They assemble in the dark, first the majorettes,then the drum majors. The saxophones come next, followed by the piccolos, the clarinets, the trumpets, the mellophones, the baritones and the trombones. The percussion and tubas fill in behind. The flags bring up the rear.
On rehearsal days, the members of the Virginia State University marching band stand in rows of six, 128 of them holding instruments, another 40 twirling batons or flags or dancing to the beat. The band, known as Trojan Explosion, is roughly half the size of the marching bands at many other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Its members don’t stand in rows of four because a longer marching line would reveal their relatively thin ranks.
“We’ve learned that size isn’t always a determining factor as to whether you have a good band or not,” said the band’s assistant director, the Rev. Sylvester Bullock. “We’ve always come up against bands that were larger than we were, and we’ve been able to hold our own because of the musicality of the program.”
Only one marching band in the country has been invited to participate in the Honda Battle of the Bands — a national showcase held each January in Atlanta — nine times out of the 10 the event has been in existence. Virginia State, in fact, has been invited nine consecutive times, a point of pride for band director Mark Phillips exceeded only by the fact his band also has performed three times for President Obama, once at the White House.
Uniformity in every way is paramount, and when drum major Chandler Alexander gives his whistle one long blow followed immediately by a pair of sharp tweets, the band comes to attention with four swift movements. Then synchronized chaos ensues: Lines form, knees march high, never halting, sometimes dancing. They are Stormtroopers with soul, a military parade with funk.
In August, when the season was still in its infancy and the first official performance was weeks away, the band marched through the empty Petersburg campus. A couple of dozen students lined the streets. Some pulled out cellphones and shot video. Others huddled, mouths agape, while some tried to keep up, occasionally tripping over one another.
Even then, Trojan Explosion was not just a marching band, but a sensory overload.
At many HBCUs, the marching band is as important as the football team. During Virginia State games, fans socialize in the parking lots until halftime, when the bands perform, then retreat back outside until the game ends, when the bands perform again.
As the season has progressed, Trojan Explosion has learned to rely on all its members to form one unimpeachable sound. It relies on Hope Payne, a freshman tuba player from Fairfax, who could not run a single block before August, yet ran the steps of a 13,500-seat stadium on the first day of the band’s physical training.
It relies on Tray Battles, a junior from Sacramento who came to play in the percussion section, the most competitive. After two years as an alternate, Battles earned one of three spots on the 10-person snare drum contingent that marches.
And it relies on Joezell Charles, a junior from Woodbridge and one of the band’s four drum majors. The drum majors are the student-leaders. Charles lost his mother, who used to make flags for the VSU band, to cancer shortly before he arrived at school and initially struggled as he learned to cope. Now, Trojan Explosion leans on him, follows him.
Phillips has led Trojan Explosion since 2003. He plays the role of the shepherd well, from providing private instruction to walking new band members through class registration. But he also understands the standards that must be met to return to the Battle of the Bands a 10th straight time. He knows his job is to imbue pride in his students to ensure that the streak continues, to be exacting in his expectations.
He holds practices three hours each day — about the same amount of time the football team spends on drills and running plays. The band learns roughly 40 songs a season. When practices end, some band members remain and experiment with their instruments, riffing their own tunes. A different, almost disorderly noise emanates. But even in those moments, an unmistakable, unique melody fills the air.