The UMass Marching Band celebrates 150th anniversary

Members of the band reflect on the legacy, present, past and future
Image courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Marching Band.
Image courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Marching Band.

On Friday, Oct. 27, the University of Massachusetts Marching Band (UMMB) gathered on the Recreation Center Fields for their typical rehearsal at their typical time, like they do every weekday. But this wasn’t just a typical rehearsal — it was “Band-O-Ween.” Members were decked out in various costumes: ghosts, chefs, firefighters, the characters from “The Lorax,” pigs, Barbies and Kens and even Walter White from “Breaking Bad.”

While “Band-O-Ween” may not be a typical rehearsal, the intensity and dedication of the Marching Band is. The band is celebrating their 150th anniversary this year. Founded in 1873, UMMB is only 10 years younger than the actual University itself. Consisting of over 380 members, numerous sections, subsections and smaller ensembles, UMMB is one of the largest organizations on campus. They’re also one of the most intense; their schedule consists of rehearsing every weekday from 4:40 p.m. to 6:10 p.m., with almost every Saturday booked for a football game performance. There’s no question the Marching Band requires extreme dedication. But what keeps that dedication alive? Is it the love of music, the rush of performing?

The answer I found lies in the all-accepting community, the family that is the marching band.

“Band is for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re crashing the symbols, playing the flute or tossing a flag. No matter what you do, you’re part of the same group, the same family if you will,” said Dr. Timothy Todd Anderson, director of UMMB. Dr. Anderson, or TTA to the band members, has served as director of the band since 2011.

His passion for the band, and for its members shines through during our talk, eager to chat about any part of the vast organization.  With so many rehearsals and so many moving parts, how does everyone stay organized and functional? Anderson attributes their organization to the “incredible student leadership” who stay committed and dedicated to doing the work behind the scenes.

“This thing would not work without them, that’s for sure.”

The band, along with professional, hired adult staff, has a whole host of administrative and field staff, all roles filled by students. For some of them, their passion for UMMB started before they even got to the UMass campus.

“I went to a lot of music competitions in high school, and UMass would play as an exhibition show at a lot of these competitions,” said Gianna Borowski, a senior music education major adorned in a firefighter hat. “To be super young, and maybe in schools where music wasn’t the priority, to see this 400-person band burst out on the field and knock your socks off, was life changing.” In the band, she plays the flute and serves as travel manager.

“In 11th grade, my high school went to UMass Band Day at Gillette Stadium and it was just the best day I’d ever had,” Lilly Madsen, a senior economic and political science major said. “They blew me away, and I just always was like, ‘I’m gonna be a part of the band at UMass.’ And now here I am,” Madsen said. She plays tenor saxophone in the band and serves as personnel manager. At the Band-O-Ween rehearsal, she was also in a firefighter costume, matching with Borowski and a few others in their section.

“You know they say, ‘if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.’ And it doesn’t feel like work here at all,” Borowski said. At this point in the rehearsal, a few members of the band staff dressed as characters from “The Lorax,” came marching on the field, blasting the movie’s “Thneedville” at the highest volume. We all couldn’t help but laugh.

Dressed as Mr. O’Hare from “The Lorax” was saxophone player Qeanu Smith, a senior music education and saxophone performance major. She serves as a drum major in the band, “a kind of middle point between pro-staff and the whole band,” Smith said. According to Smith, they are in charge of running rehearsals, etiquette and anything else that might be needed. Smith reaffirms the band operates as a family and are constantly “just making sure everybody’s good,” she said.

A big requirement for all members of the band is Band Camp, a week-long intensive rehearsal before the semester begins. For staff members like Smith, Borowski and Madsen, Band Camp is even longer, with some returning 12 to 14 days before the semester starts.

“We’re always like, ‘there’s so much ahead of us,’ but we’re all really excited. After seeing each other almost every day, we go the whole summer without band,” Borowski said.

Members of the band arrive in waves; leadership, field and administrative staff come first to prepare for the upcoming week, followed by new members who spend a day with staff for orientation. Then, the rest of the band joins, marking the official start of the “8 a.m. to 9 p.m. days,” according to Smith.

