Forward March

It’s not easy being a small military band at a large, mostly civilian university, but after going through a rough patch, Virginia Tech’s Highty-Tighties are back in fighting trim.

For the better part of a century, there was only one major college marching band in the state of Virginia. During that century, this band rose to national prominence by winning nearly every marching event they entered, including the 1953 Presidential Inaugural Parade. Not only did they take first place in that parade, they repeated the feat in 1957 and 1961. Officials opted to end the competitive aspect of the parade four years later. This band is the Regimental Band of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, more affectionately known as the Highty-Tighties. And for four years, I had the honor and privilege of being a part of this band.

By the time I arrived in Blacksburg in 2002, however, the golden age of the HTs had passed. The band’s membership numbers and musicality had been in decline since the late 1960s and ’70s. The Vietnam War, for one thing, had created among many young people an aversion to all things military. What’s more, during that time the Corps of Cadets was changed from mandatory to strictly voluntary—and band support from the administration was drastically cut.

However, the biggest blow to the HTs was not just the formation of marching bands at other universities in the state, but, more importantly, the creation in 1974 of the Marching Virginians, a civilian marching band at Virginia Tech. It soon became larger and more prominent than the HTs. With civilian students greatly outnumbering cadets on campus, many college-bound students felt that joining a military band was not worth the effort when they could join the other band and have a lot more free time. HT membership, which is ideally 144 members, was for a time less than half that number.

Whether it’s a football team or a company, rebuilding a unit is no easy thing. But during my tenure with the HTs, the band’s leadership worked hard to reestablish the band—to raise its membership numbers and to restore its collective pride and musical vigor. And those efforts have been paying off. According to Charles Cornelison, the HT commander in 1967 and president emeritus of the band’s alumni board, “The last couple of years have produced a band recruiting effort that is the most effective I have ever seen.” Instead of just targeting high school students with an interest in the military, band officials now go into band classes and try to recruit students with an interest in music.

That tactic has worked: Band membership in recent years has risen to roughly 100 members. The band has also adopted a simpler philosophy, which is best expressed in the title of the CD we released in 2005, Excellence Through Simplicity. Cornelison says that the band’s musicality and attitude have improved, which in turn has helped to attract and retain band members. Says he: “The quality of our product [is] returning to historic levels.”

This year, Virginia Tech has approximately 800 Corps cadets, out of a total undergraduate population of 25,000, roughly 80 percent of whom will be commissioned upon graduation to be officers in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. Most, if not all, would acknowledge that they’ve got a fairly demanding schedule. That’s certainly true for cadets in the HTs. Each has a full course load of classes each semester, the extra work of band practice and the daily duties of a cadet—including morning formation, polishing brass and shining shoes, as well as many other Corps functions. Unlike many college bands, including Tech’s own Marching Virginians, which only practice and perform during the football season, the HTs perform during the entire school year, marching for pass-in-reviews and parades in both semesters, in addition to the football games.

Indeed, the Highty-Tighties (and, yes, we’ll try to explain the name below) are unique among college marching bands. Virginia Tech is one of only two universities that support Corps of Cadets within a larger civilian student population (the other is Texas A&M)—and it’s the only college in America with two marching bands. Visit Lane Stadium during football season, and you’ll see both of them supporting the home team.

Because the Corps’ color guard carries the American flag, the HTs usually perform at the pre-game show and play the national anthem. And, at the request of head coach Frank Beamer, the HTs also have the honor of marching the football team into the stadium two hours before every home game, during what is called the Hokie Walk. The Marching Virginians perform, admirably, at halftime.

While the two bands are equal in playing time at home, the 330-strong Marching Virginians are chosen to represent the university at football away games and at bowl games. However, the MVs do not perform in the spring semester, while the HTs are usually turning their attention to various parades and events. While I was there, those events included two trips to Savannah, Georgia, for Saint Patrick’s Day, a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and Governor Tim Kaine’s inaugural parade in Williamsburg. This year, however, the band’s big trip will actually occur in the fall semester, as they have been invited to participate in the 2007 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

A few recent alumni, including myself, are envious of the band’s appearance in New York City. We tried to get into the Macy’s lineup, but so do hundreds of bands around the country every year, and the trip never materialized. That was disappointing, as my first exposure to the band was watching the HTs perform in the 1999 Macy’s parade. The freshmen that year were seniors when I joined the band.

