Editors note: This article was originally published in October 2014, and some information has been updated.
Austin Wheless, ’14, music business, made this video to show fans what it’s like to be on the field with the Longhorn Band.
Longhorn Band members take on this challenge each week during football season. They’ve got to know not only the music in every halftime program but precisely where they need to march, turn and stand to form a giant TEXAS or Longhorn silhouette or even an airplane all without missing a note.
The key to knowing your location in a formation, as it turns out, is seeing the field as a grid and knowing how to march in specific “step sizes” while playing music. These fundamental skills are imparted to band members before they even arrive on the Forty Acres.
“They’re trained when they’re in high school to know all of these varying step sizes,” says Robert Carnochan, former director of the Longhorn Band, which is based in the Butler School of Music. “This gets drilled into them for four years straight.”
Carnochan says Texas high schools have the best bands in the country, giving students a strong knowledge foundation when they arrive here. Even some complicated aspects, like using the “eight-to-five” stride taking eight marching steps for every five yards are second nature to the band members.
Point to any spot on the field even places between hash marks and yard lines and the student performers can say how many steps that spot is from the closest markings.
To stay on course, Jason Anthraper, an electrical engineering senior who plays tuba, says he focuses on the music and, in his mind, pairs the band’s sound and his upcoming notes with the shifting formations. Anthraper, who also serves as a section leader in the band, says breaking the football field into a grid helps the marchers stay on track.
To bridge the students’ backgrounds with newly created formations and show designs, the marchers use “dot sheets,” or slips of paper about the size of a business card, to know where to be and when.
The sheets appear cryptic, with longitude and latitude like codes communicating the shifting formations to those who can decipher the plan. Erin McAtee, a senior studying biology and Spanish who plays piccolo in the Longhorn Band, says using “dot sheets” helps members visualize how an individual part fits into the whole show.
“Some people are going to be more technical with it,” says McAtee, who is also president of The Longhorn Band Student Association and serves as a section leader. “But we all put in a lot of memorization.”
The source of those coordinates and dot sheets is a computer program developed by a Longhorn Band alumnus. Pyware is the industry standard for collegiate marching bands across the country. Py Kolb, the creator, majored in computer science at UT during the late 1970s and played trombone in the band.
Kolb’s Pyware software helped band directors evolve from the large graphing paper they previously used to individually plot marchers in slightly shifting formations, page after page like a cartoon flipbook.
When Anthony Marinello, former Longhorn Band assistant director, arrived at the university in 2009, he wanted to make the iconic Longhorns silhouette logo sharper and snazzier. He spent three days using Pyware to meticulously plot where band members start and shaping how the logo’s outline should form. That refreshed formation is now part of the band’s iconic repertoire.
As new formations come and go with passing shows, one constant remains as the band’s signature and crowning formation: Wall-to-Wall Band.
“I love seeing the band end zone to end zone and sideline to sideline,” Carnochan says. “The band looks gigantic, and it just represents Texas so well because everything is bigger in Texas.”
That traditional formation began in the 1950s under the reign of one of Longhorn Band’s most beloved leaders, Vincent R. DiNino, director of the Longhorn Band from 1955 to 1975. (DiNino died in September and will be honored during halftime on Oct. 18 and at a memorial celebration on Oct. 19. See sidebar below for more information.)
“Wall-to-Wall is really our signature,” Carnochan says. “If another band did that, people would say, ‘You guys stole that from Texas.'”
During a recent rehearsal in “The Bubble” (aka, the Denius Indoor Practice Facility), band members march in sharp lines, taking even strides while forming shifting shapes. But instead of donning the famous western-style, burnt orange uniforms, the students wear T-shirts and gym shorts in arrays of colors and sport carpenters’ fanny packs stuffed with sheet music and marching directions.
Carnochan walks among the students signaling for the lines to be straighter, Marinello and Scott Hanna, who is now the band’s director, watch for imperfections from a platform that gives him a vantage point comparable to some stadium seats, and a team of graduate students stands on ladders and watches from the sideline, policing for even the slightest missteps.
“Instruments are up. Feet are together. Make this better,” instructs Marinello, watching the rehearsal from the platform. “Same thing,” he commands.
“Same thing, mo’ betta!” the band shouts in response. Then the performers return to starting positions and start the drill over from the top.
These formal rehearsals are only part of the practice students put into being a member of the Longhorn Band. Between full-band practices, tests with section leaders and practicing in free time, the students expect to put in at least 10 hours of practice every week on top of the 11 or 12 hours required for every home game.
Though personal strengths vary among the band’s 381 members, many agree playing the music is harder than the marching, mainly because of the large quantity of the music, the tunes’ complexities and the perfection expected by the band’s student and faculty leaders.
J. J. Vernon, an electrical engineering junior who plays tuba, says marching and making the formations is “like riding a bike.” With a little patience, members can pick up new formations with ease.
“You have to put one foot in front of the other,” Vernon says.