Band of the Fighting Irish marches on to ‘tradition, excellence and family’
Isa Sheikh | Friday, September 24, 2021
America’s first university band, the Band of the Fighting Irish, is back in full force after a challenging year. This season, students and fans from across the country have been able to fully experience the music and ornate marching routines performed by the approximately 380 members of the band.
“We have a saying in the band that every time you play the fight song, it’s gonna be someone’s first time hearing it, and it’s gonna be someone’s last time hearing it. So every performance matters,” said Ian Baker, a senior, who’s an assistant drum major in the band.
In his role, Baker dons the drum major’s white uniform to help conduct the band during games — emblematic of how the band relies on student leadership.
“A big thing is how much the [band is] student-led. That’s very, very unique,” assistant band director Matt Merten emphasized.
Erin Swope, a leader within the saxophones section, was elected by her peers to serve as band president this year.
“This is such a crucial year for us, rebuilding and coming back from the pandemic,” Swope said.
Merten noted that last year, the entire band was able to play at all the games, unlike other universities across the country.
“Last year, we took a quarter of the Stadium and spread out,” Merten said. “And we did it in a safe way. But we weren’t on the field. And we have a lot of traditions that we didn’t really get to do last year.”
The band’s motto is “Tradition, Excellence and Family,” and after a year when the group was only able to practice with half the group at a time, they’re excited to return to full capacity.
“This year is a celebration of returning to our traditions fully,” Swope said. “Band has really been my family for the last four years.”
The band has returned to many of its pre-pandemic traditions, including the parade to the Stadium, the Midnight Drummers’ Circle and the concert on the steps. Each section of the band has different traditions, including the saxophones and the mellophones — known colloquially by the band as “faltos” — who write parody songs throughout the week, and then compete by singing the songs at South Dining Hall.
The Band of the Fighting Irish is a tri-campus organization, drawing members from the University, Saint Mary’s College and Holy Cross College.
“We have a lot of pivotal members from Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross,” Swope said.
On Tuesday, many of the members of the band wore Saint Mary’s College apparel in solidarity with Saint Mary’s students who had been the target of social media attacks on Yik Yak due to the controversy over the Shamrock Series lottery.
Baker, wearing a light blue Saint Mary’s T-shirt, said, “We incorporate kids from Holy Cross and Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame into our community and establish something that’s unprecedented. We develop this community across all three campuses; we bring kids from all over the country, all different majors.”
Each week, they come together in order to learn a new show. “We never really repeat shows,” said Baker. The band understands the relationship they have with the students and fans in the stands, so they choose a variety of music.
“We understand that our crowd is students, alums and subway alums that are all here. So we try to pick music that is fun,” Merten said.
From the Weeknd to incorporating the essentials like the Celtic Chant, the band plays to cater towards the different populations that are in the Stadium.
Merten emphasized that the band itself is a cross-section of the University.
“The typical student in the band is the typical student at Notre Dame,” Merten said. Their largest major is actually engineering, which composes 35% of the band. “We have only a handful of music majors,” he added.
“We have a lot of students who are really good at teaching an instrument and getting people up to speed so they can play in the band. So we’re a pretty inclusive organization, in the sense that we will take anybody as long as they’re willing to work hard,” Merten concluded.
The Band of the Fighting Irish, in its 165th year, will play next at the Shamrock Series game in Chicago against the Wisconsin Badgers this Saturday.