After yearlong layoff, Michigan Marching Band ready to make loud return for football

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — When the Big Ten reversed course and reinstated a shortened football season last fall, that hardly signaled a return to normal.

The COVID-19 pandemic limited athletic seasons, but it completely wiped out a year of the Michigan Marching Band. Nearly 100 seniors lost a chance to perform one final time. Now, the band returns with 411 students — the minimum is typically 380 — after a two-week camp to prepare for the football season, which kicks off Saturday when the Wolverines host Western Michigan.

“We’re ready to get the band back together, both figuratively and literally,” John Pasquale, director of Michigan's marching and athletic bands, said this week. “We are just ready to go. We are ready to put it out there.”

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Michigan Marching Band and director John Pasquale will perform live at a football game this weekend.

Pasquale said the band is ahead of where he thought it would be considering the long layoff and there is an eagerness to get back in Michigan Stadium, although they've held a few practices there. Last season, there were no fans, no bands at games, no pageantry, no electricity in the sterile, cavernous Big Ten stadiums.

“We didn't know what to expect, as did probably every entity on campus trying to figure out how is this going to go,” Pasquale said of the return of the band members and the addition of 100 first-year participants. “But it went so much better than I thought just in terms of how they came back ready to go and their excitement level and their performance level. It was a bit overwhelming at first. It almost kind of gets you choked up a little bit.”

Drum major Walter Aguilar has returned as a fifth-year senior. To honor the seniors who did not get a chance to perform last year other than virtually, he has engraved the initials of those band members on his baton.

“While we will never be able to fully make up for the loss that the Class of 2021 went through, this is a special way to honor those that overcame so much,” Aguilar said in a statement. “With every backbend, goalpost toss, twirling move, rehearsal and game day, the Class of 2021 will be there with us in spirit.”

Had Aguilar decided not to return for a fifth season, he would have been the only Michigan drum major in school history to never perform in Michigan Stadium in that role.

Because of the yearlong pause, good changes were made internally in terms of running the department and band. The changes will be lasting, Pasquale said, but nothing fans will notice. There will be more use of Zoom connections in an attempt free up the students. In terms of safety protocols, band members must wear masks indoors while practicing, removing them only when they need to play their instruments, and outdoors they do not have to mask.

What it also produced was more opportunity to plan halftime shows.

The band will perform “Welcome Home” at halftime of the Michigan-Western Michigan game, but Pasquale is especially excited for the Michigan-Washington game on Sept. 11. It will mark the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and the Washington D.C. area, and the show is entitled “We Remember.”

“It's going to be a one-of-a kind show that's never been done before in the history of band,” Pasquale said. “It’s a surprise. It’s gonna be pretty intense and really special. It's a show that's going to demonstrate the strength and unity of the American spirit. We’ll obviously honor and pay tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and the first responders that helped all three sites, but it's going to be done in a way that will be certainly unique. The show could be in the dark, we’ll see.”

During halftime of the Sept. 25 homecoming game against Rutgers, the band will honor the 50th anniversary of the Spectrum Center on campus, which works to educate and advocate for the LGBTQ+ community.

What also will change this year is travel, which will be limited. The band will bus to the Michigan-Michigan State game at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 30 and the two bands will have a combined halftime show, as they did in 2017 at Michigan Stadium. The bands learn the show separately then have a run-through early on game day.

“Obviously, there's a competitive spirit there, but when the band students are together, they're just one big happy family,” Pasquale said. “The fanbase loves it. When we did it in 2017, the reaction was overwhelming. By far the funniest email that I got was, ‘Just so you know, I sent this to our Congress people to say if these two teams can do it, why can't you?’”

Western Michigan will bring a small band to the game on Saturday, Washington is sending a 50-piece group to the Sept. 11 night game, and Ohio State’s band will be at Michigan Stadium for the regular-season finale. The opposing team bands will not be on the sideline during the games and instead will be seated in the section with their fans. They will perform on the field for halftime.

What won't change is the Michigan band’s pregame parade to the stadium.

“Everything's gonna look the same,” Pasquale said. “Whoever's here, we're gonna have a great time, watch them have a kick-ass game, and our performances will be excellent.”

Twitter: @chengelis