LSU band ushers in football season in traditional style

Football season is officially in session.

Any fan waiting along the LSU Tiger Marching Band’s parade route to Tiger Stadium can tell you that the Saturday morning before the Tigers’ season opener is where it all really begins. That’s when the band holds its annual parade march rehearsal to the stadium, as it did this Saturday.

LSU football fans know the drill. The band gathers beside the Greek Theatre beside the Music and Dramatic Arts Building before each home game and rushes into formation at the screech of the drum major’s whistle.

Then comes the march down a road trimmed in thousands of purple-and-gold-clad fans. There were fewer fans, of course, for the rehearsal than typically line the road on game day. But it was still a respectable audience for a hot August morning.

“We drove from Alabama especially to see this,” Brett Davis said.

He stood along the route with his wife, Diane, and son John Michael.

“Our son, Allen, is in the band,” Diane Davis explained. “He plays baritone, and this is his second year. We’re so excited.”

The family lives in Spanish Fort, Alabama, near Mobile. It’s about a three-hour drive to Baton Rouge, but Brett Davis says it was worth the trip.

“We’re big LSU fans,” he said. “After seeing this, we’re ready for football season.”

“This really gets us revved up,” John Michael Davis added.

Slidell residents Laura and Rebecca Tillman also use the word “revved” in their description of this tradition. They, too, have a family member in the band — trombone player Jarrett Tillman. He’s Laura’s son and Rebecca’s brother.

“This definitely revs us up for football season,” Laura Tillman said. “This is Jarrett’s first year in the band, and we drove over just to watch him march to the stadium. We wouldn’t have missed it for anything, and now we’re definitely ready for football season.”

Leading the band along the route was Mary Bahlinger, who will make her game debut as the band’s new drum major when LSU faces the University of Wisconsin on Saturday, Aug. 30, in Houston’s NRG Stadium.

But her true introduction took place the moment she blew her whistle at the Greek Theatre on Saturday.

Bahlinger is the third female drum major in the Tiger Band’s history. The 24-year-old tried out three times for the position, finally achieving her childhood dream when band staff named her drum major in the spring.

“I joined my high school band just so I could one day be in the Tiger Band,” she said. “I’m from Mandeville, and my parents drove in last night just so they could be here today.”

And they stood among the fans, watching as their daughter held her baton high at the bottom of Victory Hill outside the stadium, bringing the band’s 325 members to a halt.

Then the drums began their pregame fanfare, segueing into those first majestic notes of “Tiger Rag,” marking the beginning of “Pregame” song.

Fans responded, but their cheers were only a fraction of the roar that the Victory Hill performance will produce before the LSU’s first home game against Sam Houston State University on Saturday, Sept. 6. And the band is promising a few surprises as the season progresses.

“We’re planning a really big halftime show later in the season, but I can’t say any more than that,” said Roy King, the band’s director. “It’s going to be a big surprise.”

The band returned to campus in mid-August after marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin in March. It completed its two-week preseason session on Saturday.

“We have uniform inspection on Sunday,” King said. “We learned the pregame show on Thursday night, and we already have the first part of the first halftime show in place.”

After that, it’s on to Houston, the only road trip for the full band this season. But for now, focus is on the stadium parade, which began an hour earlier than in previous years.

“The stadium crew wanted to get sound checks on the new sound system,” King explained.

Which meant the band not only rehearsed its fight songs in the stands but was asked to play a few songs on the field. The sound system amplified each tune, broadcasting the songs throughout the campus.

Fans voiced their approval with cheers, and as band members moved into another parade formation in the bowels of the stadium for the march back to the Greek Theatre, tuba player Terrel Christie couldn’t contain his smile.

He’s a senior from Pineville majoring in wildlife ecology, and the 2014 football season marks his fourth year in the band.

“I’ve done this before, and it’s always exciting,” he said. “This is the peak before football season. Now we’re ready for it to begin.”