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Ohio State Marching Band continues run of attention-grabbing shows with Michael Jackson tribute

The OSU Marching Band performs a Michael Jackson formation during a Michael Jackson-themed halftime show Oct. 19 during an OSU versus Iowa game. Credit: Alexandria Chapin and Franz Ross / BuckeyeTV News director and Asst. sports director

The OSU Marching Band creates a Michael Jackson formation during a Michael Jackson-themed halftime show Oct. 19 during an OSU versus Iowa game.
Credit: Alexandria Chapin and Franz Ross / BuckeyeTV News director and Asst. sports director

From PAC-MAN to galloping horses to a larger-than-life interpretation of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, the Ohio State Marching Band continued breaking the mold of conventional halftime shows Saturday.

“The Best Damn Band in the Land” has once again attained international fame with its newest show, a tribute to the late “King of Pop” Michael Jackson, but members and directors are already looking ahead at the coming weeks’ performances.

To celebrate Jackson’s 1987 chart-topping album “Bad,” the Marching Band, under the direction of Jonathan Waters, performed a medley of Jackson’s most popular songs during halftime at the OSU versus Iowa homecoming game Saturday. A BuckeyeTV YouTube video of the show had more than 6 million views as of Thursday evening.

The idea for a show based on the music of Jackson was originally proposed during an OSU Marching Band show-planning meeting in March, said associate director Chris Hoch in an email.

“It was one of about 30 (shows) that we considered, and it made the final cut as we realized the potential of it,” Hoch said. “The musical arranger, Dr. Ted McDaniel, was also very excited about the idea.”

The show featured several of Jackson’s signature songs, including “Thriller,” “Bad” and “Billie Jean.”

Throughout the halftime show, the band complemented the music of Jackson with strong visual effects and formations on the field.

“The music always dictates the visual elements. In this case, there are certain obvious visual maneuvers associated with Michael Jackson,” Hoch said.

Jackson’s signature dance moves appeared approximately halfway through the performance, when the ensemble, consisting of 198 regular members and 34 alternates, assembled to form a silhouette of the revolutionary pop singer.

To the tune of “Billie Jean” and “The Way You Make Me Feel,” the band performed a large-scale rendition of Jackson’s moonwalk.

Recreating the fluid movements of Jackson’s dancing was a challenging aspect of the show’s drill, said Dan Stevens, a third-year in early childhood education. Stevens plays the trombone and has been a member of the Marching Band for three years.

“The hardest part of that show was during the moonwalking — having the legs marching through one another at one-step spacing,” Stevens said. “So you’re basically shoulder to shoulder with the people that you pass through and you have to pass through the same people every time while keeping your line in the right shape.”

Last year, the band captured the attention of millions with their video game-themed show, originally performed at the OSU versus Nebraska game Oct. 6, 2012. Approximately a year later, one YouTube video of the video game halftime show had more than 15 million views as of Thursday night.

In order to perform difficult maneuvers on the field, the band meets for two hours of practice a day, six days a week. On gameday, members arrive six hours before kickoff to rehearse, Stevens said.

“We start learning drill on Monday, we usually are done learning drill on Wednesday and have Thursday and Friday to polish,” Stevens said.

On the field, each band member is assigned a specific letter and number, which are arranged to form shapes to be recognized by the audience.

“We use iPads for the squad leaders this year. The squad leaders have a drill app and they can see all of the drill and all of the positions on the field,” Stevens said. “Everyone else gets a packet that has the charted formations.”

The OSU Marching Band’s 33 squad leaders and its staff and directors received iPads this fall, funded by a $25,000 from the Office of Sustainability, in an attempt to eventually save approximately $24,000 in paper and printing costs annually by providing all band members with tablets, according to a September release from the OSU Fisher College of Business.

The precision of each set of drill is imperative in order to have the maximum effect on the audience, but the crowd’s reaction is the most rewarding part of performing, Stevens said.

“The crowd(’s) reaction when they saw the moonwalking across the field (was) so deafening that I could barely hear myself playing,” Stevens said.

Some students who attended the game were impressed by the moonwalking portion of the drill.

“They always try to pull something from pop culture,” said Gabrielle Vasquez, a third-year in chemical engineering who attended the game. “It was really exciting. Waters did a good job at creating an interesting show. The Michael Jackson tribute was very interesting.”

Harrison Fillmore, a first-year in Chinese who was also in attendance, said the visual effects of the show were unique.

“(The band is) very original,” Fillmore said. “(The show) was pretty cool, I was just bummed that the cheerleaders didn’t do the ‘Thriller’ dance.”

After working the crowd into a frenzy, the band ended with Jackson’s “Man in The Mirror,” featuring the OSU School of Music Gospel and Spiritual Choir.

“It was a very creative and fun experience,” said Milton Vaughn Ruffin, director of the OSU Gospel and Spiritual Ensemble. “The gospel choir was very intrigued by the skills of the Marching Band (and) their musicianship and the Marching Band was equally impressed with the skills of the singers, so it was a mutual admiration of the ensembles.”

Ruffin has directed the Gospel and Spiritual Choir, an OSU School of Music ensemble comprised of 50 to 100 students, for six years, he said.

For the halftime performance, the Gospel and Spiritual Choir was joined by members of the African-American Voices student gospel ensemble, Ruffin said.

“I was originally approached by Dr. Ted McDaniel at the School of Music about the song. He initially told me that he was going to do a Michael Jackson tribute because of the 25th anniversary of the Bad album,” Ruffin said. “He (said) that if he did ‘Man in the Mirror,’ there is a choir part on the end and he could see that as being a really nice finale.”

Ruffin said he hopes the Gospel and Spiritual Choir will have more opportunities to work with the Marching Band and other ensembles in the future.

Looking ahead to the remainder of the football season, the OSU Marching Band is busy working on future shows.

“We are doing a show this week titled ‘Hollywood Blockbusters’ featuring music from some of the most popular movies of all time. Look for Superman, Harry Potter on a broomstick and a dinosaur from Jurassic Park to make an appearance at the Penn State game,” Hoch said. “And at (the game against) Indiana (University), we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and have some pretty powerful patriotic music in addition to some interesting visual elements.”

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