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The show must go on: Michigan Marching Band goes virtual

by Jessica Jimenez

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.
For Walter Aguilar, there’s nothing quite like walking into an empty Michigan Stadium.  “This is the way it was the first time I walked into it almost four years ago,” said Aguilar, a U-M senior and the Michigan Marching Band’s 56th drum major. “Even after three years, going through the tunnel still gives me goosebumps.” By this time in the fall, Aguilar would have spent many afternoons and evenings practicing on Michigan Stadium turf, and yet, a photo shoot in September was only his second time in uniform on the field.  In fact, with the students surrounding him, the photo session marked Aguilar’s first time leading band members in person as the Man Up Front. 

A small number of Michigan Marching Band members pose at the empty Michigan Stadium during a photoshoot. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

A senior studying public policy, he joined the marching band as a member of the horn section. Coming to U-M had always been a dream for Aguilar and, while the move from Grand Rapids to Ann Arbor was at times overwhelming, being a part of the band provided an immediate community.  Over the years, he was impressed by student leaders and felt compelled to lead as drum major himself. Such a goal usually takes years’ worth of auditions and practice.  “It’s an intense process,” Aguilar said. “The drum major should be the best marcher in the band, so you’re working on that constantly. Every day you’re trying to become a better marcher.”  In any other year, a Thursday afternoon would be consumed with pregame sequencing, marching formations and show rehearsals. For these musicians, their attention was largely focused on attaching the new personal protective equipment to their instruments and asking each other about remote classes.  Some of the students were seeing each other in person for the first time. While it was announced that Michigan football would be returning this fall, the Michigan Marching Band will not be joining on the field.  For the first time in its 123-year history, the band has gone completely virtual. While Michigan football continues on, with its first game Oct. 24, the marching band is preparing its first show, which will be released digitally in early November. Everything has changed, from how rehearsals are conducted to how students are expected to play their instruments in a health-informed, socially distanced way. 

Planning a virtual season


Michigan Marching Band members are working to put on a series of virtual halftime shows. Image by Natsume Ono; photos by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

Creating such an unusual season required months of research and planning. The band is technically a performing arts course offered within the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. The band comprises 400 members from all levels and majors. However, unlike other classes, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March, it not only affected the band’s 2020 plans, it interrupted the 2019 ensemble’s concluding events. “Our first question was, ‘How do we finish the semester?'” said John Pasquale, who has been band director since 2013. “Then it was, how do we hold drum major auditions and prepare for the upcoming season?” Typically the band’s season ends with a collective “Spring Meeting” where the new drum major is voted on and major show highlights are released for next year.  In the 400-member Zoom, this year’s drum major, Aguilar, was voted in.  The directors, along with U-M faculty and staff, spent the rest of the summer planning several contingent seasons. The directors based their planning on current studies on the spread and prevention of coronavirus, guidelines from the CDC and WHO, and state mandates, among others.  “The biggest variables for us were whether we could continue in person or not. Then it was figuring out if we could operate in an indoor or outdoor space,” said Richard Frey, the band’s associate director. 

A new band experience

Traditionally, marching band holds class outside on Elbel Field, across from Revelli Music Hall. From 4:45 p.m. to 6:15 p.m., students rehearse that week’s show music, practice elements of the pregame sequence and conclude with rehearsing drill formation. Now, the virtual marching band class is composed of both synchronous and asynchronous lessons on Canvas, the university’s educational platform. Class components vary from recorded video demonstrations to Zoom meetings and breakout sessions.

The clarinet section practices marching with PPE covering their instruments during a student organized socially-distanced rehearsal. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

This year, Band Week lessons have been asynchronous. Members submitted videos of themselves performing marching techniques like lock-step and MMB entries—the high steps you see when the band takes the field while running out of the tunnel. All members then received individualized feedback from student leaders. Managing a large ensemble is no easy task, and the marching band relies on a hierarchy of leadership positions to handle everything from musical performance to marching formations. There are 12 instrument sections, each led by a section leader and supported by a small team of rank leaders. This allows multiple eyes and ears on the field to help peers learn the shows and drill, and that can be helpful, since some sections might have more than 60 members. This year, student leaders have taken on increased responsibility, adapting how they would normally provide instruction to a new virtual format. For Michael Grasinski, a senior studying aerospace engineering, the greatest challenge is not being able to give feedback in real-time.  “I only get one shot,” said Grasinski, the clarinet section leader. “Usually, I’d be able to demonstrate, ask clarifying questions and watch the student implement my feedback immediately. Now I have to do my best to identify all the possible problems and provide solutions in one go through a text box.” 

