By Scott Latta
UA Media Relations
Their role in Alabama football games is understood. Their appearance on the Alabama sidelines is welcomed. Their place in the Alabama football experience is as recognized as the first five notes of “Yea, Alabama.”
For the members of Alabama’s “Million Dollar Band,” the countless hours of hard work that go into every season begin months in advance of football season, starting in spring.
“For most of the summer, and even in the spring, the staff is doing preparation work such as choosing music, which is one of the biggest tasks, and getting music arranged,” said Alabama’s Director of Bands Ken Ozzello. “We’re also getting permission to use all the arrangements of the music, which can be a very long, difficult process.”
Contact with students begins in July, when the band holds a mini-camp with the drum line and band leadership team, which includes drum majors and section leaders. The full band reports for band camp about 10 days before the beginning of the fall semester.
“We typically do three sessions at band camp,” Ozzello said. “In the morning, we do marching technique and learn drill, that’s a three-hour block. In the afternoon, we tend to learn music inside because of the heat; and in the evening we do a three-hour block that’s about half-music, half-visual.”
Ozzello said that the total number of man hours that goes into the average “Million Dollar Band” halftime show probably totals “hundreds and hundreds,” and climbs even higher when the total number of staff members is taken into account.
“When you start multiplying it by the number of staff people, you’re talking about a ton of work,” he said.
Ozzello is in his 17th year at Alabama, his fourth as Director of Bands. In addition to directing the band and coordinating student leadership, Ozzello is also the creator of the band’s drill for halftime shows a complicated, precise system of charts and diagrams that maps out each marching member’s every step during a show, accounting for every beat of each song.
The task of arranging the band’s music falls to Michael Klesch, a former director for Drum Corps International, now in his fourth year at Alabama.
This season, the “Million Dollar Band” will perform three halftime shows. The first, which was learned over the summer and performed during the Hawaii, Vanderbilt and Louisiana Monroe home football games, was an evolution of the music of “The Wizard of Oz,” including music from the Broadway musical, “The Wiz.”
“We’re kind of morphing into the second show right now, which is a combination of Gloria Estefan piece from (the Louisiana Monroe game), Get on Your Feet,’” Ozzello said. “In Florida, we added the Charlie Daniels song, The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ and we’ll come back for the Duke game with the Taylor Hicks hit, Taking it to the Streets.’
“It’s an eclectic combination of three people.”
Since its inception as a military band in 1914, the “Million Dollar Band” has gained national recognition and prominence as one of the premier marching bands in the nation. But in the 92 years of the band’s existence, perhaps no moment brought more recognition to the program than in 2003, when the band was awarded the Sudler Trophy considered by many to be the Heisman Trophy of marching bands.
The Sudler Trophy, awarded by the John Philip Sousa Foundation, is given annually to one marching band in the nation that has “demonstrated the highest musical standards and innovative marching routines and ideas,” according to the award’s website.
Today, the trophy sits in Ozzello’s office, serving as a reminder of the standard the “Million Dollar Band” has set, both on campus and nationally. As the director of a previous winner, Ozzello now sits on the committee to determine future Sudler winners.
“There’s only one national award for college marching bands, and if you look at the list of bands that have been honored by that trophy, it’s a who’s who of college football and college marching bands, and it’s a great honor to be included,” Ozzello said.
Enrollment in this year’s “Million Dollar Band” is up by about 55 members, totaling the band’s numbers at 350 55 auxiliaries and 295 musicians. The group features four drum majors: Marc Sosnowchik (Head), Travis Bender, Rebekah Wiggins and Nathan Tucker. During the season, the band practices every day from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m., with a two-hour rehearsal on game-days.
For directors of the “Million Dollar Band,” recruiting is as integral a part of the program as it is in any varsity sport. For Ozzello, recruitment of high school students is twofold.
“There are two main avenues for recruiting,” said Ozzello. “One is the Alabama Honor Band on campus. That’s probably our biggest recruiting event on campus, where we invite students from all over the southeast to apply for the Honor Band, and we select the top 200 and they spend a weekend here playing in the groups and getting to spend time with the music faculty.
“The other way is our staff goes out and spends a lot of time in schools. We go out and do clinics, we adjudicate, conduct and that sort of thing.”
This season, the full band will travel to Gainesville, Florida, Knoxville, Tennessee and Baton Rouge, Louisiana for Alabama football games, with a pep band traveling to Fayetteville, Ark. for the Tide’s match up against the Razorbacks.
“It’s totally up to [Alabama Athletics Director Mal] Moore,” Ozzello said. “He considers: Is it an important SEC game? Do we need all of our forces there to support the team?’ The distance is obviously an issue, too. Arkansas is on the other side of the country from Tuscaloosa, and to bus out there would be really hard. Florida’s pretty far away, too, but at least we can do it comfortably.”