Enddy Almonord hoisted herself off the dewy turf on the Memorial Stadium field just after 7 a.m. two Saturdays ago, climbed to the top of the ladder at the 50-yard line and looked out toward the Marching Illini in their orange and blue parkas.
“Gooooood morning band,” the Champaign Central graduate shouted into a microphone headset, elongating her words for emphasis.
“Iiiiiit’s game day. Turn to the person next to you and say, ‘It’s game day.’”
It’s the first chilly game day of the year, the kind of weather that dampens the brass instruments the band members are holding. But one of the crucial jobs of drum majors Almonord, Jane Folliard and Jake Burrows is to fire up the band members so that they can do the same for the crowd in a few hours.
That means on mornings when the weather dips into the 40s and during games when the Illini are trailing by multiple touchdowns, as they would in a few hours, they have to keep an ever-enthusiastic attitude.
“The minute that we’re on the field, we make sure that everybody feels welcomed, included, and making sure that they all have fun,” Burrows said. “Even when we’re stretching, we like to slip in a funny joke and, all of the time, have constant energy. Just really positive, hyped energy.”
During a football season in which plenty of seats at Memorial Stadium have remained empty, the band’s role, first and foremost, is to entertain.
But it also keeps its roots as a military band with regimented, military-like exercises.
Practices and performances are equal parts goofy and stone-face serious. They’re locked in step in straight lines, performing complex maneuvers, but they’re light-hearted.
‘Family-friendly’ a must
During their march to the stadium a few hours after their warmup, a crowd lines the street from the Armory to the stadium. The drum majors lead the band’s 375 members on a lock-step walk toward the stadium with serious, blank expressions on their face.
Their stoicism never breaks. They sing “Pride of the Illini,” a song about marching for “the men who are fighting for you,” and play other military marches and never crack a smile. But when the drumline plays its cadence, the band — along with the members of the Illinettes, but not the drum majors — begins its chant.
And it has nothing to do with school pride or marching for soldiers. It’s pure fun. The centerpieces to the cadence chant this year include “Low,” a song about dancing in the club; The Black Eyed Peas’ hit “My Humps,” and several inside jokes. They also stop in the middle of the street for coordinated dance breaks.
“The verbal execution that the band gives (during the cadence), that changes and alters, even throughout the year sometimes,” Director Barry Houser said. “If something unique has happened, usually that finds its way into the drumline’s cadence.
“My biggest thing that I’ll do with the drumline cadence and the verbals that go along with that is to make sure that we police that and things are very family-friendly along the way.”
The amount of information the band has to absorb quickly each week is immense.
There’s a new show at every home game, meaning the band needs to learn new music and new formations at the beginning of the week.
400 hopefuls, 125 spots
At times, Houser is tough on his band as he stands in the 60-foot tower or in the stands at Memorial Stadium on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings.
He points out flaws in musicianship, admonishes them when enthusiasm is lacking, and makes sure lines are as straight as can be.
But he makes sure to work in light-hearted moments. At the end of practices, he asks if it’s anyone’s birthday, to which sections will chant back names. He jokes about the opposing team and upholds fun traditions.
“They know we have a job to do, but they know we get to have fun along the way,” Houser said. “That’s very important on the collegiate level, to find those moments to have fun. If we’re not having fun, we’re not going to have students coming back from year to year.”
They keep coming back, no matter the football team’s record. Almost 700 students auditioned for the band of 375, which returned 250 members. That meant over 400 students auditioned for around 125 spots.
Those 375 students, most of whom aren’t music majors, spend almost their entire Saturdays with each other.
For each 11 a.m. kickoff, they perform constantly starting at 10:10, when they play “Alma Mater” for fans at the Armory. They then march to the stadium, where they play their pregame show within minutes of arriving.
Their halftime show is the centerpiece of their week, but throughout the game they provide the entertainment and atmosphere that’s embedded in college football. During the third quarter, a small portion of the band goes to the Colonnades Club to perform and then to the East stands, where they perform for fans who are taking a break from the game to get concessions.
After the game, they march back to the College of Education building and perform for a large group of fans.
From play time to showtime
Like most college marching bands, the Marching Illini don’t perform in competitions, so the stage doesn’t get bigger than game day. And when Saturday comes, they’re ready to entertain, whether that means putting themselves in the exact spot to execute a formation, firing up the crowd with fight songs and popular music, or chanting the words to a pop music song while marching stoically in line.
“I think we start from the very beginning of our band season in building this culture of excellence, and we have fun in working towards that excellence and working towards being great,” Folliard said.
“We as a band do a good job of being able to goof around on the field and having fun and telling jokes, and when it’s time to do a rep, we’re set and we know we’re putting in time toward a good product that we want to put out on the field all together.”