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Big commitment, bigger payoff for ASU marching band

October 27, 2009

James Hudson can spend hours moving uniformed people around a field.

But it’s not what you’d think. He’s not re-enacting the Civil War on a miniature battlefield – he’s plotting the halftime moves for the Sun Devil Marching Band.

Now in his fourth year as director of the 340-member band, Hudson is in his element when he’s envisioning a halftime show and then bringing it to life. He arranges the music and designs the formations, and is thrilled that he gets to direct the band.

Marching bands have been a tradition at high schools, colleges and universities since at least the late 1800s, according to various band histories. The first modern halftime show by a marching band at a football game was presented by the University of Illinois Marching Illini in 1907 at a game against the University of Chicago.

“The Marching Illini were the trendsetters for early marching bands,” Hudson says.

Marching bands were inspired by military bands, which were first used to help move troops, and today’s high school and college bands retain the formations and sounds of their predecessors.

There’s almost nothing more exciting than watching – and hearing – the marching band take the field before a football game. A flash of color, a swirl of Sousaphones, the drum roll-off, the “Star Spangled Banner” played by several hundred enthusiastic musicians, the precision of the march.

But it takes a lot of effort – and sacrifice – on the part of many people to bring that spectacle to the field.

Planning begins in the spring for the next fall’s games with auditions for drum majors and selection of music. “This year’s drum majors, or directors, are Greg Mills, James Clemons and Jonathan Saturay,” Hudson says.

“We pick the themes for the next season in April. I pick four and let the band members make suggestions for the fifth.”

Over the summer, Hudson starts arranging the music and plotting the movements, using a program called Pyware for the latter. He tries to vary the music each game and each year, so there will be something for everyone. “We play a lot of rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll – that’s what I like,” he says.

Once he plots the formations, using the yard lines and hash marks as reference points, Hudson makes the charts available to band members through Blackboard so they can learn where they are supposed to be on the field.

When August rolls around, things literally heat up for the band. The musicians, plus the 75 or so twirlers, dancers and color guard, begin rehearsing the week before classes start, “when it was 107 degrees on the field,” Hudson says. “We have to get them conditioned. We give them a lot of water.”

For a single academic credit, the band members fully commit to the band during football season. The schedule makes it difficult for the students to hold jobs, and rehearsals are frequent and demanding.

“We rehearse from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays," Hudson says. "On game day (Saturdays), we practice from 9 to 11 a.m., then call time is around 4 p.m. They don’t leave the stadium until around 10:30 p.m. Where are they going to work on Saturdays?”

Much is made of how big marching bands are. The Sun Devil Marching Band is at or near-record size this year – but for Hudson, it’s not about how many players march onto the field.

“It’s how good you are,” he says. “There’s a misconception that marching bands play with a thin sound and overblow. We play with a focused, big sound.”

Hudson, a “drum and sax man” who marched with bands in high school and college, says he subscribes to the “three T” goal for the Sun Devils: playing in Tone, in Time and in Tune. “We are one band with one sound. Blend is critical,” he says.

Hudson loves the challenge of blending a large variety of students into a cohesive unit in a relatively short time. The musicians come from a variety of backgrounds and join the band for an equal variety of reasons.

“Some kids love athletics, some are passionate about marching band," he says. "Some are music majors who have to take the class. Your challenge as a director is to make it enjoyable for all the kids.”

Hudson uses the word “love” frequently in his conversations about the band. “I love the games,” he says. “There’s a tightness, almost a fraternal tightness, that a great college band has. I also love writing drill. It’s fun. It’s like a great big toy.”

The word “gratitude” also comes up a lot. Fielding the Sun Devil Marching Band requires the commitment of many people, from students to staff to supporters. Hudson says he is thankful to donors Verde and Kathy Dickey for donating all the new uniforms (that can be laundered) and equipment to the band; and to ASU administrators for their support and encouragement.

Large marching bands face the unusual dilemma of having to do all of their practicing outside, since there are rarely venues where they can all fit. But once a year, the Sun Devil Marching Band takes its show to ASU Gammage, where it reprises the season’s halftime shows and records a CD.

This year’s Pass in Review concert is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7:30 p.m. in ASU Gammage. Tickets are $10.

CDs from the past three seasons are available from the band’s Web site,  or Sparky’s Stadium Shop,