March of the iBand

Ohio State's marching band has America buzzing, all because of two band members who used twenty-first century technology to craft visually stunning shows.

Ed Runyon/AP
An Ohio State Marching Band member gets the honored tradition of ''dotting the i'' in Script Ohio in pregame between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Illinois Illini at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.

A few decades ago, the networks broadcasting college football games decided to stop showing the schools’ marching bands at halftime – too dull, apparently – opting for talking heads and game highlights instead.

They might want to rethink that policy. Last month, more than 10 million newly minted marching band fans watched on YouTube the jaw-dropping sight of the 225-member Ohio State marching band morphing into a gigantic Michael Jackson figure that moonwalks down the field and drops into the splits, all without missing a note. And if that wasn’t amazing enough, a week later a “Salute to the Hollywood Blockbusters” featured a flying Harry Potter astride his magic Quidditch broom and a battle at sea à la “Pirates of the Caribbean,” climaxing in the sinking of archrival Michigan’s outgunned brig. The two videos sparked the kind of national media blitz usually reserved for royal babies or talking cats. The Buckeye marching band was suddenly everywhere.

With only a week to learn, coordinate, and perfect the intricate choreography of each game’s show (a jarring football tackle is nothing compared with a pair of out-of-sync sousaphone players colliding), how did they do it?

Enter the iPad. Two environmentally minded trumpet players in the band had grown frustrated with the long waits for printouts of each week’s routine, and the reams of choreography diagrams and sheet music required (estimated to cost $25,000 per season). They hatched a plan to go paper-free by putting iPads into the hands of key band leaders, while taking advantage of some new digital band choreography programs that would allow for more ambitious halftime shows. All sheet music could be instantly accessed digitally; band members could also use the tablet to record themselves or someone else playing and marching. This inspired student initiative was enthusiastically embraced by band director Jonathan Waters, and a sustainability grant ensued, providing the band with an initial 33 iPads and the promise of a tablet for every band member next season. The results speak for themselves.

“Getting that kind of recognition for our hard work is nice and I know everyone is proud of what we did,” said Charlie King, who helped come up with the plan, in an e-mail. If “one nerdy middle schooler might see those videos and decide to give marching band a try as a result,” he adds, it would be satisfaction enough for their efforts.

Perhaps the two innovative trumpeters were inspired by the band’s motto: “Today’s innovations become tomorrow’s traditions.” Whatever its genesis, their bright idea has America buzzing about Ohio State, and, for once, not just about the football team.

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