The band played on: A Tiger's return to Death Valley
As the final painful minutes ticked off the scoreboard in Clemson's Memorial Stadium on the night of Oct. 19, the roaring, rabid Tiger fan base had been reduced to orange dots and splotches in the now-nearly empty stadium.
But while the garnet and gold swarm of Florida State fans celebrated the Seminoles' 51-14 throttling of Clemson, a thick, noisy mass of purple and orange remained in the northeast corner of the stadium.
They are Tiger Band – the marching band for Clemson University – and some of the most dedicated Tiger fans you'll ever meet.
I had the privilege and honor of being a member of this organization all four years I attended Clemson, playing the bass drum. That's why I was thrilled when director of bands Dr. Mark Spede provided me a field pass to follow the band throughout the day of Clemson's showdown with Florida State (which was a Top 5 matchup at the time), giving me the chance to see game day through the eyes of a bandsman for the first time in three years.
Game day rehearsal
On the day of each home game, the band rehearses for an hour or so to brush up on its pre-game and halftime shows.
There's always excitement in the air on game day (in addition to the smell of food cooking and beer). The entire 300-member band is clad in orange, and some sections do quirky things to amp up the spirit: the trombones all wear purple and orange striped socks pulled up to their knees, and the piccolos wear purple and orange tutus.
The band's practice field is behind the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts, the parking lot of which is a large tailgating spot on game day. Tailgaters gather and watch the band rehearse, sometimes cheering and applauding.
Before breaking, the band usually gets last-minute instructions from Spede. The FSU game is a bigger deal than most home games, though.
“This is a rare thing,” he said to the 300 or so people gathered around him. “It doesn't happen very often. Savor the moment, give your all, give your effort. It's up to us to make sure this crowd is in the game.”
Pre-game warmup, concert
Band members usually have a couple hours to eat and change into their uniforms. About two hours before kickoff, they assemble in the breezeway of the Brooks Center and walk to the outdoor amphitheater at the center of the Clemson campus, where they'll do a warmup and short pep rally.
The band opens each pre-game concert with traditional songs including “Tiger Rag,” the school's fight song. They run through stand tunes to get the crowd going, songs which include old favorites such as “Gimme Some Lovin'” and newer, more contemporary songs such as Robin Thicke's “Blurred Lines.”
The streets are beyond packed for games such as FSU or South Carolina. The band marches to a cadence down Fort Hill Street and around Memorial Stadium to the west end zone, which takes about 30 minutes.
'The most exciting 25 seconds in ... football'
The band reaches the west end zone tunnels with 30 to 40 minutes remaining until kickoff.
When the time comes, a video montage of Tiger Band and band members during performance plays on the Pawvision screens in the stadium with intense music in the background. The band comes tearing out of the two tunnels in the west end zone, two lines from each tunnel, in straight lines that stretch end zone to end zone.
As it ends, they start into the fanfare, “Orange Bowl March” and “Tiger Rag.” During “Tiger Rag,” the band forms a scripted “Tigers.” After “God Bless America,” the national anthem and the Alma Mater, the Pawvision switches to a camera following the team buses as they travel from the west end zone to the top of “The Hill,” where they will rub Howard's Rock before running down the hill and into the stadium – a famous Clemson tradition.
With the first note of “Sock It to 'Em,” the stadium begins to roar as the football team gathers at the top of the hill. The band splits into two sections and marches toward the bottom of the hill, the music growing in intensity as it gets closer. As they arrive to form a tunnel, a cannon on the hill fires as “Tiger Rag” starts, and the football players spill down the hill.
The roar of the crowd is deafening. I recall games when I couldn't even hear the band playing as the players tumbled down, and Brent Musburger of ESPN even called it “The most exciting 25 seconds in college football.”
In the final minutes of the second quarter, a sea of purple and orange makes it way from the stands down to the sidelines. Florida State's band performed first, as is customary when a visiting band comes to a game.
Tiger Band typically performs three shows each season. For the FSU game, it performed a selection of songs from Disney movies, including “The Little Mermaid” and “The Incredibles.”
Spede always tells the band, whether the team was up by 30 points at halftime or down by 30, the halftime performance should still be great. And that Saturday night, it was.
Each halftime performance ends with “Tiger Rag,” and the band spelling out “Clemson” in big block letters.
Playing during the game
I've been told several times that the Clemson band “plays too much” during games. Well, that's its job.
The band has a long list of songs to play, depending on whether the team is on offense or defense, if it's a first down or a third down, if the defense gets a big stop or if there's a turnover – whatever it takes to get the crowd roaring. And whenever the band is not playing, band members are usually yelling.
The person conducting the band during the game has a series of hand signals or written signs to indicate what is being played.
'Guardian of the Clemson spirit'
While with the band, I got to speak with some band members who hailed from Aiken.
Teague Albensius, a second-year band member, didn't know where she wanted to go to college until she came to Tiger Band's High School Senior Day.
“I just fell in love with Tiger Band, and how involved and how spirited people were,” she said.
Michael Poda, a fifth-year member, said a requirement of his while looking at colleges was, “you have to have a marching band.” He called the band the “guardian of the Clemson spirit.”
“That's what we are,” he said. “I love getting the crowd into it and getting Death Valley into the game, giving us that home field advantage.”
Many music schools have requirements for students to participate in the marching band, but Clemson has no such school or requirement. The Aikenites said that makes Tiger Band unique.
“We're a completely-volunteer band,” said Keith Catotti. “We're all here, we all want to be here.”
Albensius said people in high school band were often forced into it by their parents.
“Everybody who's here wants to be here. No one's making you do it,” she said. “Everyone's giving it their all because they want to be here and they want to be good.”
Teddy Kulmala majored in communication studies at Clemson University and is a native of Williston, where he was transplanted from the trumpet section of his high school band to the drumline in 2001.