Clarinet section leader Michael Grasinski (center) leads a student organized socially-distanced marching rehearsal at Elbel Field. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

Band Week, usually held the last two weeks of August, is a pivotal experience for every member. From sunup to sundown, students learn the fundamentals of marching in a Michigan style. In between rehearsals, sections break away to host bonding events and share meals.  To prepare, Grasinski had to record demonstrations of marching fundamentals as well as provide music recordings to set an example for the section. During the first couple of weeks he and a few student leaders held socially distanced, optional, small group rehearsals for members to get additional attention. Masks were worn at all times, and, if the students were playing, PPE covers were worn over their instruments.  All efforts are aimed at a recorded show. While there will be no marching, individual members’ performances will be combined into a video presentation. Titled “Hail to the Frontline Heroes,” the first show will honor front-line medical and service workers. 

Maintaining community during COVID-19

Within a university of nearly 40,000 undergraduates, the marching band is a way to find a smaller community of friends. Students from the U-M Flint and Dearborn campuses also make up the band, and many will stay the night at section houses to avoid commuting to the early morning game day rehearsals. 
  • The mellophones rehearse with PPE covering the ends o their horns. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.
  • A handful of band members spend their first afternoon this year in the Big House. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.
  • Michigan Marching Band members play with PPE for instruments on the Michigan Stadium field.
  • A small practice with Michigan Marching Band members at Elbel field.
  • Small group practice on Elbel field.
Maintaining the effort to build community has been crucial this year. Trivia nights, video calls and TED-talk themed events via Zoom have helped. "I and the other leaders coordinate a bunch of social events so that there's no shortage of opportunities for new and returning members to get to know each other," Grasinski said. "We've done Kahoot quizzes, Jackbox games and Zoom ice breakers."  Maintaining those close section bonds is especially helpful to students taking classes out of state. Kelly Souza, a sophomore English major and piccolo player, said the virtual band class has been a way for her to feel connected to Ann Arbor as she continues classes from her home in Maryland.  "The decision to take classes remotely was a difficult choice to make," she said. "However, the virtual band has helped me stay connected to members as well as happenings around campus. For me, some form of band was better than no band at all."

The future of Band #123

Clarinet section leader Michael Grasinski takes virtual marching band classes from the front porch of his house. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography

Adapting to a virtual classroom has brought new ways to connect and learn. In early October, an additional curriculum was designed so students could choose their own adventure and select master classes taught by faculty and staff.  Pasquale taught a mini course in leadership fundamentals, bringing in guest speakers like the conductor of the marine band and Ross Business School professor Lance Sandelands. Other classes include instructing musicians how to spin flags or teaching business support like fundraising, public relations and social media marketing.  "We really wanted to be able to offer our students an experience they would not typically get in the MMB," Pasquale said. "This provides a behind-the-scenes view to our program that is oftentimes overlooked during regular rehearsal schedules. For example, Dr. Frey is instructing a class on show design." Eventually, the students will have the opportunity to put those skills to the test. While the first "Hail to the Heroes" show involves the students to upload their videos to specific guidelines, the goal for the second show is to have students design it.

The Man Up Front

In addition to marching fundamentals, all candidates for drum major must master twirling, the strut and the backbend. The drum major's backbend has been a staple of Michigan gameday performance since the late 1960s. In the 1990s, drum major Matthew Pickus made the move even more difficult by removing his hat for the backbend. Pickus' iteration is now the band's norm. 

It took Drum Major Walter Aguilar about a year to perfect the iconic Michigan backbend. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

Aguilar has been perfecting his backbend since freshman year. With his sister recording on her phone, Aguilar taught himself through trial and error—an experience that resulted in a lot of falling backwards.  "I don't know how many videos she took of me," Aguilar said. "I fell so often during the beginning, but I just focused on small victories. Can I bend back? OK. Next step—let me touch my head to the ground." 

Walter Aguilar is the band's 123rd drum major. Photo by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography.

Aguilar has led the virtual season by example, providing videos of himself explaining proper form and techniques just like he might have done on the field during Band Week. "My focus has been on translating the traditions and excitement to new members in order to keep the community and spirit of the Michigan Marching Band thriving," he said. "I want them all to know and feel valued by the band even though they are participating remotely." Like any senior, he's looking for jobs and considering the possibility of graduate school.  Despite the uncertainty, Aguilar remains optimistic and grateful for the virtual season and the support from his closest family and friends.  "Representing the university, the alumni and the 55 drum majors before me is a dream come true," he said. "It's an experience that I'll never forget." Michigan Marching Band Instagram Take the Field, Episode 5: The Michigan Marching Band