Michigan Marching Band marks 20th anniversary of 9/11 with ‘most spectacular show to date’

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Many of the University of Michigan students that march in today’s Michigan Marching Band weren’t born when tragedy occurred on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. 

Michigan Marching Band at a halftime show with giant American Flag at Michigan Stadium

The Michigan Marching Band has created and performed several patriotic halftime shows over the years, including one on Sept. 7, 2019 during the game against Army Black Knights where they unveiled a massive American Flag. Photo by Mark Haddelsey.

Their experience of that horrific day is virtual; it comes from images and stories in history class, pop culture and personal testimonies. But there will be nothing virtual about the band’s light show and performance at Michigan Stadium the night of Sept. 11, 2021. 

“We Remember,” produced with Los Angeles-based Durant Design, is the most elaborate, extravagant and spectacular live program college football fans will see that day, said John Pasquale, director of the Michigan Marching Band.

John Pasquale, who has directed the Michigan Marching Band since 2013, is pictured at the 2021 season opener against Western Michigan University on Sept. 4. Photo by Kristan Rodwell.

“Nothing like this has ever been done before by a college marching band. Ever,” he said. 

Supported by a gift from MMB fans Bill and Janelle Sykes, Pasquale promises Michigan’s version of a Super Bowl-level halftime performance when the Wolverines play the University of Washington Huskies at home at 8 p.m.

“The content lends itself really well to being completely lit in the early evening,” Pasquale said. “We have the largest football stadium in the world and as a performance venue it allows us to pay tribute and remember the anniversary in a unique, grand and respectful way.”

An illuminated extravaganza  

Pasquale co-designed the program with Richard Frey, associate director of the MMB, and Durant Design’s Timothy Durant, whose credits include such live events as the NFL Experience, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and Paul McCartney’s 2013 tour. Durant Design has done the Grammys, Emmys and Country Music Awards, among many other live shows for broadcast. It also worked with the MMB during the 2014 season, shortly after night games were approved at Michigan Stadium. 

Michigan Marching Band formation during

The Michigan Marching Band worked with Durant Design’s Timothy Durant to create a similar light show for their halftime performance on Oct. 11, 2014, when the Wolverines played Penn State. Photo by Robert Brown.

For the 2021 performance, each of the 400 MMB members will carry some sort of light, including high-powered flashlights, glowing orbs, illuminated umbrellas and more. Of those, 275 marchers also will spin flags, twirl batons and play instruments. Lasers, ultraviolet light and other effects will also factor into the mix. Some 80 volunteers will be on hand, including other MMB alumni and students from U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and from Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School Marching Band.

“We’re telling the story of the strength and resiliency of America—we are much more alike than we are different,” said Pasquale, who was teaching middle school in September 2001 and had close family members and friends who were first responders in New York City on that day. 

“We as Americans are a strong people. And we are stronger when we’re unified.”

The same could be said for the Michigan Marching Band.

Band, take the field

The Sept. 11 football game will mark only the second live halftime performance by the 2021-22 ensemble, which spent the past 18 months in Zoom purgatory. The first-year performers and the returning second-years have no experience marching as a full band, let alone in the dark, for 100,000 fans.

“We just saw our students for the first time a few weeks ago,” Frey said.

Two classes of Michigan Marching Band members took the field for the first time this season after a fully virtual year in 2020-21. Photos by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

The program took more than six months to plan and design. The greatest challenge, he said, was to take such a devastating act and memorialize it in an uplifting way that showcases unity and strength. 

“Along with all the technical elements, that’s been the tightrope that we’ve been walking,” said Frey, who noted that the students understand the sanctity of that day. “They know that ‘Never Forget’ means something significant, even though they weren’t directly part of it.”  

Joy and sorrow

In September 2001, Kimberly Baumgartner was working for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York. Today, the alto saxophonist is senior associate director of development and alumni relations for the MMB. The anniversary triggers painful memories for her. But stewarding a community that thrives on excellence, generosity and gratitude gives her hope. 

“These are phenomenal people who work so hard, and on game day, one of the greatest things is to see the stadium’s reaction when the students finish their show,” she said. “This show will provide a moment to reflect on what’s important and remind us to be kinder in our day, which is enormously relevant right now.”

The Michigan Marching Band and the Western Michigan University Marching band stand in formation during the September 22, 2001 halftime show to honor victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.

On Sept. 22, 2001, the Michigan Marching Band teamed up with the Western Michigan University marching band to pay tribute to the victims of 9/11, just 10 days after the terror attacks. Photo by Dick Gaskill.

Baumgartner worked closely with donors Bill and Janelle Sykes to deliver both a special experience to the MMB seniors and a poignant experience for the fans. The Sykes family wanted to repay the band for three decades of entertainment in Michigan Stadium. Their son joined the trumpet section in 2018. 

“We are honored to help bring the band’s vision to life on the field, in remembrance of the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” said the Sykes. “We admire the dedication of all members of the marching band and thank you for making our time at Michigan football games so special.”

The music will take fans on an emotional journey. The Sept. 11, 2021 program includes:

  • “Summon The Heroes,” John Williams
  • “Mambo” (West Side Story), Leonard Bernstein
  • New York Medley: “New York State of Mind,” Billy Joel; and “Empire State of Mind,” Angela Hunte, Alicia Keys, Alexander Shuckburgh, Bert Keyes, Janet Sewell-Ulepic, Shawn Carter and Sylvia Robinson
  • “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Lin-Manuel Miranda
  • “This Land is Your Land/Stars and Stripes Forever,” Woody Guthrie, John Philip Sousa

Musical arrangements are by Scott Boerma, Jay Bocook and Chuck Ricotta, and choreography is by Joan Noble-Pruett. The drills and formations, which were written and designed by Frey, are under wraps till game day.

20 years and counting

Choreographer and flag director Noble-Pruett worked for the MMB on that fateful Tuesday in 2001. It was a somber and frightening time of unknowns, much like COVID-19 for today’s students, she said. Athletics canceled games and events in the wake of the tragedy, as Americans grappled with a new reality.

On Sept. 22, 2001, the MMB performed “A Michigan Tribute” with the Western Michigan Marching Band. The program included “God Bless America,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful.” 

Joan Noble-Pruett, flag director, stands between two U-M flag twirlers

Joan Noble-Pruett (center), Michigan Marching Band flag director, remembers preparing students for the the Sept. 22, 2001 tribute show.

Noble-Pruett directs the Flag and Winter Ensemble. The patriotic flag silks that members used in the show 20 years ago are the same silks used today for patriotic shows.

Being back on the field is a significant step toward healing after a traumatic and tumultuous 2020-21, Noble-Pruett said.

“It’s exciting and terrifying for the students and it’s not like anything any college has ever done,” she said.

Baumgartner said she hopes the audience and those personally impacted by 9/11 will appreciate the tremendous amount of thought and compassion that went into the show.

“I know there are a ton of marching bands doing commemorative shows on September 11 to honor those who were lost and survived in our country,” she said. “But our show is going to be the best. Unequivocally. No other band could do this.”