The Ohio State University Marching Band has nurtured a reputation for innovation since at least 1930, when it assembled the first moving formation—an anchor—to the delight of fans at the OSU-Navy game.
Eighty-odd years later, what passes for cutting edge has changed. This season, for the first time, Ohio State’s marching band will equip its entire 192-person squad with iPad Airs. The Apple (AAPL) tablets will come with apps for sheet music (ForScore), charting marching formations (Drillbook Next), and review techniques (Coach’s Eye), plus digital metronomes and tuners. Band members will download rehearsal and logistical information via the university’s custom version of Box, the cloud software; they will wrap the tablets in submersible, shockproof cases designed to protect against even the most cavalier undergrad.
The move from analog to digital was born of two student band members’ concerns about the environment. In a typical season the band was using tens of thousands of sheets of paper, if not hundreds of thousands. After a pilot program last year, in which only the band’s leaders used iPads, director Jonathan Waters realized his musicians were not only saving trees, they were also learning their steps faster.
Traditional paper charts don’t show every musical count, so any guesswork or interpretation has to be worked out in practice. The iPad software allows band members to see their exact positions for every formation, count by count. If performers scroll through the formation quickly, they can see a whole routine animated; if they pause, they can see the precise spot—25-yard line, six steps behind the front hash—to land. “For the Wisconsin game one of our sousaphone players got sick, and we needed an alternate,” says Waters. “He learned the halftime show on the way to the game, on the bus. It was incredible.”
In addition to marching formations, the Ohio State band’s student-designed app includes basic marching tutorials and videos of the band, as well as registration and schedules for tryouts. Waters says the idea is partly to help interested students keep up if they can’t make it to some of the band’s unofficial rehearsals in the summer.
Some band members and alumni were skeptical about bringing computers onto the practice field. One complaint: Students have for years rolled up their sheet music and jammed it into the horns of their instruments when they’re not playing, and you can’t do that with an iPad. Other, less specific grousing seemed to center on the concern that the use of tablets marked the first step toward a marching band full of robots. The band has worn the same uniform for 135 years; tradition is important.
Waters insists the iPads won’t change the core of the band’s performance. “This makes the process more efficient, but an iPad can’t perform a halftime show,” he says. “What they’re doing out there is an art form we’ve been perfecting for 135 years, and that’s not going to change.”
For now, the new will have to coexist with the old. As good as the software for diagramming formations is, there are still some specific kinds of routines it doesn’t render well—including OSU’s signature formation. Known to college football fans everywhere as “Script Ohio,” it requires the band to spell out the state’s name in cursive with a series of elaborate movements. Script Ohio still has to be taught by bandleaders on the field and takes all season to perfect.