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"Life with Miss Snookums--Alabama's Million Dollar Band" Alabama Public Radio

When it comes to Alabama’s Million Dollar Band, each week fans get a chance to see the music and marching come together at halftime. Here’s what you don’t see. Football fans take a break during the week after each game. Alabama’s marching band doesn’t.

The band practices for an hour and a half every afternoon, but when I arrive an hour early, the field is already coming to life. Every week during football season, these student musicians play “Yea, Alabama” -- that’s the Crimson Tide fight song -- and they march the same pattern on the football field. It makes you wonder, what keeps these musicians coming back?

Behind the music and the hot, hot red uniforms, there are the rituals.

“After practice every day, one of the captains will choose one of the members, usually it goes by seniority, and then halfway through the year we’ll start getting freshmen to do a chant.”

Danielle Wineger is a sophomore member of the Color Guard.

“They’ll say 1-2-3 and then everybody will say M-D-B-C-G Huh. But as manly as possible.”

Chants are a common theme.

“Well, we have a piccolo chant that we always do to get us hyped up,” says Melissa McMahon from the piccolo section.

“It’s ‘Ahhh…P-I-C-C-O-L-O Piccolos let’s go! Wooh!’”

The traditions are usually taught during band camp. They can also be a little more serious.

“We teach all the new members a chant.”

Kristen Faulkner is a senior trumpet player.

“And it goes like this: ‘Play it louder, play it faster, play it higher every time. Million Dollar Trumpet Line.’ And once we get really comfortable with each other we also do another chant that’s ‘Trumpets, 1-2-3’ and we all say ‘Family.’”

drum majors
Credit Allison Mollenkamp

For the trumpets, it’s like family. For other sections, it’s more like religion.

“Before every single game, at Elephant Stomp, we go up, we get in a big circle, put our arms around each other.”

Colin Corson plays the tuba.

“We say the Lord’s Prayer. Then one person is in the middle, usually an upperclassman or a section leader, and they ‘preach’ to us, basically just get us pumped up, fired up for the game. While they’re preaching, the rest of the section kind of hums ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. And then once they’re done preaching, we sing ‘Glory to the Tubas’. Which is, basically we change the lyrics of the actual song.”

While the rituals are fun, band members say they’re also meaningful.       

“It’s just nice to look around and say ‘Hey, these are the guys and girls that have been with us since band camp, who are… You know, they’ve been out in the heat, they’ve been sweating. And I know they have my back.”

Along with family and religion, some of these rituals involve good luck charms.

“We have a porcelain cat that we take to all of the away games.”

That’s junior Morgan Lakey, who plays alto sax.

“We refer to her affectionately as Miss Snookums. We believe pretty strongly that she has a hand in us winning so many games because the last time we left her at home was the kick-six game. So we’ve been pretty careful about making sure that she’s present at all of our future away games.”

While the saxophones put their faith in Miss Snookums, Melissa McMahon says she and her piccolo-packing friends do something else.

“Another tradition we have is we always make videos for the games. We pick a song each week and, during the game and during rehearsals and such, we film ourselves and then put it to music. It’s something fun that we all are a part of, and it’s also something visual that we can see so we can look back through the years and remember certain things and such. So I think it just reminds us of the times that we’ve shared together.”

For many University of Alabama students, Greek life gives them the camaraderie they crave in college. Colin Corson created a tuba tradition that takes a cue from the Greek system.

Colin Corson
Credit Allison Mollenkamp
Tuba player Colin Corson shows off his "MDB Tubas Heart the Tide" button

“My freshman year I just saw, it was my first game in Bryant-Denny, I’m like, ‘Wow, look at all these, you know, sorority girls and other groups that have buttons that say such and such heart the Tide’. I’m like, that would be pretty cool if we got some buttons that say ‘MDB Tubas heart the Tide’.”

Presiding over all the music, all the uniforms, and all the traditions is one man.

“With four hundred people, you have to have small groups.”

Dr. Ken Ozzello directs the Million Dollar Band.

“Four hundred people is too many to have in a family. So there has to be sub-families within that group that are strong to make the overall program strong.”

The overall program has its own traditions. Melissa McMahon says the most important is the Alma Mater.

“Well after every game, in general, we always sing the alma mater. And that’s honestly one of my favorite things to do in band. There are different harmonies within the band, so I think it just sounds really cool and it feels… It’s a great reminder that you’re constantly a part of something bigger than yourself when you’re in this community and when you’re in the Million Dollar Band.”

For Kristen Faulkner, her next turn singing the Alma Mater may be tough. She’s a graduating senior.

“For the last rehearsal of the whole season, they actually ask every senior to come up and conduct it for the whole band. And it’s just like a really, really big bonding moment for all the seniors. Like, this is it, this is our last rehearsal, this is what we’re gonna miss. And it’s like a really emotional experience. So I’m really looking forward to it, but also not.”

During band camp, she and the other veteran musicians form a circle around the freshmen to sing the Alma Mater. The senior year experience closes much the same way. The song ties together band members from year to year.

Dr. Ozzello says there’s one final tradition that does the same.

“They have a tradition of excellence that’s been passed on down the years. So whoever’s in the band that particular year, you know they kind of have a responsibility to those who came before them to make sure that the bar is met every year and that it actually keeps getting better and better every year.”

Graduates like Kristen may be sitting in the stands at Bryant Denny Stadium when the Million Dollar Band takes the field and plays the same songs next season, the same way members have for one hundred and four years. 

Former APR intern Allison Mollenkamp is the inaugural Howard Scholar at NPR's investigative unit. She won her first national Edward R. Murrow award for covering mid-west flooding for Nebraska Public Radio.
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