As a light mist fell from the 8 a.m. sky in Auburn, a swarm of students in matching uniforms trickled onto the J.W. and Nell Birchfield Practice Field from every part of campus, armed with bulky uniform sacks and their instrument of trade.
“It’s game day and we’re going to be the loudest ones out there,” said Ryan LaGrone, senior in chemical engineering, during a trumpet section pep-talk.
Ryan Blackwell, senior in mechanical engineering and trumpet section leader, stood at the far end of the field surrounded by his section made up of more than 70 musicians. Blackwell has been a member of the marching band for four years and is hoping to march another season.
Depending on how early the game is, the band usually watches the sun rise as they line up for pre-game rehearsal. Blackwell said band members can be expected to be on the field warming up, sometimes as early as 3 or 4 a.m.
Each section, separated and spread evenly across the field, competes with sound as each member tunes their instrument preparing for the day ahead of them.Blackwell and others in command critiqued the postures of those in formation, as the group ran through stand-tunes and cheers.
“These section rehearsals are about polishing everything up,” Blackwell said. “Our section is pretty close, and we spend a lot of time together.”
Blackwell said the experiences and friends you gain from the band program make Auburn a place everyone comes back to.
“Those people in your section and your band, they are your bridesmaids, your groomsmen, your girlfriend and boyfriend, your family,” Blackwell said.
Marching Band Director Corey Spurlin said the band practices an hour and 20 minutes, four days a week, including sectional practices weekly.
Each member must be adaptable and resilient, Blackwell said, as the day’s schedule is always subject to change.
“Something most people don’t know is that we just don’t march holes,” Blackwell said. “If someone is sick, some bands will march their show with that spot empty. We don’t do that here. We have people on reserve. Sometimes we have people learn the entire pre-game routine or half-time show the day of the game. They nail it every time, too.”
Blackwell said members of the band are expected to be precise with their marching by even a fraction of a step.
“It’s all about accountability,” Blackwell said. “We expect you to have your music memorized and your drill precise. You have to go home and practice this like you would for any other class.”
Once the band has addressed and practiced their performances, they congregate around a ladder in the center of the field. Spurlin overlooked the band from the top rung of the ladder and hummed the first pitch of the alma mater.
Locking arms, the student musicians, dancers and auxiliary sang and swayed to the University’s lyrical motto. This tradition is Blackwell’s favorite.
“Looking around the circle, seeing everyone together, there’s something about that camaraderie,” Blackwell said. “We all have the same talent and we are using it for a common goal. At the end of the day it’s music and performance, there’s some heart to it.”
After a two-hour practice, the band members collect their things and are free to roam around campus until the next call time. Blackwell said early games mean very little break time for those who march the “Four Corners” pep rally and Tiger Walk.
While Tiger Walk for fans means a high-five from Sean White, Tiger Walk for the band is two separate miniature pep-rallies stationed at the top of South Donahue Drive and the bottom.
The band stands amongst hundreds of screaming fans on the packed streets of Auburn’s campus. Children stop and stare in awe of the swift moving horns and exuberant drummers. Fans, young and old, pose for pictures with the Tiger Eyes, the Auburn University Marching Band’s visual ensembles.
Tiger Walk comes to a close and Spirit March begins. Blackwell said Spirit March is the stretch of marching between the Tiger Walk locations and the start of the “Four Corner” pep-rally. The band is separated into 4 smaller ensembles until they conjoin to play at the crossroads of South Donahue Drive and Heisman Drive.
“Some people don’t get to see the band up close because they may sit on the other side of the stadium, so these pep-rallies and marches give them a one-on-one experience with us,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell said he sees lots of wide-eyes and dropped jaws through the day, especially with the time spent out of the stadium amongst the fans.
“The band is the difference between those that come to the game and those that sit home and watch it on TV,” Spurlin said.
As for the time in the stadium, the “March Around” is the first performance in the stadium for the marching band and with a short break of less than thirty minutes, it’s time for the ensemble to take the field once more for their pregame performance.
“Stepping onto that field for pregame is electric,” Blackwell said. “There’s no way to really describe it and make it truly stick.”
The marching band immediately transitions to the stands after pregame for stand-tunes and cheers.
Blackwell said the band tries to keep their stand music current and upbeat to ensure that the crowd stays involved. This year the band added crowd favorites like, “Cake by the Ocean,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Confident.”
Blackwell’s favorite tunes are “Sweet Caroline” and “Holiday.”
The football team runs off the field at the close of the second half as the band sets up to take the field.
Each member hustles to his or her spot on the sideline and the drum majors call the band to attention. Blackwell said performing halftime is exhilarating and exciting, but each member has a job and a purpose to focus on.
“Most of the time we zone out during performance,” Blackwell said. “We have to go straight to focusing and doing the job that has to be done. When you start running off the field, that’s when the exhilaration really hits you.”
After a performance in front of over 87,000 people and two quarters of stand-tunes, the marching band closes out the game with the alma mater despite win or loss.
Blackwell said at the end of the day the hardest element of it all is the time and effort put into the massive production.
“It’s an endurance thing,” Blackwell said. “You’re up early in the morning, you’re playing all day, you’re on your feet the entire day. We don’t sit down unless someone is injured. We stand all day. Game days are physically taxing. Most people go home, after rolling Toomer’s hopefully, and knock-out pretty quick.”
Blackwell said with marching band being as physically taxing as it is, it makes the day and the work rewarding. Everything you worked toward during camp and weekday practices comes to fruition on Saturdays, Blackwell said.
“[Students] learn how to be accountable, how to be a team player and how what they do affects others,” Spurlin said. “They learn that it takes consistent effort to be great at what they do. They learn how to take on a perfectionist attitude and to be consistent, which helps them in whatever profession they choose later on.”
Without the direction of Spurlin, the band would not have the continued success it does, Blackwell said.
“You can see [Spurlin’s] passion at all times,” Blackwell said. “You can tell he’s here for the music, but also to pour into all of our lives, and he does just that. When people come back, they sit by the band. When people come back, you know they are looking for Dr. Spurlin. That’s because they do an amazing job of making sure that the skills and experiences you have with the band carry over into other areas on your life.”
The fact that people come back for the band and to see the band shows the impact it had on their lives while apart of the ensemble, Blackwell said.
“Once a band kid, always a band kid,” Blackwell said.
Editor’s note: Lily Jackson was a member of the Auburn University Marching Band during the 2015-2016 season. She is no longer a member of the ensemble.