But the big show on game day is just part – and perhaps not even the most important part – of what the young musicians love about being in marching band. For the instrumentalists normally spend uncounted hours each week in rehearsal. Those practice sessions (as well as band camp preceding the schools' start in fall) also have been canceled during the pandemic.
Which means students have lost a rite that not only enhances their musicianship but transforms their college experience, they say.
"Probably one of the biggest things I'm missing is the preseason camp, or band camp," says U. of I. senior Andrew Christensen, 21, an engineering major who plays alto saxophone.
At band camp, "We're outside a lot, doing work every day. It's so much fun because everyone there is focusing on band; classes haven't started yet. We make friends, and we build relationships."
That's the crux of the marching band experience – its unique ability to help young people bond with peers from across the country and various demographics.
"What marching bands I think do best is establish some sort of sense of community with students," says Daniel J. Farris, Northwestern's director of athletic bands. "We provide an outlet for them outside of their regular academic schedule. We try to maintain that connection, which develops into lifelong friendships and connections, which many times continue into the professional world."
The students concur.
"If there is one thing I miss most, it's probably just the energy that comes from being together," says Northwestern senior Katie Daehler, 21, an economics and sociology major who plays cymbals on the drum line. "I miss that sense of collective energy."
Or as Northwestern student Reiss puts it, "People join NU marching band for a lot of reasons, whether for marching or the music. But one of the things that keeps people in the organization is the sense of community and friendship that we all have together. Whether it's having sectional time, where people can hang out with people who play the same instrument. Or breakouts for people with the same majors, to give academic advice."
Then, too, playing in marching band offers a welcome contrast to poring over books.