When you watch a giant marching band perform its halftime show, it’s a dizzying display of movement, sound, and color. There’s so much happening, it’s best to just sit back and enjoy.
Polly Middleton is watching too, but not like the rest of us. She’s the new director of Illinois State University’s Big Red Marching Machine, the 300-member student marching band best known for its halftime performances and parade appearances. During shows and especially during rehearsals—when she’s perched on a tower with a microphone giving instructions—Middleton sees every missed step, every great turn, every opportunity to get better.
“The closer we get to a performance, the more obvious it becomes,” she said of missteps.
The Big Red Marching Machine—an ISU mainstay since the 1930s—will perform at Saturday’s Redbird football home game at Hancock Stadium. The band will be back in action at ISU’s Homecoming parade on Oct. 21.
Each show takes hours and hours of preparation. Sometimes Middleton arranges the music herself, sometimes it’s pre-arranged. The “drill” design—plotting the movements of the band as they play—can take up to 30 hours, Middleton says.
On Saturday, Big Red will play a show called “The Way to Normal,” featuring three songs from Ben Folds.
“Every show has a special place in your heart,” Middleton said.
Middleton grew up in Normal and has relatives who attended ISU. She worked with bands at Virginia Tech and Arkansas State before returning to Normal for the ISU job.
She’s drawn to the “great sense of community that’s in a marching band."
“All of those students, regardless of their background or where they went to high school or their major in college, come together and work really hard to put on this great performance and have this great show. It’s really fun to be part of that. It’s great to see the friendships develop and how they support each other.
"Being part of that experience is really rewarding. I loved that when I was in high school and in college. I loved being in marching band. I loved that aspect of it," she said.
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