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Showband of the Southwest: For more than a century the Longhorn Band has thrilled football fans and U.S. presidents

For the fans at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, nothing signals that the football game is about to begin like the dramatic arrival of the Longhorn Band for its pregame show. At each home game, the cannon fires, and through the tunnel comes the full force of the Longhorn Band in its burnt orange uniforms, hands raised with “hook ‘em” signs. Fans leap to their feet, and soon “hook ‘em” signs fill the stadium to its farthest reaches.

The Longhorn Band spells out TEXAS on the football field
The Longhorn Band is known for the dynamic formations it makes on the field. Spelling out TEXAS is a crowd favorite.

It’s quickly apparent why the band is called the “Showband of the Southwest.” During pregame, the Longhorn Band leads the crowd in clapping its hands in triple-time as it plays “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” It forms a giant block “T” as a huge Texas flag is unfurled over half the field. Then it marches the “T” to the end zone and the football team runs through it and onto the field. Often considered an icon of The University of Texas at Austin, the Longhorn Band makes the fans say, “The fun has begun.”

No one is having more fun than the 360 members of the band. For these students, who run the gamut from freshman engineering majors to second-year law students, stepping onto the field offers the thrill of a lifetime. Longhorn Band Director Robert Carnochan says, “It’s a huge rush coming through the tunnel when more than 80,000 people start screaming when they see Big Bertha come out before us. Now that is exciting!”

The experience might have been a little more modest in 1900, when the Longhorn Band was created. Football was still new at The University of Texas at Austin. The team was not yet known as the Longhorns, and it was only that year that the Board of Regents officially declared the university colors to be orange and white. Crowds were dramatically smaller as well. When Texas played Texas A&M during miserable holiday weather, only 700 people showed up.

In a move intended to inspire and promote the football team, university Chemistry Professor Eugene Schoch recruited 16 charter members to create the Longhorn Band. He dug up $150 to purchase instruments at Jackson’s Pawn Shop in downtown Austin, outfitted the musicians in white linen dusters and white caps with black bills, and the band was born.

In 1917, Burnett “Blondie” Pharr took over as band director. He is credited with developing the Longhorn Band into one of the outstanding band organizations in the country, a reputation it has maintained for eight decades.

The first Longhorn Band
In its early years, the Longhorn Band was much smaller than the current membership of 360. The original members were all men, and like today’s members, came from many areas of the university.
Photo: Center for American History
Image #CN09745
In addition to winning national competitions, the Longhorn Band has played at the inaugural parades of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It was the first civilian group to pass by President George W. Bush at the inaugural parade in January 2001. Its presence inspired the President to raise his hand and make the “hook ‘em” sign himself.

The strength of the Longhorn Band rests on three pillars: its traditions, its showmanship and its alumni.

Tradition is highly valued in the Longhorn Band. Some traditions are visible to fans. For example, since 1955 Big Bertha, the largest bass drum in the world, has led the band onto the field. During the game, it stays in the end zone, escorted by the “Bertha Crew.” She booms loudly and is spun around each time the Longhorns score.

Songs such as “The Eyes of Texas,” “Texas Fight” and “March Grandioso” have been played for generations and are as familiar to fans as calling “Texas” and “Fight” from opposite sides of the field.

Other Longhorn Band traditions belong to the band members themselves. For example, each rehearsal ends with the band “running the ladder.” The entire band crowds around the director’s ladder while the percussion plays, and then after hearing announcements, it closes the evening playing “Texas Fight.” When special visitors are in attendance—such as members of a high school marching band—the percussion surrounds them with a rousing farewell.

The “Bertha Crew” escorts Big Bertha across the field
The “Bertha Crew” escorts Big Bertha, the world’s largest bass drum, across the field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

Carnochan, who just stepped into his role as director in July, views his job as a “balancing act of maintaining the strength of the traditions while creating an atmosphere where new traditions have the possibility of being born.”

Unlike some bands rich in tradition, the Longhorn Band has also evolved as marching styles have evolved. It manages to bridge the past and the future, giving fans what they expect, but also surprising them with new, exciting material.

Fans at the Sept. 21 game against Houston watched the band mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with an original medley of songs featuring the city of New York. The band fanned across the field and formed the letters NY NY. The crowd then stood as the band played “America the Beautiful” while creating the shape of the nation from end zone to end zone.

