Hauling Brass

Does the sharp descent of Memorial Stadium’s steps spell treble for the KU band?

Marching Jayhawks Hauling Brass

Even in the leanest of football seasons, one team could always be counted on for a winning performance: the Marching Jayhawks. So it was with great pride that we recently enlightened a neophyte who wasn’t aware the band makes thrilling, screaming dashes down the stairs and onto the turf of Memorial Stadium before every home football game.

Our friend’s first comment: “Does anyone ever fall?”

Hmmm … good question. We couldn’t remember seeing any mishaps, so we thought it best to consult an expert.

“In three years as a drum major, I saw three pretty good spills,” says Donnell Martin, ’86. “But we practice it, so it’s not something that happens that often. No one’s been seriously hurt.”

Says Director Bob Foster, “Especially when they’re new, the freshmen are petrified when they run down those steps. I suppose it’s what might be called terrified exhilaration.”

Martin says that for reasons he can’t explain, tumbling instrument bearers usually manage to fall backward and relatively gently. He also says “the woodwinds probably fall the most often,” and “the brass instruments are usually sure-footed.”

The most difficult tune to carry? That’s easy. “If you start leaning over and lose your momentum,” Martin says, “a tuba is going to carry you down. But they never fall. The tubas take particular pride in that.”

Foster—who took over for the tradition’s creator, former director Kenneth Bloomquist, in 1971—cites particular reasons for the tuba players’ success in the descent. “They tend to be a little bigger and stronger,” he says, “and they tend to be a little more careful because they are carrying $4,000 instruments.” Foster says the bells on KU’s tubas are plated with 3 ounces of gold, and the remainder of each tuba is coated in a satin silver plate—the same stuff your mom keeps under lock and key in the china cabinet. “No other band in the conference, no other band in this part of the United States, has sousaphones like that,” Foster says.

In case you think we solicited unfair shots at the musicians, know that Martin also singles himself out for the blooper reel. “I fell twice when I was goose-stepping across the field at the end of the show at halftime,” the former head drum major admits, laughing at the memory. “I don’t think you can get more embarrassing than that.”

Amazingly, though, that’s not a drum major’s darkest fear. When the head drum major leads the squad onto the field, the first duty is to stop precisely on the 50-yard-line—after strutting down the field with head thrust back, facing the sky. Martin explains that drum majors begin counting at the goal post, then mentally mark off every five yards with every third high-legged stride.

“You’re the head drum major, you’re running out of the chute in front of all your family and friends, into a stadium full of fans who are all watching you … and you realize you stopped on the 40- or 45-yard line,” Martin says, audibly grimacing. “That’s the worst thing that can happen for any drum major. Believe me, we all have the same nightmare, and that’s it.”