Howard University marching band prepares for annual football classic

August 30, 2012

On Saturday, RFK Stadium will be filled with thunderous cheers as the Howard University Bison and the Morehouse College Maroon Tigers take the field for the annual AT&T Nation’s Football Classic.

The decibel level is unlikely to subside when the linemen and running backs jog off at halftime. The reason: Howard’s famed Showtime Marching Band.

The band’s 110 members — helped along by a dozen Ooh La La! Dancers, an eight-person Flashy Flag Squad and one hyper-dynamic drum major — will strut, high-step and slip-and-slide between notes and syncopated drum beats.

“The marching band is another aspect of the football game,” says John Newson, director of bands for Howard University. “It’s not only about playing music, but entertaining the audience and motivating the football team.”

The annual game between these premier historically black colleges began in 1923. They stopped playing each other in 1997. When the game resumed as the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic in 2011, it had become a week-long series of events, including debates and drumline rallies to see which school is better. The week culminates in the gridiron clash and the performance of both schools’ bands.

Marching bands were still performing in traditional military style until William P. Foster brought hip to the marching bands’ hop in 1946. Foster, who was a band director at Florida A&M, blended contemporary musical genres with creative choreography in establishing FAMU’s Marching 100. Other historically black colleges and universities followed suit, including Howard.

A lot of work goes into sharpening musical skills and mastering dance moves. Members of the band convene for boot camp two weeks before the school year starts. Newson has had his players — some as young as 17 — up before sunrise every day. This week, they began practice a little before sunset, as Newson bellowed instructions through a blowhorn and band members lined up for another run-through.

For Howard students, pride is on the line. Morehouse College, they know, will be looking to claim bragging rights as the better of the two Black Ivy League schools, the better of the two football teams and the better of the two marching bands.

La’Vonne Tynes is not about to let that happen. The daughter of two Howard alums, Tynes plays saxophone in the band.

“You’re going to see greatness,” says Tynes, 18. “I promise you. The way you practice is the way you’ll perform. If you practice sloppily and lazily, most likely you’ll perform sloppily and lazily. I’m not a sloppy or lazy person. You always have to make sure you’re on point when you go out on the field. Every time.”

The Showtime Marching Band is 75 percent freshmen, according to Newson. “They are hungry to go out and perform,” Newson says of his freshmen. “Some of them are coming from high schools that never marched before. Within three weeks, we’ve been able to convert them, and they are really ready to showcase.”

Once school starts — and to allow them to focus on their studies — band members get only 50 minutes of music rehearsal a day in the classroom and another 50 minutes of marching on the field. Kelvin Washington, associate director of university bands, says the band has to make every minute count. “We are a fundamental band in our marching and our playing,” Washington says. “Once our students understand the system — how to interpret music, learning the maneuvers . . . then it comes down to how we arrange the fundamentals. It’s a system that we have in place.”

Saturday’s game will be the first classic since the hazing death in November of a drum major at FAMU. The tragedy shocked the network of historically black colleges and universities, raising questions about whether hazing is a problem with other marching bands. Newson said he believes that such a tragedy won’t befall his school or his band. “I won’t say that [hazing] didn’t exist in the past,” he says, “but I’m 99 percent sure that it doesn’t exist at Howard.”

With the big game approaching, he is also confident that all of the hard work will pay off. “They are glad to be a part of the Showtime band,” he said, “and are ready to make sure they live up to the [Howard] standard.”

These freshmen, in other words, are ready for showtime.

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