It isn’t just its showmanship at home that’s impressive. One local Auburn University alumnus shared an amusing account out of the past. At an Auburn home game against the Longhorns in the early ‘80s, he remembers the Longhorn Band entering the field to Auburn fans determined to intimidate them right out of the stadium. The crowd raised to a pitch as the band marched on. However, the Auburn alumnus admits, “They kept coming and coming. There were more of them and then more of them, and the crowd got quieter and quieter.” The Longhorn Band silenced the Auburn fans.

Band alumni carry myriad stories like that. The alumni are so dedicated to the band that in 1964 the Longhorn Alumni Band was created. With 2,600 members in seven countries, the Longhorn Alumni Band is today one of the strongest alumni band organizations in the country. Alumni Band members play throughout the state in pep bands and at University of Texas at Austin recruitment events. They publish newsletters to keep friends in touch.

Members of the Longhorn Alumni Band at their yearly reunion
Members of the Longhorn Alumni Band lead the Alumni Band around the track at their yearly reunion.
One weekend each football season is designated Alumni Band Weekend. Alumni Band members return to Austin to enjoy reunion events and meetings, but most important, they have the opportunity to pick up their instruments, practice their steps and return to the field.

More than 600 Alumni Band members marched in the “Blast from the Past” at Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State University. They came from all four corners of the country: New Hampshire, Florida, California and Washington, and hundreds of locales in between. They began rehearsals before the sun was up, and at halftime they followed the Longhorn Band’s halftime show with a show of their own.

In addition to hundreds of musicians in the Alumni Band uniform of black pants, white shirts and burnt orange vests, the Alumni Band boasted three generations of twirlers and a color guard. Former drum major Don Hart entertained the crowd near the end zone with baton-catching feats while the Alumni Band marched and played “March Grandioso” and “March of the Longhorns.” Its portion of the halftime show ended in the formation of a giant TEXAS across the field.

The culmination of the show came when the Longhorn Band joined the Alumni Band on the field. Nearly 1,000 band members, past and present, played “The Eyes of Texas” together. This was the 39th annual reunion of the Alumni Band, and it went off without a hitch. As Alumni Band President Ben Lee Schneider says, “It always works, and it’s always amazing. And everybody has such a good time doing it.”

The Longhorn Alumni Band also raises money to provide assistance to current Longhorn Band members. In 2001 it awarded $27,750 in scholarship money to 31 Longhorn Band members.

In September the Longhorn Band learned it is receiving some unexpected assistance. Joe and Lee Jamail made a $250,000 gift to the Longhorn Band to support band members. Director of Bands Jerry Junkin says, “This very generous gift will allow us to provide scholarship funds for deserving Longhorn Band members in leadership roles.”

Longhorn Band trumpet players at rehearsal practice
Longhorn Band trumpet players practice their steps at rehearsal.

As with any performance group, however, the greatest strength of the Longhorn Band lies in its members. It’s hard to find a more enthusiastic group of students than the students who make up the band. Involvement in the band offers students a sense of family and a sense of continuity during their time at the university. Carnochan says that in addition to friendships, time in the band gives students “the opportunity to learn about themselves and how to deal well with other people.”

Often membership runs in the family. Fourth-year piccolo player Shelley Munson is one of many Longhorn Band members whose parents also played in the band. She remembers the moment her freshman year when she got to march on the field with her parents on Alumni Band Weekend as one of the most rewarding of her time in the band, and on Saturday, the family shared space on the field once again.

Membership in the band requires a huge commitment for a student. The band is a year-round course offered by the School of Music. Activities begin in August with Band Week and continue until graduation ceremonies in late May. After football season, the Longhorn Band divides into several ensembles, including three concert bands, two jazz ensembles and the Longhorn Basketball Band.

Rehearsals take place three nights a week on Clark Field, where the first Longhorn football games were played more than a century ago. On autumn nights, dragonflies float over the field. The lights of the Capitol glow from one end of the field, the lights of the stadium from the other. Students in khakis and T-shirts and tennis shoes gather and warm up. And then they start practicing. They mark time and learn new steps and they keep it up until they get it right.

It is all worth it on Saturday, when the tubas are shined, the ties straightened and the white Stetsons placed on heads. Then the band moves in perfect formation and the crowd rises to its feet and cheers.

No Longhorn football game would be complete without the clear call of the brass and the rhythm of the percussion, the wave of the flags and the twirl of the batons, the music guiding the fans from the start of the game to the finish. The band’s presence is as critical to the experience of being in the stands as the sweep of burnt orange shirts across the stadium.

The band wouldn’t have it any other way. As Longhorn Band Drum Major Ryan Zysk says, “We all love Texas football. We’re in the stadium to support the team.”

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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