For students and staff involved with The Iowa State University Cyclone Football ‘Varsity’ Marching Band, a typical season does not stop after Jack Trice closes its gates on football. There is much work to be done in Music Hall, and a new season to start up as soon as the ensemble’s final chord ends.
Each year before the launch of the fall semester, 500 hopefuls move to Iowa State to have a chance at being a part of this group. With this same number going out each year, returners included, around 350 members make it into the varsity marching band.
The audition judging is comprised of two portions — marching and music — done by the music faculty. Though talent in learning compositions and marching techniques are vital, there is more to becoming a member of the varsity marching band than what can be shown in skills. Leadership, a positive attitude and a positive spirit are important, too.
“It’s not just about skill when you walk in the door,” said Christain Carichner, the director of athletic bands at Iowa State.
The ISU CF ‘V’ MB’s demographics are not what one typically expects. Less than 5 percent of the varsity marching band is made up of music majors. The largest major represented? Engineering, at over 50 percent. Additionally, 60 percent of members are freshmen.
As an indicator of excellence, music is always memorized for football games, and the students have anywhere from one to two weeks to learn the show, plus drill during weekday rehearsals for around an hour and a half.
The varsity band performs at all home football games, with days often starting at 5 a.m. for an 11 a.m. home game. There are numerous other performances and opportunities before kickoff. After practice, the band does a spirit walk when the football team arrives. To pump up fans prior to the start of the game, the band is broken into smaller sections to play for visitors and tailgaters at Jack Trice. The step show follows on the stairs of the Alumni Center 90 minutes before kickoff with a parade into the stadium following. Inside the stadium, fans can typically hear pep band songs to liven up Cyclone spirit after a pregame show. Finally, a different half-time show each game tops off the day, with more pep playing at the north end zone until the game is over.
The band performs at least one high school exhibition and football game each year in addition to the performances during halftime for Cyclone football. They have recently added Hilton Madness to their season lineup. For alumni and friends wanting to hold onto the memories they made with the marching band, the band plays at weddings and birthdays. Specifically, there have been at least two weddings a year for the past five years.
Besides performances in Ames, the band also travels for one away game each season and a post-season bowl game when possible. At the end of the spring semester in 2016, the varsity band was invited to perform by the U.S. government at the D-Day commemoration and celebration held in Normandy, France.
When it comes to picking shows and music for the upcoming season, planning begins months in advance, usually in March or late February. Forms are sent to students to get an idea of what is popular. Afterward, the directors meet to discuss the entertainment value of the shows and the options available for attaining rights to perform the music.
“We really try to think about what kind of impact our shows are going to have on the general fan base,” Carichner said. “It’s easy for us to be in our own world when making the decision, but we really make sure that our shows are put together for the 60 thousand-plus that go to the games.”
Some popular themes and selections from the past season included a video game show, Broadway hits and the music of "Star Wars" and "Jurassic Park" composer, John Williams. This last one was particularly memorable. During the Iowa State v. West Virginia game in October, members of the junior varsity marching band, State Storm, came out in dinosaur suits and danced during the halftime show. This earned the ISU CF ‘V’ MB recognition from Fox College Football as halftime show of the year.
“We’re really trying to, as much as we can, push the boundaries of entertainment within the context of performing a seven minute show,” Carichner said.
Andrew Stubblefield, a senior trombone player in public relations, says a typical day for him usually involves around 20 to 30 minutes of practice for music memorization, but he said an hour of practice isn’t uncommon among other students. It’s whatever works around their schedules best. Stubblefield says his GPA is actually better each fall because of his time management skills.
Kristi Heinberg, a junior cymbal player in music education, said drumline rehearsals are a great way to get together as a section and work with the drum majors on details as a group, whether it’s bass drums alone or the entire drumline.
“Obviously, there’s personal accountability,” Heinburg said. “You've got to know your part and practice on your own time also.”
In addition to improving his musicality, Stubblefield says marching band is a workout in itself and takes physical preparation to keep up with the high energy. Band camp runs anywhere from 10 to 12 hours in one day a few days before the fall semester, and a show in itself can be a workout.
“Our pregame show is one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever done sometimes,” Stubblefield said. “It’s good to be in decent shape.”
Looking from the outside in, student workers, staff and donors all play a role in elevating the success of the marching band. Alumni, fans and the athletics department all contribute directly. Stubblefield and Carichner say the band is incredibly lucky to have overwhelming support from so many people and departments at Iowa State, from Jaime Pollard to President Wintersteen.
Stubblefield commented by saying he has never gone hungry at any event or felt as though better accommodations could have been made; donations are adequate. Carichner said the band takes care to make use of funds.
Since coming to Iowa State, Carichner said he has tried to focus on three main areas: efficiency, sound, and inclusivity. He recognizes the idea of improving upon weaknesses, but he says it’s still important to build upon “the existing success.” Beyond music, the band provides safety and family.
“It’s a great chance to blossom as a human being and use band to do it,” Carichner said.
Besides the Sudler Trophy, the varsity marching band recently received the Iowa State Alumni Association Impact Award. Carichner said the band was nominated because of the contributions it has made to the impact of life at Iowa State, and attending the award ceremony was an amazing experience for him.
“Sometimes, I sit around and think about the students I have right now, or the students I’ve had,” Carichner said. “They’re off changing the world, inventing things, creating things, selling things and processing things...Iowa State has such an impact on the world. I know that the experiences that they have in that band form so much of what they do for the rest of their lives.”
For wary freshmen scared to try marching band at the collegiate level Heinberg says, “Go for it.”
“We say a lot that the who band is a family," Heinberg said. "Before school starts, you already have all these friends and as a freshman, you don’t feel alone. Because you have 350 of your closest friends.”
In his senior year, Stubblefield says he gets emotional just by thinking about the friends he has made, the travels with the band, and the impact game day has made on his experience at Iowa State.
“I don’t think game days would be what they are without a marching band there,” Stubblefield said.