The Pride of the Buckeyes

| May 19, 2009 | 0 Comments

'The Pride of the Buckeyes' documentary poster.

‘The Pride of the Buckeyes’ documentary poster.

WOSU’s documentary about The Ohio State University Marching Band, The Pride of the Buckeyes, premiered on WOSU TV in 2006. WOSU is re-showing it on June 3, 2009, 8pm, and the only way you can get a copy of the show is to watch it. Here’s what you’ll see.

Tap. Tap. Tap.
It might be a verbal cue, chanted during The Ohio State University Marching Band practices, or the sound of nervous horn players’ feet on game day, or director Jon R. Woods’ baton against a music stand cradling “Carmen Ohio.”

Tap. Tap. Tap.
In this case, it belongs to a snare drummer who offers the cadence as both a cue for action and the beat of the upcoming number. For “Ramp,” which is the first thing that most frenzied OSU fans hear in Ohio Stadium on Saturdays, the three taps come at a rate of 180 per minute, or three per second.

To get that precisely right, a single drummer will watch the stadium clock, second by second, tapping along at three per second—softly at first, and then much louder. The beat is passed to the rest of the percussionists, and then to the rest of the band. (To get the best view of this, head to the north stands at least 20 minutes before kickoff.)

The “Ramp Entrance” was first performed in 1928, “Script Ohio” in 1936. Aside from personnel changes, these routines have been played almost exactly the same way every game, every year. Tap. Tap. Tap.

If you want to be in the OSUMB, you must sign up for Music 205.01, a 2-credit-hour summer class. Nobody on campus works harder for two credits.

Under a blazing sun, atop old Astroturf that mercilessly reflects the heat, Summer Session begins, the first of many long workouts. There, would-be band members, all wearing shorts and wielding instruments, subject themselves to grueling practices led by veteran band members known as “squad leaders.”

Summer Session is not a tryout. This is the tryout before the tryouts. Musicians new to the band’s style of marching, or even returning band members who are shaking off months of rust, practice turning square corners, driving down the field, and “8 to 5,” which is not a reference to hours, but to the standard marching step that covers exactly five yards in eight steps.

Women get the same treatment as the men, and are held to exactly the same standards. And yes, there have been female sousaphone players who have dotted the “I,” as well as female drum majors.

Those who persevere get the pleasure of more practices once the real tryouts begin. Again and again, young men and women sing “Sloopy” until they’re hoarse, and sling their brass instruments around like yo-yos.

Competition doesn’t end after the tryouts. Two hundred twenty-five make the cut, 192 march every week, with the rest as alternates. To keep everyone on their toes, the alternates challenge band members for their spots. Woe to the member who has an achy Achilles tendon. If a challenger performs better during the weekly contest, he wins the spot for the game. This process requires members to keep their injuries private; they often sneak off to see the band’s physical therapist, Pam Bork, on the sly, lest their weaknesses make them targets for challengers. They march come sprains, strains, or worse.

The video crew at WOSU spent five-plus months in 2005 in the shadow of the band—in rehearsals, in the dressing room, on the practice field, even going up to Michigan and west to Arizona. We were given access to meetings that even the most trusted outsider never sees. And we recorded, as faithfully as possible, a process shaped by tradition and routine.

The military comparisons are almost too easy to make. From the uniforms to the grooming (clean-shaven; long hair must be pinned up), to the steps, to the pomp, to the endless demand for perfection, the OSUMB was founded and still runs on armed-forces principles. In 1878, it was a 12-piece fife-and-drum corps, the first musical organization on campus. Band leaders needed both musicianship and experience with military bands.

The shoes are the same shoes used by all of the US military branches, and offer almost no support. Hats are typically lined with paper to ensure a very snug fit. Like the rest of the uniform, they are not designed for comfort. (The snug fit is essential; the player may not stop and pick up the stray hat if it comes off during a routine.) They are part of a look that has been passed through generations of musicians. Ask any of the band members, or any of the Alumni Band members who return yearly to partake in just one more “Script Ohio,” and the answer is always the same. “Yes, it’s more than worth it.”

A ritual occurs under the north stands before game time. The band marches from St. John’s Arena, where they rehearse during Skull Session, then they merge onto the ramp that leads to the stands, and they sing:

I Wanna Go Back to Ohio State

I wanna go back to Ohio State
To old Columbus town,
To the stadium to hear the band,
By far the finest in the land,
I wanna go back to Ohio State
To old Columbus town,
I wanna go back,
I gotta go back,
To Ohio
Ohio, Ohio
The hills send back the cry [O - H!]
We’re here to do or die [I - O!]
Ohio, Ohio
We’ll win the game or know the reason why!
And when we win the game, we’ll buy a keg of booze!
And we’ll drink to old Ohio,
’Til we wobble in our shoes!
Ohio, Ohio
We’ll win the game or know the reason why!

It’s not the biggest band in the country (the Notre Dame Band, for instance, marches over 350), but it may well have the biggest sound. The all-brass and percussion arrangements are distinctive, bold, and bright. Woodwinds have their place, but not in this band.

Besides the adrenaline rush, the perks include unrelenting adoration from Ohio State’s massive fan base. If you think Ohio Stadium is loud, try sitting in with the band while it plays at a high school in Toledo, a bi-annual excursion that packs the rafters of an overstuffed gymnasium. Many a student musician has been converted there.

Band members also get to travel to bowl games; in 2005, the football Buckeyes had two early losses, but rallied to wind up in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona. In four jam-packed days, the band had two rehearsals and played in two parades, three pep rallies, and for a high-school band competition. They marched for pre-game and halftime, and played throughout the game. Add in travel time and dry desert air. They returned to Ohio Stadium at 8 a.m. on the morning after the Fiesta Bowl. Classes for Winter Quarter began that same day.

The bar for making and sticking with the band are as high as the knee lifts. Perfection on the field demands perfect practices, tryouts, and music checks that push students past the edge of what they believed they could do. The band embodies all of the qualities that make adults weep when they hear “Carmen Ohio,” and make them rattle C deck when they play a rock song from the 1960s. They are simultaneously pep squad, choir leaders, and gymnasts.

In Old Columbus town, making the OSU Marching Band means you already beat the band.


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