“It’s Game Day!” scream the Spirit Leaders as over-bundled band members trudge to buses along Sheridan at 10 a.m. It is time to get “hyped” and beat Michigan into the ground…without freezing ourselves into icicles.
“I have purple knee-high socks, black socks, tights, leggings, fleece-lined leggings, shorts, a tank top, the long-sleeve Under Armour shirt, our NUMB T-shirt, two pairs of gloves and a beanie on underneath this uniform,” my fellow mellophone tells me as we climb onto our bus. I panic a little inside, beginning to question my lack of warm layers.
Luckily, the band’s practice on the East field’s turf quickly changes my mind. We march the halftime show set-by-set, then song-by-song, then in full run-throughs, making sure to hit every drill-spot at the right time.
“Stop, that’s not correct,” says the band’s fearless leader, Daniel J. Farris.
This particular set, a challenging in which band members swirl across the field, switching from backwards to forwards marching while playing scales. We can never seem to get it just right. However, the band will perform it before thousands of spectators in a few hours. We run it backwards and forwards until we finally get the kinks out. The final, full run of our Queen medley leaves me feeling toasty and excited to hit the field.
Of course, there are several hours and activities to experience before halftime, including my favorite part of the pregame routine: “drum cheers.”
Percussion plays a series of beats as the rest of the band forms long lines down the pavement leading to Ryan Field. Immediately, band members start waving their instruments back and forth, jumping up and down or swinging their hips in time with the particular drum cheer. Passing Michigan fans give us puzzled looks as each section enthusiastically breaks into its specific choreography for the drum patterns.
The party stops when we see a drum major running through the mass of dancing instrumentalists: “The team’s here!”
Horns snap up and Northwestern fans begin to sing as the football players and staff, dressed in suits, arrive.
“Go, U Northwestern break right through that line…”
After alternating between the fight song and “Push On” until the entire team passes through, we give our arms a break and enjoy some lunch inside Welsh-Ryan Arena. About an hour before kickoff, we march to Wildcat Alley to perform our halftime show for the tailgaters, most of whom are quite bundled themselves this morning.
Now, we get pumped. Adrenaline kicks in the minute the drums begin and away we go, growling our loudest and jogging onto the field with our quick-entry step. Pregame flies by in a blur of notes and chair-step. I barely hear the boisterous crowd as we move to the far side of the stands to play pep tunes and cheer on the team as the game begins.
“What time is it?” bellows Spirit Leader “Twinkie” at Northwestern’s first down.
“Time to move the chains. Whoosh!” the band bellows right back.
Five minutes before halftime, we pile out to march our halftime show. I begin to do the choreography and force my slightly stiff fingers to play “Bicycle.” It all looks pretty good to me, even the parts we messed up in the pregame warm-up.
Dr. Mallory Thompson, the director of bands, takes the stand to conduct Northwestern’s alma mater with a smile on her face, clearly happy with the show.
Unfortunately, the game does not run as smoothly as our halftime performance. There are no shakos (marching band hats) turned backward at its conclusion to signify a Wildcat victory. A slight sense of disappointment prevails in the band’s customary giant circle of NUMB members following the game.
“Pitch, please,” says Dr. Thompson all the same, and the band sings the alma mater in four-part harmony.
The temperature has dropped and the Wildcats have lost, but the day is far from terrible in my mind a I sway in the circle. No matter the circumstances of the game, the band always wins.