The cold rain splashes in pools and soaks Emily Warren’s white baseball cap. Her Marching Hundred uniform turns a darker and darker red as water seeps in. Nothing feels dry anymore. Nothing has been dry since the rain started, on and off, at 7:30 a.m. But the rain is heavier now than it has been all morning.
“You got it!” the drum major, student leader of the band, says to her, patting her on the shoulder.
She nods, pulling her sandy blonde hair back, but it doesn’t matter. She’s never marched before. She’s preparing to march in a storm with a huge instrument she doesn’t play. And if she messes up, everyone will see.
The opposing team’s color guard fights off wet flags determined to stick to their bodies. The Marching Hundred stands ready. But Emily is tired. They had just marched here all the way from the Gladstein Fieldhouse in parade formation. The parade formation, which includes spinning, jumping, and lifting her 30 pound sousaphone, is no Sunday stroll.
The Indiana State University Sycamores finally clear the field. The drum major, Bang Co, leads the walk from the east side of the stadium toward the field. But just as the band moves into position, an all too familiar announcement—the same they’ve heard all morning—plays over the speakers:
“Due to the presence of lightning in the area, all activities on the field have been delayed …”
Bang’s shoulders slump. The marchers look at each other. Today, they can’t get five minutes on the field without nature spitting on them. They barely made it through “In the Navy,” the first song of the half-time show, during practice this morning. Emily wonders, briefly, if she’ll remember her marching order at all.
Emily and all of the other marchers plod toward the north side of the stadium and up a skinny staircase to try and reach the outer concourse. The bottom step is completely flooded.
“We need an ark!” someone shouts.
The only remnant of marching band at Emily’s Massachusetts high school is four old uniforms from the ’70s. Competitive marching band “isn’t as much of a thing” out where she’s from.
“In the South and the Midwest, it’s like a religion,” she says. “I have no idea why it hasn’t caught on out where I’m from.”
But, she’s come to realize, a lot of things are different here than in her home state, even the slang. Things aren’t “wicked cool” around here, people say “pop” instead of “soda,” and when she calls sprinkles “jimmies,” no one understands what she is saying. She didn’t really expect to end up as far away from home as she is.
Emily’s played in ensembles since fifth grade. She’s trained in both trombone and baritone for pep band back home, but her main instrument of study is the bassoon. She auditioned for the Jacobs School of Music program after her private lessons instructor, a Jacobs alum, urged her to. It would be a reach, Emily thought, but she gave it a shot.
When she auditioned for the bassoon program, she was accepted on the spot.
She knew she couldn’t give up an opportunity to study at one of the country’s best music schools—even if that meant moving somewhere where she knew absolutely no one at all.
But one of the music school’s requirements is two years of marching band.
“If I hate it,” she had said, “then at least I can get it over with freshman and sophomore year.”
Band camp began in a humid, smothering heat, the kind that feels like you just soaked in a hot bath with your clothes on. The asphalt on their “football field”—blue lines painted in the north parking lot of Assembly Hall—melted and stuck to their shoes while they marched.
Band members of all years participate in band camp, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, during the week before classes start. Marching drills for 12 hours straight, with only breaks for meals.
Emily also juggled learning the marching order for two instruments: her baritone, a horn type instrument for half-time, and the sousaphone, which she only carries as a matter of decorum for the pre-game show. She doesn’t even have a mouthpiece to play it.
Sixteen sousaphones must march in pre-game, and this year there are only 14. Emily and a trombone upperclassman named Alan just happened to be picked as the extra two.
“They came up to me and said, here is your sousaphone, you are going to do it,” she says. “And I said, ‘Okay.’”
The instrument wraps around her neck and drapes down to about mid-thigh. It hangs heavy on her neck vertebra and her left shoulder, a constant weight. Sousaphone players call their high-step maneuver a “swagger,” as they must sway their instrument side to side in order not to slam their knees against it.
She hasn’t come out completely unscathed. Toward the end of band camp, she sprained her ankle trying to do a three-spin on her right ankle—the way a marcher, who can rarely turn right, normally turns right. She moved her whole body, but her foot stayed in place. She couldn’t walk for a couple of days.
She also had to learn things that many older band members do almost by instinct—dance moves, for instance. Do all the moves right or else you’ll crash into someone and hurt them.
On the practice field, Emily has red dot markers and bright blue lines to help her find her positions. On the real field, it’s just 100 yards of white paint and fake grass.
Upstairs in the concourse, band members are clumped in tight quarters around a TV screen showing an empty field. Pre-game is happening. Pre-game isn’t happening. Will the game be cancelled? No one knows.
Emily has been carrying her heavy sousaphone this whole time, and it is starting to annoy her. After a few long minutes, they are herded back down to the D. Ames Shuel Academic Center under the east side of the stadium. It is stuffy and smells like old, wet wool.
People try to sit in their military-style regalia. The uniform: thick red overalls over running shorts and their issued t-shirts that read “Keep Calm and Play 14” on the back. A red jacket made for broad shoulders with a secret compartment for their music that zips on the side. Pure white shoes, white gloves, a boxy hat with a feather, and a lot of buttons for one person.
“It’s a great day to be in band!” someone says while band members funnel into the hall. Upperclassmen joke about ways to avoid doing pre-game. These are the people that took Emily in immediately upon arriving to IU. They asked her out to lunch and provided a smattering of tips, like the best times to go to the dining halls or best ways to walk to class. They understood her passion for music, and what it was like to march for 12 hours in the sun.
“I’m glad that I did it,” she said of joining the band. “I met this amazing group of people and have this awesome group of friends now that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t done it.”
Finally, news breaks: they will not be doing the pre-game show. A kind of cheer erupts. Emily is relieved.
“I’m so fucking happy,” she says. A tiny smile.
Despite the weather, the Marching Hundred is in full form once they reach the stands. Their antics are a tradition. They play the Jaws theme on opponent’s third downs and then shout in an attempt to distract the enemy. When a fight almost breaks out on the field, they chant “Jerry! Jerry!” in honor of Jerry Springer’s dramatic tabloid talk show. “Dude, seriously?” they yell when a flag is called. “Seriously, dude?”
Emily eyes her band mates while they move along to the music for cues, and for some songs she still needs her book, but she picks up on it quickly. She bops side to side with her baritone. Occasionally, she puts her sprained ankle up on the bleacher in front of her, rolling it. They stand the whole half before the show, and it hurts after a while. But at least the rain has finally ended. The sky is brighter and the clouds, while still a heavy gray, roll on, harmless.
And then it is time to play.
They file down the same skinny set of stairs that flooded earlier in the day. They set up on the north end of the field before the teams clear out. The turf squashes in lumps under their feet. Emily’s face is taut.
But then the fans begin cheering, and the band moves onto the field. The broadcast cameras train on them. The fans know their name. It’s the Marching Hundred. It’s why Emily is beginning to fall in love.
“It’s very cool knowing that, at the end of the day,” she said, “you’re in a group that others look up to in awe and say ‘Wow, I can’t do that.’”
The band moves into position. Emily is in the very front, on the east side. She holds her baritone in exactly the right way, has her music ready out in front of her for their half-time show based on hits from, of all eras, the ’70s.
The announcer begins. “This show will put you at grave risk of Saturday Night Fever!”
And Emily is ready. The show starts, and she is off.