TALLAHASSEE -- The band room on Florida A&M University’s campus is alive again.
Eager freshman in suits and ties lined up to audition for a spot in the acclaimed, but embattled Marching 100 band over the weekend. Then they practiced with the upperclassmen late into the evening, learning the sharp movements and musicianship that earned the band worldwide fame.
No one has forgotten why the band room went dark: the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion in November 2011. Not the students who say they understand how important it is that the 100 return as sharp as ever, but without the culture of hazing that has dogged the campus for decades, nor the administrators who know the band’s problems contributed to the school’s accreditation issues and tarnished its reputation.
“The world is watching you,” Department of Music chairman Kawachi Clemons told the students during orientation Saturday. “Everyone’s eyes are on us right now.”
No more than 256 students will participate in the Marching 100 this year, compared to the more than 400 that were on the roll before the 19-month suspension.
New rules also are in place. Members must be full-time students and maintain a 2.0 GPA. No student will be allowed in the band for more than four football seasons.
The school hired new staff to ensure the band complies with university policy and to respond quickly to any accusations of hazing.
There is new nomenclature, as well. Student “section leaders” are now called “principals.” Band director Sylvester Young, on the job since June, said campus administrators suggested the new title because now only adult band staff will lead rehearsals and teach students.
Instead of “drum majors,” the band will have three “field commanders.” That decision was made to respect the memory of Champion, who died the night of the final game of the 2011 season in Orlando after absorbing more than 300 blows in a ritual called “crossing bus C.”
Young will decide mid-week whether the band will travel to Orlando for the first game of the season, the MEAC-SWAC Challenge in Orlando on Sept. 1. And if they do travel, whether they will perform during halftime or just provide entertainment from the stands.
The students are excited to be back, said Ronald Gray, a junior from Fort Lauderdale who plays the euphonium.
“We’re really focused and understand the job we have at hand,” he said. “This is bigger than every individual. This is history.”
Classes don’t start for two weeks, but the freshmen are already moved into temporary dorms and learning Marching 100 basics.
Beverly Rohan’s son Eric just graduated from the same school in Decatur, Ga., that Champion attended. Now he is at FAMU hoping to make the band’s baritone section.
Eric has been taught by Marching 100 alumni since he was in middle school, and his mother didn’t hesitate to allow him to attend FAMU. But she has talked to him about hazing.
“We do not condone it in any form way or fashion,” Rohan said. “We don’t want anyone to haze him. We don’t want him to haze anyone. And he is to report it if he sees it or hears about it.”