups before. The most popular one (by far) belongs to the drumline, who plays a simple cadence starting with the bass drums. Eventually the whole full contingent assembles section-by-section, adding layers to the cadence, until everyone is present. If you haven't ever heard it, let's just say it will get your head nodding when you do.
Another fun warm-up belongs to the baritones, who play a tune simply called "Snakepit." I don't know its origin, but it's one of my favorite gameday warm-ups. Because they're a smaller section the baritones aren't as visible as the drumline, but that doesn't stop them from putting on a show any passersby will stop and listen to.
Last, but not least, there are the trumpets. There's no way I could talk about pregame warm-ups without including my former section. The trumpets warm up using a version of Space Chords, which are first sung, and then played. During the last one they turn a beautiful-sounding chord into a hopeless cacophony of sound, only to finish with a final, bold chord. Since there are usually around 70 trumpets, you can hear this one from pretty far away.
When the sections are all done warming up, it's time for the band to assemble on the street and begin its march to Tiger Stadium. In many ways it feels like a parade. Once the drumline begins playing the cadences it feels like the Golden Band from Tigerland is leading the crowd to the stadium, as if it were a 325-person Pied Piper. People dance, people walk along, and people gently nod their heads, but few give zero reaction as the band meanders along Dalrymple to North Stadium Drive. Once the band begins its turn down North Stadium Drive, it's time for the LSU Tiger Marching Band to perform one of its biggest gameday traditions - the run down Victory Hill.
It's hard to put into words what the "run down the Hill" is like for those who haven't experienced it as a band member. The event is exceedingly simple, but explaining it lends itself to nothing but complexity. While the event proper begins when the drumline starts the drum introduction to LSU's unmistakable Pregame Salute, for me it always began with the turn down North Stadium Drive.
Few things give me chills like when I think about the sight awaiting the band as it turns right along the traffic circle. On both sides of the street there is a purple and gold ocean of people split only by a two lane strip of asphalt. I could never tell where the crowd ended on either side of the street, but I could always hear the murmur of what felt like a million voices. As the band filled the void between the two masses of people, I could always feel the anticipation of everyone present. Few things remain with you like the sensation that an untold number of people are waiting on you to do something. A big note, a big crescendo of sound, anything, they just want something to allow them to release what they've been holding for an unknown amount of time. Then the drums stop, the band halts, and the crowd lets out its pent-up roar. They were waiting for the silence.
By the time your horn is up and you're actually playing, you can hear little else but a cacophony of instruments and crowd noise. By the time you begin moving forward, you're focused on two things: staying in line and not running into the person in front of you. The whole event is over as quickly as it begins. You're left breathless, but the crowd is and satisfied and begins shuffling its way into Tiger Stadium, almost as if they'd gotten the band's permission to enter the gates. However, the band makes its way to the opposite side of the street, into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, to put on a performance for members of the Tiger Athletic Foundation.
Once the PMAC performance is over, the band makes its way back across the street and into Tiger Stadium for a short breather in the stands. After this short break ends, it's time to head down to the field for Pregame, easily the most exciting experience for any member of the LSU Tiger Marching Band.
Anyone who has set foot in Tiger Stadium for a game knows how important Pregame is to each gameday experience. The first four notes of Pregame are synonymous with LSU football, just like tailgating, Mike the Tiger, and night games are, if not more so. They are the first call to arms, the fanfare bringing a raucous, frothing crowd to its feet. When you begin playing them you can feel the buzz all around from the field, an unfathomable loudness that somehow fades to silence as the amount of sound grows. You go through the Stadium Salute, the graceful, regal set of movements that direct you to all four corners of the stadium, with each corner you play to cheering louder than the one before it. You hit the necessary spots and make the necessary movements, eventually forming the block "LSU" just like other iterations of the LSU Tiger Marching Band have done for time immemorial. Doing so is less an act of your own will than one of muscle memory, like throwing a baseball or riding a bicycle, something so ingrained in you that not doing it correctly would be foreign. Your feet stop, you put your horn down. Flashbulbs go off all around you, the crowd roars once again. It takes less than two minutes. In less than two minutes you've made the night of over 92,000 people, and become part of LSU lore.
Eventually the band makes its way to the north end zone, ending in what's known as the "tunnel" - two blocks of musicians which serve as the heralds for the football team. By the time the band reaches this position the crowd has grown quiet, anticipating the game ahead. As a member of the band you wait and take stock of the people coming out of the north end zone tunnel. First it's the game referees, followed by team captains, and maybe a trainer or two. You're only alerted to their presence as they walk near you, since you cannot turn your head left or right. No sign of the team. You wait some more.
Then a crescendo of crowd noise, beginning from immediately behind the end zone, swells. The team is on the field. As they become visible to more sections the sound intensifies. You keep your eyes on the drum major. He signals the drumline to start playing the count-off for "Fight for LSU," you raise your horn to start playing. The sound grows once more. Suddenly you hear nothing, because transmitting that many auditory signals at once may be impossible for the human brain, and even if it isn't you aren't finding out today. The team runs onto the field. You run back into the bowels of the stadium. The next thing you know, you're sitting back in your seat. Often you wonder how you got there. You're drenched in sweat, regardless of the weather conditions, and you'd take off your jacket to cool down if you could. But there's no time to rest. It's gametime, and the choir has to lead the congregation in its weekly three-hour ritual.
From then on, the band fades into a supporting role for the rest of the night. The first half comes and goes, with the band carry out its duty of playing on each offensive down and after each defensive stop. They go back to the field, march the halftime show, and then go back up to the stands. Eventually the game ends, the band sings the Alma Mater, makes its way down to the bottom of the stadium once more, and marches back to the Band Hall. There they'll change, watch film of Pregame and halftime, and eventually go their separate ways. It's a rather discrete end to such a hectic day.
But it's only one gameday. There will be many others like it. Even so, it's an experience that is wholly unique to the Louisiana State University Tiger Marching Band.
Part IV of this series will appear next Thursday.
If you are a fan of the LSU Tiger Band, you can see them perform up close and personal on Tuesday, October 29th, in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at their annual concert, Tigerama. All proceeds from the event go towards funding the band's trip to Ireland to march in the Dublin St. Patrick's Day Parade.