By Lindsey Banks
Joe Figliolo takes a deep breath. He raises one hand in the air as he pats his chest with the other, setting the tempo for the musicians standing in front of him. For a few seconds, all goes blank in his mind.
Then both arms go up. The fanfare begins.
Just a few minutes earlier, the Marching Tar Heels ran down the steps of a full Kenan Stadium for the first time in over a year. The COVID-19 pandemic had pressed pause on live band performances during sporting events. For many students in the stands, this is the first UNC football game they’ve attended during college: COVID-19 restrictions kept the stadium at limited capacity during the 2020 season.
This is Joe’s first performance as drum major, and it’s the last UNC football home opener of his undergraduate years.
“It’s an adrenaline rush like no other,” Joe said. “It’s been such a long time, so the crowd was excited to see us.”
The Marching Tar Heels are the soundtrack of the game – a soundtrack powered by an exchange of energy. The roaring fans feed energy to the band; the band launches its own energy into the crowd.
“It’s why the band is behind the student section and not in front of them,” Joe said. “Because the band is there to create that energy for the crowd that recorded music can’t.”
The energy reaches the football players, who put on a dance performance in front of the student section before kickoff. This year, the band learned a song especially for the football team: “Halftime (Stand Up & Get Crunk!)” by the Ying Yang Twins. Band director Jeffrey Fuchs had heard that the team listens to it in the locker room as they prepare for games.
Down on the field, the band assembles for the pregame show. It’s the same show every game, and senior tuba player Jennings Dixon knows it by heart. The sun is low in the sky, but it still draws out a bead of sweat on his forehead. He waits for the signal.
Two thumps on his chest. Joe cues the band for “Hark the Sound.”
Jennings brings his tuba to his mouth and blows, moving the bell from right to left in time with the beat. The alma mater melts into his favorite song, “Here Comes Carolina,” then into “Carolina Fight Song.”
Fireworks erupt. The football team charges onto the field and exchanges high-fives. The crowd shakes the stands. The Marching Tar Heels play on.
The performance ends with the national anthem, and the musicians return to the stands, relieved. The season’s first pregame show was a success.
The hours of practice may go unnoticed by the crowd, but the band feels them in every deep breath and sore muscle. Game day begins long before 7:30 p.m. The band starts with an open practice at 3 p.m, and it plays for the team arrival at 5 p.m. Then it moves to the Pit, then to Wilson Library, then finally down Stadium Drive to Kenan Stadium. It’s an all-day performance.
Kickoff marks the official start of the game, and the band takes on the duty of meeting every Tar Heel success with the appropriate song. Joe assumes his position in front of the band for the first quarter of the game. He keeps tempo with his arms and cues songs with practiced gestures.
A hand under his chin. One finger in the air. Two thumps on his chest.
The band watches and reacts.
Three other drum majors rotate in between quarters, so Joe gets a break before the halftime show. He stands next to the band section with a headset, communicating with his director up in the press box. Each band member has an app called FlipFolder on their phone that automatically displays the sheet music.
Between songs, Jennings pauses and looks around. He can feel the energy vibrating through his chest as the crowd shakes the stands. He can see it as the fans wave their hands in the air and jump. He can even smell it: a combination of AstroTurf, giant pretzels and sweat. It all comes together and creates something tangible: Some might mistake it as humidity, but Jennings calls it magic.
“It’s not football unless there’s a marching band,” Jennings said.
At halftime, the band sets up on the field. Joe takes his position in front of the group and climbs up the ladder. He waits for his director’s cue.
“We’ve got a treat for you,” Director Fuchs announces to the stadium. “From Lil Nas X’s new album ‘Montero’ that just dropped yesterday, here is our version of ‘Industry Baby.’”
Diana Godoy, a senior in the student section, recognizes the song from the first three notes. She smiles and looks to her friend, fellow senior Kayla Ausbrooks, who sits next to her. They both pull out their phones to record the moment. It’s their last season opener in the student section.
The band dances along, singing the words with their instruments. They have their own language, and for those few minutes, they don’t need a translator. Everyone in the stadium understands.
Joe keeps the tempo with his arms. Jennings stands in the back, swinging his tuba left to right. Diana dances in the stands, singing along. Kayla shares the video with her friends on Snapchat.
A round of applause.
The band returns to the stands for the final time that night and sends sounds of encouragement to the field from above. “Hark the Sound” marks another Carolina victory, and the band is joined by thousands of voices singing Carolina’s praises, shouting N.C.U.
The crowd disperses, but the excitement lingers for a little longer. Diana and Kayla hang back to listen to the band play everyone out of the stadium. With the band’s rendition of “Carolina in My Mind” by James Taylor, it hits the two seniors that their days in the student section are numbered.
The song ends with another round of applause from the fans who stayed behind. Joe and Jennings unknowingly share a sigh of relief. It’s an emotional experience, knowing every performance this semester brings them closer to their last as Marching Tar Heels. But they’re both hopeful it’s going to be a long season.
“The better the team does, the more opportunities we’ll have to play and perform,” Jennings said.
The band will provide the soundtrack for the rest of the season. And if the team makes it to the ACC Championship – the sort of game you’d find in an epic sports movie – the Marching Tar Heels will play the score.
After all, what is a successful football team without its marching band?
Edited by Mary King