You hear them coming long before you see the rising tide of bright orange-and-green uniforms. Then the wave crashes in―a rush of clapping brass cymbals and pounding bass drums. The stadium moves to the beat of their drumline, and when they hit the football field at halftime, time stands still.
Known as the "Marching 100," (though the membership roster now stands at 360 members), the Florida A&M University (FAMU) marching band garners legendary appeal. Notable accolades include playing with Prince at the 2007 Super Bowl (their fourth show there), performing at both of former President Bill Clinton’s inaugurations, and starring in the 2006 Grammy ceremony with Kanye West and Jamie Foxx.
"There's none other like the FAMU band," says head drum major Shaun West. "We have a unique style and sound. We’re often imitated but never duplicated."
Band members are not afraid of boasting―and they have every right.
“Pomp” It Up
While playing on the field in front of thousands culminates the band's work, the behind-the-scenes prep equally impresses―from early morning practices to sleeping on tour buses after late-night games. These shared experiences turn fellow band members into family―a brother- and sisterhood. For those who grew up in the area, it's a legend in which they have always wanted to take part.
"I'm living a childhood dream," says Shaun, who watched the band while he was growing up in Tallahassee. "I dream about orange and green." He made drum major as a sophomore.
The band has become noted for novelties. While they do play some R & B standards, the performers also wow crowds with unexpected classical pieces including Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov's masterfully technical "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Karl L. King's energetic circus tune, "Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite."
"When the show is over and everyone is screaming and hollering, that's the best feeling you can get," says band president Chandler Wilson. "You get in this uniform, and it's like a superhero suit. You just want to put it on and stand in front of the mirror and take pictures to send to your mama."
Tradition of Perfection
The eight assistants to Dr. Julian White, the director of bands, accept no less than a superior level of musical aptitude from players―even if that means practicing a single piece numerous times before performing it for an audience. Practice is necessary if students want to keep up with field formations, which can include drills, animated formations, pictures, and block letters (they often form the letters F-A-M-U on the field). "FAMU's band members are without a doubt some of the hardest working students in the world, " says Dr. White. "Our dance routines will always be creative and challenging. You have to work out."
The Pride of FAMU
Shelby Chipman, associate director of bands, played for the band during his undergrad years and worked his way up from student director to his current post. He has seen how the band's brand of showmanship draws potential students to the university's campus. The Marching 100 Summer Band Camp attracts more than 500 students from across the country and is considered one of the most comprehensive camps of its kind, offering marching band, concert band, jazz band, and small ensemble performances. Each year more than 200 freshmen students try out for positions among the Marching 100 ranks.
"Most people know the university because of the band," says Shelby. "We do a lot of contemporary music and moves that other bands don't decide to do, which makes us pretty unique."
After today's game, tired band members load onto the tour bus to head to their next location, where they will be ready to put on another great show. "We have a strong tradition of excellence, and that makes it so gratifying," Shelby continues. "We say all the time that we’re only as good as our last performance."
Hear the Marching 100
Check out the FAMU sound on the school’s music Web site: www.famu.edu/oldsite/acad/colleges/cas/music/html/music_cd.html.
"One Mighty Marching Band" is from the September 2007 issue of Florida Living: People and Places, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers from Florida.