Rehearsal was supposed to begin at 7:30 p.m. but was pushed back to 8 p.m., and then even later.
“We won’t be going outside until 9:30,” Southern University’s Director of Bands Nathan Haymer says. “We have some class schedule conflicts, so we’re having to accommodate for that.”
“It’s worth it,” Wayne Matthews says.
Even on what had to be one of the coldest nights of the year, it was worth marching late into the night if it meant having a chance to win a second Honda Battle of the Bands Invitational Showcase championship.
“I’ve attended it before I got in the band, and I was able to see Southern perform,” Matthews says. “Now I’m a band member, and I know we have a lot of pressure on us.”
Matthews is a 21-year-old senior from New Orleans majoring in mechanical engineering. He’s a tuba player in Southern University’s Human Jukebox Marching Band, which goes up against seven other bands in the Honda competition in Atlanta on Saturday.
The competition begins at 2 p.m. Central Time and will end with all the groups forming a mass band to honor Lawrence Jackson, who retired as Southern’s band director last May.
“So, we not only have the pressure on us to win another championship, but we have the pressure on us to do it for Mr. Jackson,” Haymer says. “It’s been five years since Southern has marched in this competition, and Mr. Jackson was director then.”
Haymer was an assistant band director under Jackson at the time and was named director of bands last June.
“And I keep thinking, ‘Am I crazy?’” he says, laughing. “We went through football season, and we had the Bayou Classic at the end. Then we performed in the SWAC championship, and after that, our Wind Ensemble performed its Christmas concert. Then there were six weeks where we were inactive, and when we come back from Christmas break, we have to hit the ground running.”
Not only did Haymer put the Honda Battle of the Bands on Human Jukebox’s schedule, he also accepted an offer for the band to lead the Krewe of Bacchus Mardi Gras parade on Feb. 15 in New Orleans.
“I just have to remember to give the band members as many experiences and opportunities as I can,” he says. “I may have gone to the Battle of the Bands five years ago, but this is a different band. No one here was in that competition, so I want to give them that chance. It’s a matter of me getting older, but the band stays the same age. I may have been there, but they haven’t, and I have to remember that.”
So, the band has rehearsed late into the night during the off-season, sometimes in freezing temperatures. Southern operates on a four-day class schedule, but band members meet for rehearsal on Fridays, their day off.
They also came together during the weekend preceding the competition.
“We have a short rehearsal time for this, but it’s all coming together,” Haymer says. “We’re putting together the best of the best from the season — the best from all of our shows.”
The other bands also will be bringing their best.
The Honda Battle of the Bands’ mission is to “support and recognize the excellence of black college marching bands and the unique experience offered by Historically Black Colleges or Universities.”
Honda annually awards more than $200,000 in grants to participating marching bands during the program period, and in the end, eight bands are chosen to the invitational showcase in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
This year’s bill is headlined by Jackson State University, Bethune-Cookman University, Tennessee State University, Howard University, Talladega College, Alabama State University and North Carolina A&T University.
And, of course, the Human Jukebox.
“It’s the Super Bowl of bands,” Haymer says. “This is big, and the competition is tough. But I feel good about it. The band has come together, and I’m confident we’re going to win again.”
Haymer’s confidence is backed by the fact that the NCAA ranked Southern’s band second behind Ohio State University at the beginning of the 2014 football season.
“Think about it,” Haymer says. “Southern was No. 2 behind Ohio State, the most high-tech college marching band in the nation. Look at what they have and what we have. All of their band members have iPads and GPS technology to tell them where to stand on the field. We practice in a parking lot, and we’re ranked No. 2. That really says something.”
Among those practicing last weekend was saxophone player Ashley Harrison. She’s a 21-year-old senior from Dallas majoring in biology.
“This will be my last time to march a show with the band, and it’s definitely worth it,” she says. “It’s different from football season, because we won’t be putting on a show for our football fans but for the other bands. And we’re more anxious to prove who we are.”
And that would be the reigning Battle of the Bands champions, with plans to win another.