n the era of silent films, live music accompanied the action on screen. Orchestras performed scores that paralleled the emotional ups and downs of the film. Although these orchestras were out of sight—hidden in pits in front of the screen—they were responsible for setting the tone of the film, literally.
Today, the Boston College marching band plays a similar role at football games. It is most visible during its pregame performance and halftime, but the aspect of the band that is truly unique is its ability to mimic the intensity of the game through its performances in the stands. When the Eagles are on defense, for example, only the percussion section plays on the first down. When second down begins, the electronics pitch in. Finally, on the third down, the full ensemble plays, creating a crescendo that echoes the rising stakes of the game.
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n order to tailor the band’s performance to what’s happening on the field, two conductors stand back to back. One watches the game and signals to the other, who then leads the ensemble. A third conductor is on the field, signaling to the dance team. This is a complex operation, but it’s one that David Healey, the director of the marching band, believes makes BC games special. The origin of that infectious energy emanating throughout the stands, Healey argues, is the band.
“I would recommend that the students go back and look at some of the tapes or recordings of BC games that they attended … and then you realize, wow that was there the whole time.” Healey said. “I didn’t realize the thing that makes me clap my hands with a particular tune is that I’m responding to stimulus from the band that’s creating that moment.
“And it’s coalescing and galvanizing the SuperFan section, which is the most powerful pocket of energy in the stadium, and then in turn the alumni see that and they respond. So it starts this ripple effect that comes up all around you.”
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onductor Jeremy Espano, MCAS ’19, cites this ripple effect as one of the most meaningful parts of participating in the band. He recalled performing in Dublin in 2016 during BC’s season opener against Georgia Tech.
“It was my first time conducting,” Espano said. “We had a timeout, so we decided to play a shortie—it was called ‘Shut Up and Dance’ by WALK THE MOON, and I remember conducting. I hear people singing and it gets louder and louder and I realize the whole stadium is literally singing this one song that I’m conducting and at that moment it feels like I’m super small but also super big, that I’m starting a chain reaction, and you could hear all the instruments, you could hear everybody sing, and it’s so collaborative.”
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ealey noted that after the game against Clemson, he got a chance to speak with Clemson’s marching band director, who remarked that he’d never seen the kind of engagement in a stadium that he saw at BC.
“This is an experience that you can only get at Boston College, and win or lose, that’s a reason to come back to Alumni Stadium,” Healey said.
Although the Screaming Eagles are responsible for much of the energy in the stadium, members have to be careful not to get carried away by the excitement.
“As much as they are engaged in creating enthusiasm for the team, they have to be focused on the podium so they don’t miss whatever the next piece is that’s being called up, getting the first note, making sure that it’s played with the right conviction, the right energy, and time,” Healey said. “So in many ways we surrender part of our fan experience to create the experience for others.”
Espano expressed a similar sentiment. Even though BC’s game against Clemson was highly anticipated by BC fans, Espano couldn’t let the game’s significance affect his performance.
“We strive to be as consistent as possible,” Espano said. “Our performance for the upcoming Syracuse game should be just as good as our performance for the Clemson game.”
The Screaming Eagles weren’t always such an integral part of the gameday experience. Healey recalls that in his days as a student at BC, the atmosphere in the stands was much more relaxed. The band sat during games and only stood when it played “For Boston,” BC’s fight song that holds the title of oldest college fight song in the nation.
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nly occasionally, during timeouts or between quarters, would the band play other pieces. All that changed when Tom O’Brien became BC’s head football coach in 1996. Although the team wasn’t doing well at the time, O’Brien had a mission to revive school spirit.
“His vision was all-encompassing,” said Healey. “It wasn’t just about the team—he wanted a specific environment.”
Healey recounted a story that O’Brien often told about the development of the SuperFan section. He was looking up at the stands after a game one day and noticed a collection of students who were still cheering and engaged. He made a note to himself that he liked their enthusiasm. One of those students would always sit next to the marching band, so the band asked him what song he wanted to hear and arranged and played it for him. He and his friends loved it, and with the help of the band, that pocket of students gradually grew to become the SuperFan section that we know today.
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eing a part of the band is a demanding commitment. Members spend 200 hours rehearsing over the course of the season, which is roughly the equivalent of taking a full course load. Eighty of these hours are spent at the preseason camp, an 8 to 10 day program at the end of August during which band members learn the half-time routine, pregame show, and the 40 “shorties” that constitute the band’s repertoire. These pieces range from classic rock to ’80s hip-hop, and new pieces are swapped in every year.
Healey cites resilience as the most important character trait of a successful band member. Unexpected bureaucratic hurdles pop up all the time, and members must be flexible. The weather is also a complicating factor. At the preseason camp in August, it can get as hot as 90 degrees in the stadium. In the winter, it can be so cold that the temperature interferes with the band’s performance: When it played in New York, the valves of the instruments froze. The band’s mantra, therefore, is “be flexible and adapt to change.”
Despite the challenges, it’s clear that the band plays an important role in the lives of its members. According to Espano, a senior, leaving BC is tolerable. Leaving the band, though, is a different matter.
“Being in band is like a roller coaster, where you do a lot of work and that’s kind of like when they’re bringing you up, and then you [perform] and that’s when you feel the rush, and you’re going through and it flies,” Espano said. “And I guess I’m at the end of the roller coaster when it’s slowing down and I’m like, man, I wish I could do that again.”
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins