In early February, Urban Meyer isn’t even thinking about game plans for the following season; he’s just trying to get through recruiting. Across campus in the spacious Joan Zieg Steinbrenner Band Center, Jon Waters begins the organizing process for the following season’s halftime shows.
Eight months later, they receive millions of views on YouTube. At least that’s the recent trend since Waters took over as director in 2012. There have been appearances on the Today Show and Good Morning America, viral YouTube videos and an iPad commercial.
“I can’t say that we planned it, but our philosophy [tradition through innovation] is certainly working,” Waters said Monday at the Cheryl Jacobs Waters TBDBITL golf outing. “It’s how do you take an organization that is so steeped in tradition and history like the Ohio State band and move it forward?
“There are a lot of alums watching everything that we do and lots of people passionate about every aspect of the program. And we have a wide demographic, from five- and six-year-old kids in that stadium to people who were there when the first brick of the stadium was laid. Expanding that history and moving it forward is our biggest challenge. We have done that well and we will continue to innovate and add new things to our repertoire.”
The Ohio State University Marching Band has always grabbed headlines. Script Ohio and “The Best Damn Band in the Land” moniker are known throughout the world. Still, under Waters’ leadership, the band’s brand and appeal have reached an untapped audience.
While the football team floundered, the 225-member all-brass and percussion band struck the right note each Saturday, delivering on highly anticipated halftime shows that received attention on the other side of the world. A moonwalking Michael Jackson and tribute to Hollywood, complete with a T-Rex gulping a Michigan player, were the band’s signature shows of 2013.
“It’s always a challenge with a ‘Back when I was in the band we did things this way attitude,’” Waters said. “You have to try and sell that, but I think the best thing for us right now is when alumni band members are in their daily lives and they have co-workers who are not band people or Ohio state fans come up and saying, ‘You were in the Ohio State band?’ And saying they saw the Michael Jackson show or T-Rex or the iPad commercial. That gives us credibility with our alums and they love that they were part of that history and foundation. I say it all the time – the band was great before we arrived. Our students work every day to make it better and better, and that’s the goal.”
Mondays become a busy day at the office for Waters, who’s tasked with sorting through media requests. He was invited to Texas to choreograph a performance for a high school band that had an infamous seven-tuba pileup during halftime of a football game. They executed their do-over – live on Good Morning America – flawlessly.
“Nothing is easy in front of 105,000 [fans]. but that’s the joy in what we do. It’s trying to come up with the next innovation, the next thing that will get people’s attention and make relevant what we do.” – Jon Waters
After Apple learned its iPad was partly responsible for the Ohio State band’s success rate, it featured them in one of its commercials. For Waters, the attention is positive in setting off a cool vibe around the band. Just how cool? There are already freshmen for 2021 who have signed up online for tryouts.
“It truly is [humbling]. I’m just a steward of a great tradition,” Waters said. “To be able to provide that student experience for our kids is what I’m all about, and to get the next generation interested in what we do is also what I’m about. Our students do that through their performances on the field and that will indeed inspire the next group of students to want to do the same thing.”
In 2014, the band will once again attend all but one road game – at Minnesota. They will travel to Baltimore for the opener against Navy, with Waters hopeful that the band can perform on-campus at the Naval Academy chapel sometime during game week. The halftime show will feature a patriotic theme, but that’s as much detail as Waters will provide.
The season also brings the first trip to Penn State since 2005, when the band was pelted with projectiles, including bottles of urine, from unruly fans. Penn State will take extreme measures to make sure the band is safe.
“Penn State has promised us that everything will be fine and there will be security,” Waters said. “That’s a great thing. Overall, it’s just supporting the team and bringing Ohio Stadium to those away stadiums.”
A change in funding last year allowed the band to have an increased presence on the road. The athletic department, office of the president and arts and sciences department joined together to provide $1 million. That figure moved Ohio State from ninth to first in Big Ten band funding.
The rise in cash has relived a burden on students. There’s no more buying Gatorade and food at the stadium or doing their own dry cleaning. It’s all offered now. Many hardships exist for band members. Practice means quitting summer jobs early and not being able to start a job during the season. That’s why Waters started a fundraiser in his late mother’s name to help raise money for band scholarships.
Waters lived the band-student life in the 90s and understands the demands, both time and financial. He’s an ardent supporter of providing a stipend and enthusiastically points out the group GPA is 3.5, a remarkable achievement for any 225-person group, yet alone one with such significant stresses.
Each winter, those dark days are replaced with a light at the end of a long, unrelenting tunnel. Every team has a bonding period that coalesces into a champion. For the Ohio State band, the mold takes form in February when preparing halftime shows.
“We’re looking at a wide diversity of music and show ideas. It’s very important to involve the students from the inception of the show through to the end,” Waters said. “I want them to be able to brainstorm ideas with our staff and once they’re excited about those ideas, we’re then able to translate them in the final product on the field, and I think they’re more invested in the final outcome.”
The much-publicized use of iPads is something that’s steepened the learning curve, according to Waters. The band is able to learn more and do so faster than ever before. The complexity of music and drills is all helped by the iPad. But come Saturday, they still have to march and perform. The transition and execution occurs with precision.
“That’s a testament to the students,” Waters said. “I think five years ago and just a couple years ago, without the iPads, I don’t think we would have been able to quite achieve the level that we have.”
Each passing week and season presents more pressure. It’s no different than the football or basketball team – duplicating success and replicating what was accomplished the previous season is inherent. To Waters, it’s about taking steps forward and promoting the band. The fall soundtrack is relatively untouched with a few sprinkles of originality tossed in for light seasoning.
It’s not uncommon for Waters to have a full inbox of emails after road games with opposing fans complimenting him on the band’s performance. He promised they’ll “play until our last breath to support our team at Michigan State” in November. The green-and-white-clad Spartan fans might not appreciate it on the day of the game, but weeks later, an Ohio State band performance stands alone.
“Nothing is easy in front of 105,000 [fans], but that’s the joy in what we do,” Waters said. “It’s trying to come up with the next innovation, the next thing that will get people’s attention and make relevant what we do. I’ve often said if this causes some fourth-grade kid to want to join a band we’ve done our job in perpetuating what we’re doing.
“It’s the students who bring it to life. It’s the students who march and play the music. Everything else we do is just plans on paper.”