Part I: The oldest marching band in the soon-to-be-dissolved Pac-12 prepare to take to the field in its last performance as part of the storied conference

By MIKE McINALLY - February 2, 2024

It’s exactly 5:35 p.m. on a cloudy Friday and the members of the Oregon State University Marching Band are packed into two tunnels on the north side of Reser Stadium.

This is a game day – kickoff for the Beavers football game against Utah is about a half-hour away – and everything for the next 25 minutes or so hinges on precise timing. The band’s pregame show – a staple of Beaver home games – clocks in at just about 11 minutes. This game is being nationally televised, so time matters there as well.

By this point – before the nearly 300 members of the band have played even one note before a packed stadium – they’ve been in their uniforms for more than four hours: Band members report on game days five hours before kickoff.  Hours ago, they rehearsed on the field. Since then, they’ve marched down the Beaver Walk. performed on the steps at Gill Coliseum for appreciative fans and dined on baked potatoes.

At this moment, as they wait in the tunnels at Reser, it will be nearly another five hours before they leave the stadium.

Meanwhile, a pair of military jets are zooming toward Reser for a flyover that’s timed to occur just as the band reaches a specific spot in its performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The flyover is scheduled for exactly 5:54 and 30 seconds. If the band doesn’t hit that mark, it’s not as if the jets can just turn around for a do-over.

But that’s about 20 minutes away. Right now, the members of the band – including the drumline and the color guard – are awaiting the signal to march onto the field.

At 5:47, the signal comes. The drumline and color guard lead the way, a flurry of color and percussion.

It’s time for The Spirit and Sound of Oregon State University to take the field – an OSU tradition that dates back at least to 1890.

Starting the show

Since those early days, the OSU Marching Band has grown to become the largest student group on campus, and it’s possible that this year’s edition might be the largest ever at the university: By the time the full band, including its new first-year members, had gathered for band camp in the days before the start of classes, it was 285 members strong.

Only about 10% of its members are music majors; in fact, 65 different majors, covering all of OSU’s schools, are represented in the band’s ranks.

The reasons students give for joining the band are legion, but ask around enough, and certain themes emerge: Many have parents or relatives who played in marching bands. Others like the opportunity to perform before tens of thousands of people. Still others just enjoy playing fun music in the collegial atmosphere that the band offers. 

Says Trinity Henderson, one of the four leaders of the trumpet section (the largest section in the band): “It’s an automatic way to have a giant group of friends.”

With so many members, Olin Hannum, OSU’s associate director of bands and the university’s director of athletic bands, has to rely heavily on its student leaders. “When you have numbers like that, organization is from the top down,” he says. So student leadership is a constant with the band – from signaling instructions down the line all the way to choosing the halftime shows to perform each year.

But while the halftime shows change each year, the band’s 11-minute pregame routine essentially has been the same since 1968. In fact, Hannum says he hears complaints if he messes around too much with the pregame show.

And no wonder: The show plays like a greatest-hits revue of OSU fight songs, with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the marching band chestnut “Rock and Roll Part II” thrown in for good measure. Much of the music featured in the pregame was written by former OSU band directors.

The pregame always includes the maneuver known as the “Beaver Spell-Out,” with the members of the band spelling out the letters “O” “S” and “U” across the field. Legendary band director James Douglass wrote the music for that section of the show.

The pregame show is a celebration of tradition, says Justin Preece, the band’s percussion coordinator and drumline instructor.

“And that’s something that multiple generations of fans can recognize,” Preece says. “And they do – octogenarians standing up, clapping enthusiastically, and singing. Kids who haven’t hit double digits do the same thing. And that’s a nice unifying moment.”

At the band’s rehearsal at Reser a few hours before kickoff, though, Hannum, Preece and color guard advisor Kristin Heckers are worried about other unifying moments: The band’s marching isn’t as crisp as they would like. Plenty of details need to be worked out in the hours before kickoff. Hannum laments that the unusual scheduling of the game on a Friday has robbed the band of a full day of rehearsal; normally, the band would get a full rehearsal on the Friday before a Saturday game.

But the band is working against the clock on this Friday. By mid-afternoon, the band has to cede the field to the football teams.

“This is going to be a very taxing game day,” Hannum says.

But, again, he relies on the veteran student leaders in the band: After a rehearsal of the “Beaver Spell-Out,” he offers this bit of advice to the band members: “Each letter, can you discuss? If you were in this letter last year, tell everyone what to do.”

The band’s rehearsal time at Reser runs out at about 3:40. The next stop is the Beaver Walk outside the stadium as band members line either side of the avenue to serenade football players as they stroll to the locker room. Fans take video as the band plays selections like “Beer Barrel Polka.”

Since this Friday marks the first performance for the full band – OSU classes have just begun earlier this week and first-year students arrived just a few days beforehand – section leaders work hard to shout out instructions to less experienced members: “Sousas down! Shake! Shake!” the sousaphone leader tells his charges at one point, a cue for the musicians to lay their heavy instruments on the ground and, well, shake their bodies. For players in the sousaphone section, the up-and-down motion will occur dozens of times over the next six hours: The 30-pound instruments are gently placed on the ground, only to be retrieved moments later to play music.

After the Beaver Walk, the band – out of the spotlight for a moment – retreats to the Truax Indoor Practice Center for a pregame meal. It’s 4 p.m., and it’s the first time members have had a chance to eat since the 1 p.m. call. And, although they’ll grab a snack after the halftime show, this is the last chance until after the game ends -- and the only real opportunity they’ll have to sit back and relax for a few minutes. Hours of playing music and march are still ahead.

Not to mention that flyover.

NEXT: OSU fight songs are part of the band’s tradition. But so are baked potatoes.

Read Part 2