COLUMBIA — Close your eyes.
In the east parking lot of the Hearnes Center just hours before Saturday’s football game against San Diego State, all you need are your ears.
Listen closely, and you will hear the hollow echo of Big Mo, the giant drum that accompanies Marching Mizzou onto the field for each home game.
You’ll hear little boys laughing as they grab hold of the oversized drumstick and swing it with all their might at the massive drum.
The clatter of a dropped drumstick precedes laughter and taunts after a failed twirling toss.
There are calls to pass the chips and hand over the dip, and someone offers sandwiches to strangers. Every once in a while, there is an errant toot of a trombone, and an unexpected clash of cymbals will leave your ears ringing shrilly.
Open your eyes.
At 4 p.m., Marching Mizzou’s pregame preparation resembles a tailgate. The pep band gathers around coolers and aluminum containers of sandwiches, downing paper cup after paper cup of water to counteract the sticky heat. The drum line members rest in a tent with drum line alumni, snacking and playing games.
In the bright sun, the scene is sensory overload. The massive sousaphones are scattered in the sunlight, the glare bouncing off their shiny surfaces. The gold tassels of band members’ hats sparkle as they lay strewn about the parking lot, and the uniforms’ sequined sashes are almost too much to look at.
It was essentially chaos. Members of the band wander back and forth from tailgate to water cooler. Some of them catch a quick nap in the halls of the Hearnes Center, while others polish their instruments and organize their jackets and caps.
“With Dr. Knight (the former director), we’d be here all two hours working hard,” fifth-year Marching Mizzou drum line member Derek Wintemberg said. “With Dr. Snow (the current director), it’s a little bit laid back. He’s more of a results kind of guy. If we give him the results he wants … it’s kind of like, if you do this, we’ll be done.”
At 4:45 p.m., everything changes, and in just minutes the chaos morphs into control, the regimented organization that characterizes marching bands. The drum line is the first to assemble, and the crowd follows soon after. Their band members laid-back smiles are gone, replaced with the grim looks of musicians who are not permitted the smallest mistake.
Under its new director, Dr. Brad Snow, Marching Mizzou is focused on learning. It has to be, because Snow is introducing 30 new songs this season, and he has high expectations for his squad. The men and women of Marching Mizzou don’t seem to mind, though, and the beginning of their warmup marks the start of the show.
It’s actually the show before the show before the show. It’s the first preview of the pregame routine, which precedes and builds up to the best part of the show — the game, when the band does its best for the fans and players.
“I feel like we’re kind of in control of the momentum, and so I think that we have a real strong influence on impacting the fans’ responses during the game by what we play,” Snow said.
The band commands a decent-sized crowd in the Hearnes Center parking lot. There are toddlers who cry when the drum line takes a break and middle-aged women holding plastic wine glasses who clap along with the music. At first, the noise is tolerable, but with time it builds, and the ground seems to shake.
“Playing for tailgaters over here is some of the closest contact we have with fans, and it’s great,” drum line member Nick Ebner said. “When they crowd around, it’s great.”
Eventually, all the sections of the band gather in the strip of open pavement. After almost a half hour of warmups, Marching Mizzou is ready. Turning to its right, the band falls effortlessly into line in much the same way it does when it forms the letters, stars and other shapes during its pregame performance. When the band members descend into the bowels of the stadium, passing under the concrete overhang of the massive building, the noise builds and crashes back off the ceiling in an angry echo.
With that, they arrive. Freshman baritone player Chase Brechbuhler says that at this point, they never think about the game or its outcome. None of it matters. They focus on the grid they’re about to step out onto, the tiny divisions of the field that mark their spots. They think about the new songs they’re about to play. Most of all, they focus on making the team they support look good.
“We never get bored,” Brechbuhler said. “We love every minute of it. That’s the only reason we do all this, spend our days out here.”
Last week, at the game against McNeese State, the football players saluted the band as they left the field.
“It was pretty awesome,” Wintemberg said. “That’s the first time they’ve really shown that they appreciate us, really.”
It’s those moments that make it worthwhile. The 9- or 10-hour Saturdays, the 8 hours of rehearsal each week and the days of band camp each summer mean something. And when Marching Mizzou runs onto the field each week, its members know that the work has paid off. As they move into the first formation of the night, which looks to them like a spotty, moving cluster, they know the crowd is hooked. They’re ready for football.
“The band is kind of a soundtrack to the game,” Snow said.
Obviously, Marching Mizzou takes that job seriously.