Marching Illini steps toward its homecoming performance

Football players clad in orange and blue won’t be the only students to grace the football field at the University’s annual Homecoming Game. The Marching Illini, with its shiny instruments and rhythmic cadence, is also preparing for its field performance.

Although initial preparations for the Homecoming game’s halftime show begin well over a year in advance, music is not pulled until three weeks before the football game, and the band doesn’t begin learning the music until about a week prior to the event.

This year, the halftime show will be Motown themed, incorporating songs by the Jackson 5 and the late Michael Jackson, according to Barry Houser, director of the Marching Illini and clinical assistant professor of Music.

“Generally, it is a pretty tight timeline of getting the visual and getting the music put together,” he said.

This isn’t the only challenge the marching band faces. The band of about 360 student musicians has to coordinate with the alumni band that performs alongside them.

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“Anywhere from 200 to 300 alums will come in before the game, and we integrate them into the pregame and halftime show,” Houser said.

Houser said the biggest challenge of all, however, is getting all the band members together at one time, with there being so many performances going on within such a short timeframe. Events include the Homecoming parade, the pep rally and performance at the Illini Quarterback Club this year. Though there’s an especially hectic schedule around Homecoming time, Professor Houser said his favorite aspect of directing the marching band during Homecoming Week is the interaction that takes place between the alumni and current students.

Jeremy Loui, senior in FAA, is a music section leader in the alto-saxophone section of the Marching Illini.

“It’s fascinating to talk to the alums who come back and join us for the parade and then join us again on Saturday for the halftime show,” he said. “They have stories that go back 20, 30, 40 years and it’s incredible to share this bond with people … Even though you’ve never met them before, you’ve gone through these shared experiences with (them).”

He also said playing alongside former band members allows him to reflect on the rich history of the University’s Homecoming tradition.

“There’s something incredible when we share the field with the alumni band and remember that for over 100 years there’s been somebody in the same spot as me, playing some of the same traditional music as me. That’s when you think that you’re just a small part of this incredible long-standing legacy,” he said.

However, the Marching Illini’s traditions are more than just the performances that the audience sees. Regarding his section specifically, Loui said that before each early morning rehearsal, the saxophone section goes to breakfast, a tradition that has lasted for more than 25 years. He said band members are more than just performers — they are a social community.

Sarah Kuhl, a leader in the trombone section and senior in Engineering, said she also agreed with Houser and Loui.

“It’s really cool to see the camaraderie within our section, within the band, and then all of the alumni. Some students’ siblings and parents get to march alongside their children as well.”

Aside from alumni being an integral part of the Marching Illini’s take on Homecoming, there are other behind-the-scene aspects that often get overlooked, Houser said.

He said students in the Marching Illini are students first and foremost, and may become burnt out from the daily rehearsals at this time of year.

He said his approach to practice this year is different from years past, in that he is working to remain positive, regardless of the performance of the football team and other campus-related issues.

With this attitude in mind, he preaches the motto: “Today’s excellence is tomorrow’s mediocrity. We’re constantly striving to get better, to do things that are going to appeal to the audience, and to make sure that we’re staying true to who we are as the University of Illinois.”

Jaini can be reached at [email protected].