The Beat and the Heat
Posted on August 21, 2023
More than 250 members of the Jaguar Marching Band survive a sweltering Band Camp with energy, enthusiasm and plenty of water breaks.
8:05 a.m., Monday, Aug. 14
Lindsey Hawkins shows up for Spirit Week in a red shirt, white skirt and blue wig, along with blue mesh gloves and red face glitter.
She leads the trumpet section of the Jaguar Marching Band, which is high-stepping through the hottest summer in memory. Students take water breaks at Band Camp, but that doesn’t make the sun less bright, the air less thick, or the temperature less extreme.
“Never seen it this hot before, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about quitting,” says Hawkins, with sweat trickling through her glitter. “We were at Fan Fest on Saturday and it was 100 degrees and felt like 113. There are times when you hit a wall, but you have to get past that moment and keep pushing through. It’s hard to find the motivation, but it’s worth it to me.”
Band members get a head start at South, arriving before most other students. The sound of their drums and horns signal the beginning of the color and tradition of football season and the fall semester.
Hawkins, a senior from Satsuma, isn’t even a music major. She plans to attend law school next year. Yet marching at the University of South Alabama is a big part of her college experience, one that makes preseason practice worthwhile.
“We have so much fun,” Hawkins says. “The energy is great. And when we run out and the music is playing and your heart is racing, that’s an amazing feeling.”
Many of the musicians at camp are first-year students who were section leaders or drum majors in high school. Some already have performed at Hancock Whitney Stadium as part of the Jaguar Marching Honor Band, a recruiting event that draws several hundred high school students from across the Gulf Coast.
AJ Hunter, a freshman from Murphy High School in Mobile, doesn’t need breaks to beat the heat. He marches across the practice field carrying his own hydration backpack. Have water, will travel.
At South, Hunter will study engineering, but right now he’s focused on marching and drumming.
“Music is half of me – half of my heart,” he says. “I want to keep doing this while pursuing my other dreams.”
9:35 a.m., Monday
Each day, sections of the band compete for a red-white-and-blue spirit stick. Even with the heat, students find the enthusiasm to cheer and shout. In between routines, they hoot like owls.
“Whooo … Whooo … Whooo.”
It’s a running joke for Spirit Week. One day, Dr. Will Petersen, director of bands at South, urged the student musicians to hoot and holler. They decide to take him literally for the rest of camp.
More than 250 students are practicing for this year’s Jaguar Marching Band. Musicians have to complete what’s called a “pass-off,” proving they’ve memorized their sheet music, or they won’t get to perform on Saturday nights.
At South, students earn scholarships for marching in the band. There are tasks to complete and rules to follow. Showing up on time is a big one.
When a young horn player approaches Petersen to explain why he was late to practice, the band director shakes his head. Bad news. There have already been a couple of warnings.
“You know I love you,” Petersen tells the student, throwing his arm around his shoulder, “but if it happens again, I’m going to have to pull you.”
Back on the practice field, band members march back and forth. They start and stop, start and stop, then start all over again. For hours, each step they take and each note they play is considered and critiqued.
When students finish a run-through to everyone’s satisfaction, they cheer and call.
“Whooo … Whooo … Whooo.”
8:15 a.m., Tuesday
For Tropical Tuesday, band members wear Hawaiian shirts. Some add leis around their necks and grass skirts around their hips.
Leading the way are Luke Love and Shannon Kille, co-drum majors for the Jaguar Marching Band.
Love, a senior from Oak Mountain, Alabama, wears a blue Hawaiian shirt and a smiley-face hat. He’s a history major who plans to attend medical school at South. When he blows his whistle – loudly, to carry across the entire practice field – he puts his fingers in his ears.
Some of his strongest memories are of the welcome he enjoyed at the University during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I came in as a freshman during COVID, and it was intimidating not knowing anyone, but the JMB became my family,” Love says. “I like to say no one’s alone in the JMB.”
Kille, a sophomore from Montgomery, Alabama, wears a pineapple shirt with mismatched peach shorts and flamingo socks. Close enough. She’s a marine science major who always wanted to become a drum major.
“The first time I saw our high school marching band, I watched our drum major,” she said. “He had a beautiful conducting style, and he looked so confident. I thought, that looks really cool, that’s something I’d like to do.”
Kille never thought she’d become drum major this year, but she went through the lengthy audition process. Surprise, surprise. She followed her big sister Maddy to the University of South Alabama and the Jaguar Marching Band.
“I still look to her for advice – she’s a big inspiration to me,” Kille says. “One of the things she tells me is that I’m better than I think I am, and I should have a little more confidence.”