The band has a whole host of incredible performances, including a pregame, halftime and postgame show during football games. This year, they’re performing a UMass Marching Band fan mix, which includes songs by Earth, Wind & Fire, Elton John and Stevie Wonder.

Additionally, they’re performing a “West Side Story” medley, and a percussion feature entitled “Malagueña.” They switch it up each year, but this year UMMB tried to pick music that was “our most popular, as a nod to 150 years,” Dr. Anderson said. When I asked students what their favorite piece was to perform, however, almost everyone’s answer was the same: “My Way” by Frank Sinatra.

Performed at the end of every postgame show, the song is half-sung, half-played by the band. The energy on the field is electric and warm, it’s easy to tell it’s a crowd favorite. As they shout the lyrics, “A life that’s full,” one can tell the meaning of the words is not lost on the performers.

The tradition, according to Anderson, began in 1979. The song was played at the end of a Frank Sinatra-themed halftime show, and “it just kind of stuck around,” he said. The band members enjoyed performing it so much, they just kept playing it. It’s now the last number played at every band performance.

“The meaning of it from when you’re a freshman, versus when you’re a senior, is so different. I’m already thinking about our last time playing it. Just with how much the song changes, and how much you’ve changed. I think it’s a beautiful thing,” said Borowski.

“I don’t even know if I could put it into words, it’s just such an amazing feeling. At the last game, everyone was crying playing ‘My Way,’ and I turned to Gianna [Borowski], and she was crying too. We held hands for a second, and that’s just what band means,” Madsen said.

Smith had a different answer than Borowski and Madsen. She cited “Malagueña” as her favorite piece this season.

I was able to watch this number in action, during the Band-O-Ween rehearsal. It’s a mesmerizing performance; sections walk in boxes, weaving in and out of one another’s with perfect steps, perfect lines and perfect timing all while playing their instruments. I thought their first go was incredible, until the band director chimed in, telling members to “get it perfect, please!”

It’s clear that perfection is the standard with UMMB, and most likely one of the reasons they’ve lasted 150 years. Current students reflected on what this milestone means to them.

“I mean it sounds a little silly, but I just think it’s cool to be a part of this tradition. I think it shows how far we’ve come as a band, how far the marching arts have come, and where they’re going,” Borowski said.

“I’m just so proud to be, not just a part of the band, but one of the leaders for this year. It’s just such an important honor, and I’m so excited to be a part of it,” said Madsen.

As for the future of the band, they have big plans on their horizon: UMMB has been selected to march at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in November 2024. Anderson expressed his excitement, but admitted that preparing for the parade will be a challenge.

Anderson hopes the band continues to represent the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They’ve already been around the state, playing at the city of Gardner’s birthday celebration this year, and Quincy’s Christmas day parade last year. They’ve also been asked on repeat occasions by former governors Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker to perform at the State House, something Anderson hopes to continue.

“I don’t want us to just be viewed as UMass Amherst’s band, I want us to be viewed as the State of Massachusetts band,” said Anderson.

The band has already represented the state on numerous occasions, including during some the Commonwealth’s toughest times. He shared a story of one of the most meaningful moments for himself with the band. In the spring of 2014 on the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Red Sox held a special presentation before the game to honor the victims and survivors. UMMB was asked to play at that event.

“It was such a significant, healing moment for the people of Boston. We were the ones that were invited onto the field, we were the ones that played the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’” Anderson said. “That was an incredible honor.”

The legacy of the UMass Marching Band is more than 150 years, more than all the incredible honors and performances that have taken place — it’s the people, the community, the alumni and the members of the band themselves. What other campus organization do you know would be overjoyed to wake up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday to march through Southwest? To its members, the band is more like a family than anything else. Here’s to another 150 years!

More information on the UMass Marching Band can be found on their website, here.

 Shannon Moore can be reached at [email protected] and on twitter @shannon_moore04.

View Comments (1)
More to Discover

Comments (1)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • R

    Rebekah DoucetteDec 4, 2023 at 10:28 am

    Amazing article!