If there's football, show will safely go on for Michigan Marching Band

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Football players are returning to campus at Michigan to begin COVID-19 testing before voluntary conditioning and weight training starts next week as momentum continues to build toward a season this fall.

There is nothing concrete regarding the upcoming football season aside from the fact everything seems to be in flux. If games are played, will fans be allowed? How many fans? Families? Students? How about tailgating? Media coverage?

So many questions yet to be answered, among them, what about an enormous part of the game-day experience, the Michigan Marching Band? After all, the playing of “The Victors” and the drum major backbend are an essential part of the day.

“We have some form of this conversation 15 times a day,” John Pasquale, director of Michigan's marching and athletic bands and associate professor of conducting, said in an interview with The Detroit News.

The Michigan Marching Band is a staple of the game-day experience at Michigan Stadium.

There are 400 members in the MMB. A typical pregame show has 235 people and the halftime show has 276. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down all on-campus activities at Michigan in mid-March, there is the new norm of wearing protective masks and social distancing, among other hygiene suggestions. Figuring out how the band, which prides itself on precision, will go on factoring in 6-foot social distancing sounds more like a math problem than anything to do with music and performing.

If there are football games, Pasquale envisions a pregame show, and then depending on whether fans are in attendance, they will make decisions based on different scenarios. If there are no fans, he suggested there’s no reason to have a halftime show.

“Let's assume that we have fans, however many that's going to be — 15,000, 40,000. Whatever the social-distance scenarios are going to be, we will do a pregame show, our typical pregame show,” Pasquale said. “But it's gonna have to be completely modified because according to current aerosol studies, we would we would need to be 6 feet in circumference.

“A marching field is measured by steps. There are 5 yards and there are eight steps per 5 yards, every step is 22½ inches. So, for 6 feet apart, we would need to be 3.2 steps apart, person to person, to be able to have a field show in the social-distance scenarios for public health, which means our current pregame show in its entirety is going to have to be redone, because we don't meet those. We're actually writing something now.”

That planning already sounds exhausting, but then there’s the issue of getting to and into Michigan Stadium, which won’t be a small task. The band parades past the tailgaters on the way to the stadium and Pasquale figures with 6-foot social distancing, the band would have to extend back “almost a mile long,” he said. Typically, the Michigan Marching Band emerges from the tunnel — the main entrance and exit from the field — but the tunnel is tight. There is limited access to the stadium from the stands.

“We’re assuming that the tunnel is not going to be accessible for that many people, so we're figuring out how to get into the building,” Pasquale said. “That's a whole separate conversation, but let's assume that we're in. We'll start from the end zones, probably both end zones because we aren't going to be able to stage everyone to one side or the other because they'll be too close together. If we're in there, and we do the math, and this isn't gonna work even into two end zones, we may just have to enter from the full field.”

Over 200 members take part in the band's pregame and halftime shows at football games.

The band practices at roomy Elbel Field where the members can work with safe, four-step spacing to prepare for a halftime show.

“We'll just write them in a creative way where we will be four steps apart,” Pasquale said, smiling. “It's not going to be the most exciting thing you've ever seen, however, everybody in the whole country is in the same boat. We're all going to be going, ‘Well, what kind of pictures can you make out of four-step spacing?’ They'll be hard to read. So it's gonna be a lot of block shapes and a lot of circles.

“The problem is that how our stadium is built, it's not very tall, so it's hard to see everything.  With the other stadiums like at the Shoe (Ohio Stadium), you’ve got the third deck and you can see it really well. Here that isn’t so much the case. We'll figure it out. Of all the things that are going on in the world, we take our stuff seriously, but it's just band. It’s all gonna be OK. There's a lot of people working on this, I mean, just in our tiny microcosm. I could not imagine being president (Mark) Schlissel or the provost or (Michigan athletic director) Warde (Manuel). No thank you.”

Pasquale said it’s one thing to perform to a Big House packed with 110,000-plus. It’s quite another if the stadium is empty or even partially full. After a two-week band camp, the MMB does a stadium rehearsal the Wednesday before the first home game. This way, the band members get accustomed to the flow of game day.

“If there's no one in the stands, it is going to be really loud,” Pasquale said. “It is so loud just because it's this metal tube that's reverberating off of everything and how the shape (of the stadium) works, it holds the sound in. So when they play there's about a 32-second ring to it on the back side. It's remarkable.

"The team hasn't been in there when we've been there by ourselves, so if that does happen, we’ll have to give them a heads up, because that'll be eye-opening.”

Practicing outdoors is not an issue, and the hope is there will be enough good weather this season. Revelli Hall can, under the new restrictions, only hold 99 people and only 42 people can be in the rehearsal space. Normally, the band crams into the indoor facility before the nearly two-hour practices that begin in late afternoon. Pasquale said logistics are being worked out so that band members can move in and out of the building, get to their lockers, and access the instrument and uniform storage room before heading to practice on time.

The band likely won’t be traveling for football road games this season, and because of the financial drain of the pandemic that is affecting the entire campus, it’s quite possible the band won’t travel for a few years.

“And also, I don't think any stadium is gonna want us in there,” Pasquale said before jokingly adding a reference to Michigan’s rival. “I don't think that Ohio State really enjoys us being there anyway, but they're really not going to want us now. Of all the times not to go to Columbus is when there's gonna be like 15,000 people in the in the stands — it’s going to be calm for the first time. That would be very interesting.”

If there is a football season, regardless what plans are made and whether there are no fans or some fans, Pasquale said the show will go on — even if that means getting creative and perhaps having the band performing live on the scoreboard from another location.

“Even if we aren't doing anything in the Big House, we are going to do everything possible to have the MMB still produce a game day in some capacity,” Pasquale said. “Whether that means we're by ourselves on Elbel Field and we broadcast live from the rehearsal field, or even on Saturday morning from in the Big House, if we can even get in there. It'd be great to do something or do a concert on campus somehow. Obviously, there are so many factors involved, but that would be my priority. I would feel very passionate about that if we're able to safely do this.”

Band members will have a new addition to their uniforms: a mask that currently is being designed. When they’re moving anywhere, they will wear their mask, while those who aren’t playing instruments, like the percussionists and flag members, will keep them on.

But the way Pasquale sees all of this, it is a big deal logistically, but it is not a big deal realistically.

“We've been thinking about this ever since the beginning (of the pandemic) and it does us no good to panic about it,” Pasquale said. “We just need to think through logically. It's all going to be OK. Just being calm and rational helps a lot for everybody. And especially right now with so much turmoil in the world right now it's important. But again, it's just sports, it’s just band. We’re all gonna be OK.”


Twitter: @chengelis