Sydnee Cantley, one of two feature twirlers with the Jaguar Marching Band, does not lack belief in her ability. She’s won state and national competitions with her baton routines. Her last title was 2022 Miss Majorette of Alabama.
She’s always practicing new and difficult throws and catches. Right now, it’s a move called the Double Illusion, which requires two one-handed cartwheels.
“I can do it,” Cantley says. “I’m working on perfecting it.”
For her, twirling is more than a sport or a hobby. She took up the baton after her mother died when she was 7 years old. Twirling became an escape and release that rewarded discipline, sacrifice and hours of practice.
“There was a lot of grief and emotion, and I think twirling became an outlet for that with me,” she says. “I picked it up and immediately fell in love with it.”
Cantley is also a two-time survivor of thyroid cancer. She has thin scars on her neck from the surgeries that helped save her life. Her time in intensive care helped convince her to major in nursing at South.
For now, she looks forward to performing in red, white and blue on Saturday nights.
“Becoming a feature twirler has always been one of my goals,” she said. “Representing a university I love is a dream come true.”
7:27 p.m., Tuesday
After days of endless sun and scorching heat, the Jaguar Marching Band catches a break.
An afternoon thunderstorm sweeps through Mobile and lowers the temperature by about 10 degrees. Under a light drizzle for evening practice, the students are less fatigued and more feisty. Section members shout back and forth.
“Y’all can bring the energy now,” Petersen teases the trumpeters. “That hooting’s not going to win the spirit stick, I don’t think.”
This, of course, causes an opposite reaction, as the entire band takes up their call.
“WHOOO! … WHOOO! … WHOOO!”
As the sun sets behind the practice field, students glide through their routines. It’s beautiful. There’s even a light breeze to lift the humidity.
“That is the most refreshing thing,” Petersen says, “that I’ve ever felt in my life.”
8:45 a.m. Wednesday
For White Lie Wednesday, students wear T-shirts with hand-written messages that are the opposite of what they really believe.
“I’m Cold.” “I Never Complain.” “I Like Troy.”
“Low Maintenance.” “My Audition Videos Were Good.” “I Hate Dress-Up Days.”
Love and Kille laugh and admit they misunderstood their own assignment. The started off wearing matching T-shirts that said “I Love My Co-Drum Major.” Then they realized their mistake and taped on words that made it “I Hate My Co Drum Major.”
Preseason mistakes. That’s the reason for Band Camp. Also physical conditioning.
Many band members are swiftly marching themselves into shape. Others can’t wait to lie down in the shade during water breaks. Some use sports tape to relieve sore knees and ankles.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of South, the Jaguar Marching Band will open the season with a halftime show that celebrates popular music over the decades. “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys segues into “Let’s Get it On” by Marvin Gaye and “Mr. Roboto” by Styx.
Something for everyone. The students practice these songs over and over. Every day, they get a little better.
Then they start all over again.
5:46 p.m. Wednesday
Afternoon band practice ends with a surprise. President Jo Bonner and Executive Vice President and Provost Dr. Andi Kent arrive to serve the students gourmet ice pops.
While Kent passes out spirit buttons, Bonner climbs a ladder to give a pep talk.
The saxophone section, which is about to win the spirit stick, leads the band cheers. No hooting. More like shouts that turn into a chant.
“Go Jags! Go Jags! … Jo, Jo, Jo! Jo, Jo, Jo!”
Bonner holds up a J. He thanks the Jaguar Marching Band for representing South. He calls them the biggest and loudest student organization on campus.
“We’re thrilled y’all are here,” he says. “We know you’re hot. We appreciate what you do for the University.”
The band members cheer and form a long line to the frozen dessert truck. Bonner calls out flavors and passes out treats.
“Anyone want pineapple mango?” he asks. “One, two, three. There you go. OK, birthday cake or raspberry cheesecake?”
The students laugh as they leave practice. It’s not every day that the University president hands you an ice pop. Another Band Camp memory.
Alex Hendricks, a fifth-year senior from Tuscaloosa, tries to savor these kinds of moment. She used to play the flute. Now she waves a red flag as a captain of the color guard.
“I started out playing, but I wanted to be sparkly and pretty,” she jokes. “I wanted to be in the visual part of the band.”
She plans to graduate with a degree in exercise science. Her years at South will come to an end. So will her time on the field with the Jaguar Marching Band.
“It’s starting to hit me now,” Hendricks says. “We’ll be planning something, and I’ll think, ‘I won’t be here for that.’ I try not to think about it. If I could march forever, I probably would.”
She still has two days left of Band Camp and a whole season ahead of her.
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