I emailed Director of Bands Michael Haithcock and MMB Director Scott Boerma regarding the MMB and the stadium atmosphere. They have allowed me to post their responses to my questions.
I offered my summary of the situation, or at least what the discussion involves: That much of the stadium can't hear the band like they used to, and the hypotheses given range from the new seats to fewer members to a greater emphasis on musicality over volume to the rubber on the fieldturf. Therefore, the piped-in music is necessary, because it's better than nothing.
Here is a portion of the exchange. First, Prof. Haithcock presented some national context for the situation:
1) The issue is not unique to UM! MSU had canned music played on Saturday while the band was on the field. Tennessee has a long tradition of the band marching to the stadium, doing a stadium entrance, and sitting in the stands prior to the game to play while the team warms up. At their first home game, the TN band marched into the stadium and was greeted with canned rap music. The band will boycott their previous tradition if canned music is in place. This does not solve our problem, but it does clarify that change abounds in the collegiate arena.
2) The pros are taking from college (the Pistons drum line for example) and the colleges are taking from pros. My sister is a high school athletic director in South Carolina and the HS fans want video boards and the same things they see on TV. The culture at UM has been very specific. Change comes slowly and reaction to change is always severe. I don't bring any of this up to lessen the reality of the current situation but to itemize what I have observed as a college band director over 33 years. [Emphasis mine. --ed.] We are dealing with a sudden shift in UM culture on one hand but a slow evolution that has been building like a volcano at other places. We are fortunate that in-stadium marketing is still off the table at the Big House. Many schools bands can not play the fight song during a time out so that a sponsoring soft drink commercial can be aired on the video board.
"BELLE TIRE!" comes to mind.
Then, he addressed the rumors regarding the band:"The [enrollment] numbers have been the same in total size since before Prof. Nix left. The specific numbers of instruments change every year and always have. Those that claim the MMB is 'bleeding numbers' due to his leadership are either completely uninformed or have an agenda.
The same is true with the notion of emphasis on musicianship over volume. Is the "sound" of the band within the volume balanced differently? Yes. Is it less loud? No. This "personal" balance would be true of any director as it has been since the legendary Revelli. [...] The evidence just does not support the claim that the band is playing less loud than under Prof. Nix. Those that claim this is Prof. Boerma being a DCI guy and not a football fan just do not have a clue. DCI groups play louder than most college marching bands AND they play with sound qualities that have more staying power do to their blend and intonation qualities.
What would I or Prof. Boerma have to gain from encouraging less than full potential volume within the context of what we know about resonance, blend, and intonation. Those that want to blame me because my work these days is primarily in the concert hall are not aware of the true acoustical issues (you just can not "man up") or ever heard marching bands under my direction."
He points out that he hired Jamie Nix in 2001, Kevin Sedatole ('97-'98 IIRC) was a former student of his, and he hired two former MMB interim directors at his previous place of work.
"I did not, nor have not, changed my standards. [...] If I thought any stone was being left unturned to maximize the potential of the MMB, I would be working to fix the issue."
I offered my own opinion on the piped-in music (I'm against 95% of it). He says that this contributes to the relative volume:
"I will say that the modest volume of the pre-game music that existed previously has been raised significantly. Therefore, everyone who comes in the stadium prior to "band take the field" is treated to a new level of sound than ever before. If you combine this level with the new buildings, the amount of sound in the stadium is much greater. There is no way any band can compete with the number of speakers at the level of volume utilized. From my vantage point, I did not find the Western Michigan band or the Notre Dame band to be any louder than the MMB during recent home games."
I asked two questions:
1. What, if anything, is being done to address the concerns that the band is inaudible to many in the stadium?
"The MMB was moved a few years ago back to the Press Box side after a decade opposite the student section. There were many reasons for this but it was instigated by athletics. We continue to be concerned that everyone can not hear the band in the way we all would like. We used to get the same complaints from people who sat behind the MMB when it was on the other side. We continue to get the complaint from those who sit opposite the visiting band. There is a reason Civil War bands marched at the front of the army with instrument bells that were 'over the shoulder.' These are directional instruments.
We hope to review the location of the MMB with athletics given the new acoustical situation and the reality of our new atmosphere. The band is working daily to maximize volume. Prof. Boerma and the staff will be working to face more directions."
2. How do you feel about the music being played over the PA? Did the MMB staff have any input in it, or was it a decision just handed down?
"I am realistic enough to understand that some variety of canned music will probably be with us going forward. The music selection, when the music is used, and the volume of presentation are all things I hope the MMB leadership will have some input on as we go forward.
The decision to implement canned music was essentially handed down. It has also become an increasing element at basketball games. There was an indication of how it would be used within the game that has been exceeded by a wide margin."
[It] makes no sense to ban the amplification of the band and then play canned music while the team is in the huddle or approaching the line of scrimmage. You will remember that the canned music went beyond the line the band is supposed to cease in relation to the play on many occasions.
I suggested that this is telling the band "we don't need you;" he disagreed:
"I honestly think the message is a) we need the MMB to be 'all in,' and b) we need to provide this different experience to shake things up and get the stoic UM crowd involved in a new generation of UM football. The same changes in atmosphere were in place a West Virginia with similar displeasure initially expressed from the fan base. The MMB staff was made aware that these changes would come with the territory once the coach was hired."---
Prof. Boerma agreed with much of what Prof. Haithcock wrote, but added this about his approach to rehearsals and performances:
My students are completely involved in the games, and I am asking them to play full out all the time. (As a matter of fact, my new dentist sits on the "visitors" side of the stadium and comments to me often how thrilled he is that the band is now more actively and boisterously engaged in the game than they used to be.) I'm not (or even have been) purposefully having them play softer; I'm constantly using phrases like "fill up that Big House with Big Sound!" Anyone who actually believes that I've attempted to make the MMB play softer is simply ignorant. Do I have a responsibility to make sure that the band plays with balance and blend? Of course I do. Do I want them to be the loudest thing in Michigan Stadium? You bet I do!"
On the architecture of the stadium as a factor:
"We were excited about the new press boxes when they were being built, because their slanting-in architecture was sure to capture more sound from the band. When we rehearsed in the Big House on the Wednesday before the first game this season, we noticed a definite change. However, when you suddenly add 110,000 fans screaming for a newly-proficient football team, there is simply no way to compete. Add to that the insanely loud canned music... All is relative."
On the MMB enrollment numbers:
"Reports that the numbers are declining in recent years are simply untrue, as Prof. Haithcock accurately reported. They've been the same all 3 years I've been here, which is truly remarkable, considering the football seasons we've recently experienced. However, JUST like when Prof. Nix was here, the numbers of certain sections fluctuate year to year, which is something no one can control. Jamie used to complain to me that he could never get enough euphoniums or tubas. We've got the largest tuba section I've seen in this band for years, and we have over the performance block number of euphoniums.
On the canned music:
"I am meeting with the people responsible for this in Athletics this afternoon. If anyone out there thinks we're just sitting around letting this happen, they're gravely mistaken. We take this VERY seriously. Most importantly, the people truly hurting about all of the nasty comments are the students in the MMB who are simply trying to carry on the incredible tradition. Please respect them and encourage others to do the same. They deserve it... and they truly are 'All In for Michigan.'"
Beat the Eagles!