College News

The Making of the Million Dollar Band

A band member at the Friends and Family Preview Show at Butler Field.
A band member at the Friends and Family Preview Show at Butler Field.

From the September 2019 Desktop News | Butler Field is a bit more crowded than one would expect for a rainy Saturday afternoon in August. An approaching downpour causes families, students, and friends to hide under large umbrellas and plastic ponchos. Most groups would postpone practices or cancel events in this kind of weather. But the ever-so resilient 400 members of the Million Dollar Band march on, their feet perfectly in time with every beat.

For over 100 years, the Million Dollar Band has been a staple of The University of Alabama’s football game day tradition. Their captivating halftime shows, pre-game pep rallies, and iconic tunes in the stands of Bryant-Denny have entertained fans for decades. However, this kind of reputation doesn’t happen easily. It comes from weeks of practice and preparation leading up to the first kickoff of the season.

Over the course of 10 days, new and returning members gather at Moody Music Building, where they participate in a band camp that is not for those looking for an easy extracurricular activity. At camp, band members learn the ins-and-outs of what it means to be a member of the Million Dollar Band—everything from marching basics and new playing techniques to their first halftime show of the season.

A band member at the Friends and Family Preview Show at Butler Field.
A band member at the Friends and Family Preview Show at Butler Field.

“Most of our members are accustomed to having some type of camp that happens during the summer, but ours is pretty intense,” Randall Coleman, associate director of bands, said. “We get students from hundreds of different high schools, and they all have their own little differences in techniques, so we spend a lot of time getting them on the same page with everybody else.”

New members arrive to camp a few days early to learn the Million Dollar Band’s signature marching technique from their section leaders and instructors. While this may seem like synchronized walking to the untrained eye, every detail of each step is meticulously planned and practiced. Once returning members arrive, the new members are well-versed in the art of marching.

Over the next several days, the band practices three times daily: learning new drills and movements on the field in the morning, music rehearsal in instrument sections and as an ensemble in the afternoons, and putting the pieces together at night. These three blocks allow the Million Dollar Band to maximize the time they have together, as well as let the freshmen make connections with other students before the school year begins.

“Since it’s my first year in college, it’s been really great to be in a group where I can have friends that share similar interests,” Ainsley Platt, a freshman majoring in music education, said.

“It’s really great to be around these wonderful people all the time,” said Katie Bunker, senior music education major and drum major. “It’s really cool how close everyone gets over the course of 10 days. Once you go back to school, it’s kind of weird to not see them for even just an hour because you’re used to spending all day with them. So it’s a really awesome community.”

Nick Saban visits band camp.
Nick Saban visits band camp.

Each band camp ends with a celebration of this community at the annual Friends and Family Preview Show at Butler Field. Here, the band members show off their skills and give their biggest fans a look at the upcoming halftime show for the semester. This year’s Preview Show presented an additional challenge for the band: marching in the rain for their first official performance of the year. But that didn’t stop them from entertaining fans with this season’s first halftime show, based on the music from Baz Luhrmann’s Oscar-winning hit, Moulin Rouge.

Moulin Rouge features Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as star-crossed lovers in a Parisian night club during the city’s Bohemian revolution. The movie received rave reviews and a massive following thanks to Luhrmann’s unique music choices, bringing favorites of every genre together to tell a love story unlike any seen before. As the movie makes its way to Broadway this year, the Million Dollar Band decided there was no better way to celebrate than to share Moulin Rouge’s iconic music with thousands of fans at every game.

A band member at the Friends and Family Preview Show at Butler Field.
A band member at the Friends and Family Preview Show at Butler Field.

Moulin Rouge’s new Broadway production opened in New York, and we’re doing three songs from it that everyone likes,” Coleman said. “The students seem to really enjoy it, too. They’ve had a lot of fun with the show.”

At the Preview Show, the band performed 32 sets of drill to “Rhythm of the Night,” Kidman’s ballad “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” and the forever-iconic “Lady Marmalade,” which topped the charts when it debuted in 1974 and again in 2001 with the movie. Crowds watched attentively and erupted into cheers after each song.

Throughout the season, the band will perform their Moulin Rouge tribute, as well as another unannounced halftime show, for fans on the road and in Bryant-Denny stadium, along with their traditional tunes, including the Alabama Fight Song, Rammer Jammer, and, of course, the singing of the alma mater at the conclusion of every football game.

As the Million Dollar Band marches on for seasons to come, fans can expect members to maintain the tradition of excellence that has made the program a pillar of the UA experience. As they continue to entertain millions of spectators each year, they hope to make each performance, each step, and each note better than the one before.