Tradition marches into new millennium
By DAVID FULTON
Five hundred students congregate outside the band building on a hot and muggy mid-August day.
The air is thick as mud and the temperature increases by the second. Some students are nervous. Others are used to the routine.
The apparent leader, drum major Adam Witmer, barks through a megaphone to "line up for the march-out" and the ordeal begins.
It is 9 a.m. on the first day of tryouts for the Notre Dame Marching Band and the Irish Guard. The nearly 500 candidates are hopeful, but only 300 will have the honor of playing in the band. Another 50 students compete for the coveted privilege of being named one of five new Irish Guard members who will lead the band into Notre Dame Stadium before every home football game.
The competition is tough this last week before the beginning of the fall semester. Before the end of the week, some students will not return, while others continue their struggle for the chance to be a part of the Band of the Fighting Irish and continue the tradition.
"The band and the Irish Guard are the best signs of Notre Dame spirit," said Luther Snavely, Notre Dame's director of bands. "They don't receive scholarships. The grade they receive is virtually meaningless, but they still make sacrifices and work very hard to virtually make other peoples' events a success."
Being in the band or the Guard certainly requires a lot of hard work. During the week of tryouts, days start at 9 a.m. with a march-out from the band building through North Quad to Stepan Field. There, the band and Guard break up to concentrate on training all candidates for the upcoming football season.
There are typically 75 "instructional" squads with core band members teaching the steps and music to new and returning musicians. The core squad is an elite group made up of 68 juniors and seniors who were chosen not only by the drum major, Snavely and the other band directors, but also on the recommendations of their peers in the band.
"Being in core band is a bit challenging," said senior core band member and bass captain Alex Powell. "You have to teach the freshmen everything and then watch them go through tryouts without being able to help them. Their audition is basically a direct reflection of our teaching skills."
After a two to three hour practice, the band and Guard march back to the band building and break for lunch. Two more sessions follow later in the day, and the daily routine lasts throughout the five days leading up to the auditions for the band directors on the Monday evening before classes commence.
"The week of band tryouts was rough," said freshman Brian Vnak. "I don't think I've ever been so sore and tired before in my life, but it was definitely worth it."
"Tryouts were very difficult," added senior and new Irish Guard member Mark Urquhart. "I trained over the summer, but the muscles used for the trot and hike step are difficult to target and train. I was really sore after the first couple of days."
Despite the physical demands of the training, many members of the band and Guard enjoy the challenges they are faced with throughout the week.
"I had a great time. The other tryouts and the guardsmen were really great guys," said senior James Cochran.
"Tryouts were hard, but I made a lot of friends and I had a good time doing it," added sophomore band member Sean Lipscomb.
But for most band and Guard members, the big payoff was becoming a part of more than 200 years of tradition.
"I really wanted to be a part of the tradition," said senior guardsmen, Rick Saxen. "It is a really great way to become a part of the University."
The band and the Irish Guard are as much parts of Notre Dame's tradition as the Golden Dome. The band is currently in its 154th year continuing its reign as the oldest college marching band in existence. It has performed at every home football game since the inaugural game against Michigan in 1887.
Football games are not the only time the band performs.
In 1871, the band played a concert to benefit those affected by the Chicago Fire. Since the Civil War, the band has played at the entrance to the campus — "the circle" — for students leaving to fight in wars. It also had the honor of playing in front of presidents and popes.
The band usually plays at between 60 and 70 public performances per school year, not including its performances at the football games.
"Being a part of something like this is unbelievable," said senior saxophone player Benny Ciszek. "Knowing that I'm a part of something that is over 154 years old is a real high."
The Irish Guard was established in 1949 when H. Lee Hope, director of bands, wanted to add color to the band without taking away from its dignity. The Guard soon became a sort of protector of band members.
"An Indiana State Law makes it illegal to impede the progress of a marching band," said senior Guard captain Paul Balthrop. "The Irish Guard makes sure that no one gets in the way of the band and also adds a bit of flash to the band."
When the Guard was formed, its members played bagpipes, however that element was discontinued in 1954.
In 1966, then director of bands Robert O'Brien designed a plaid especially for the Guard uniform. In 1969, O'Brien's drawings were given to Frank Amussen who finished them and submitted them to the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 11, 1970. There the design was evaluated by the Tartan Advisory Committee to determine whether or not it was associated with any clan in Scotland. The design has been trademarked and copyrighted by the University, which prohibits anyone who is not a member of the Guard from wearing it.
Each of the colors in the plaid is signifies one aspect of the Notre Dame tradition: Green symbolizes the Fighting Irish; blue and gold, Notre Dame's colors; red, the Church and the Holy Cross Fathers; and black outlines the design.
The uniforms the Guard wears are a bit more complicated than some might think. Even donning the kilt, sporran belt and shako hat are prescribed. Each Guardsman is given a manual providing instructions on how to assemble the uniform in the proper order and advising, "It is important that each member of the Guard assist one another in dressing." "The guard members have a really special relationship," said Balthrop. "You share this great experience with these guys and it forms a strong bond."
But the bond extends among Guardsmen alone.
The band and Guard members have share close relationships with one another, especially among their particular sections. This is mainly because they perform as one massive body. One person out of synch can cause a domino effect and throw off an entire performance. This kind of dependence on one another, in addition to the large amount of time spent together during the five practices per week and football weekends, promotes a genuine camaraderie.
On home football weekends the band and Guard perform at the Pep Rally on Friday night. Early Saturday morning all the band and Guard members meet at the band building for the traditional breakfast of Captain Crunch cereal before marching out to awaken students across campus and begin the pre-game excitement.
Their ultimate destination is Loftus for a brief practice followed by brunch at the dining hall. After brunch, all band and Guard members change into their uniforms and meet in the Band Building for a group prayer led by Assistant Director Father George Wiskirchen. Members then meet on the steps of Bond Hall for the traditional concert at noon where the band and Guard perform their halftime music and all of Notre Dame's school songs.
Inspectors then check all members before finally marching out to the stadium 45 minutes before kick-off. Once inside the stadium, the band and Guard line up at the sides of the tunnel at the request of the football coaches. Thus the opposing team must walk past staring band members and the 6'2"+, stone-faced Irish Guardsmen — an intimidating experience.
After the opposing team exits the field, the band members line up behind the Irish Guard and prepare to take the field.
"Marching out onto the field is the best part," said junior band member Jeff Mueller. "Being in the tunnel and hearing all of the fans cheering, the announcer's voice introducing us and then taking the field is an unbelievable feeling."
Then the real show begins. The band storms the field blaring "Hike, Notre Dame," sending an electrifying jolt through the packed 80,000-seat stadium. The band and Guard regroup on the field to perform their pre-game show, which involves spelling out "I-R-I-S-H" and playing "America, the Beautiful" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The show committee, consisting of band members, drum majors, graduate assistants, and directors, choose and design the programs performed by the band week after week. During the game the band and Guard sit together in the northeast corner of the stadium until their halftime show and postgame performance after the game.
Despite the grueling week of tryouts and the daily practices during the week, the members of the Notre Dame Marching Band and the Irish Guard feel it's all worth it.
"All the hard work pays off, just to be a part of this great tradition," said Urquhart.
All Scene Stories for Friday, September 17, 1999