This year, however, things finally fell into place, and the band was invited to participate in the Macy’s parade. It was not a hard decision for the bandsmen to give up most of their Thanksgiving holiday break to march in one of the country’s best-known parades. Since the band prepares for one performance at a time and has to work within the parameters set by the parade organizers, the HTs have yet to decide what they will perform at the parade. Even the practice schedule is up in the air, since there are back-to-back home football games immediately prior to the Thanksgiving break.

While I was a member of the band, we did have one major claim to fame—a trip to the presidential inaugural parade. For any Highty-Tighty, the inaugural parade is the Holy Grail. Every four years, three Virginia bands vie for the state’s two slots in the inaugural parade—the marching band from James Madison University, the cadet regiment of the Virginia Military Institute and the HTs. As one of the band’s public information officers, I was partially responsible for leading a campaign to get the band into the 2005 parade. Band members, alumni, university officials, family and friends of the band lobbied politicians for nearly a year before the Joint Task Force Armed Forces Inaugural Committee made their decision. Though inaugural parades are very simple in concept, the thrill of being able to march past the review stand and play “Tech Triumph”—the fight song of Virginia Tech—for George W. Bush was an experience that cannot be matched. As an alumnus, I look forward to helping in the campaign for the 2009 parade.

Despite going through a rough patch, band director Major George McNeill says the HTs are making progress in their effort to get the band membership back to its 1960s level. “It has been my goal since the day I took this position to increase the enrollment of band members,” McNeill says. “The goal is 144 Highty-Tighties”—enough for a 12-by-12-person marching block. Cornelison explains the desire for a 12-by-12 block. “It was the on-field size most of us remember when the band was recognized as the ‘University’ band until the mid-’70s. Its size and sound were impressive both on the football field and on the street.”

In a day and age when some young people take the easiest path through college and support for the military has been wavering, it is encouraging that the band has been growing gradually—hovering now around 100 members. It’s hard to pin down an exact number of bandsmen—or women, as roughly 15 percent of the band is female—in any given year, because each year it seems that more cadets from the band take on other leadership roles within the Corps, which can limit their participation in band functions.

While the band would like to grow even bigger, the current membership number is still a vast improvement from just two decades ago, when the HTs were only able to field a 50- to 60-person band. “Now that we have achieved the goal [of 100 members],” Cornelison says, “and the performance quality is back, … we want to truly impress the public again with size. It does matter.”

One way to boost the band’s size is to emphasize to recruits the many different reasons to join the HTs. Many cadets come to the band because they wish to pursue a military career and want a meaningful activity on the side. “I did marching band in high school, and it was something I wanted to continue with in college,” says Leif Alleman, a senior in the class of 2008. “The Highty-Tighties presented the perfect opportunity to march and be in the band in college while still pursuing a commission in the Navy.”

Others, such as myself, join the Corps for the sole purpose of being in the band based on its tradition and reputation, and don’t wish to pursue a military career. Still, we get leadership training from our activities in the Corps, and the post-graduation networking possibilities are a bonus. I was once told of a VMI alumnus who has such respect for the Corps at Virginia Tech, as well as at his own alma mater, that any job application or resume he receives citing either program instantly goes into the short stack for further review.

The new recruiting effort also allows the band to focus on finding talented musicians. In the past, in order to get a decent-sized freshman class, anyone who had any musical background, and even a few people who did not but were coordinated enough to hold a bugle and walk at the same time, were dragged into the band. “The quality of our music program has improved tremendously since the mid-’90s,” says band director McNeill. “Offering a program that is challenging, interesting and fun will definitely make people want to stay.” To honor Major McNeill’s success in improving the band, the Highty-Tighty alumni board awarded him with honorary alumni status at the 2006 Homecoming banquet. The announcement prompted a standing ovation from the nearly 200 alumni and current bandsmen in attendance.

As expected, the HTs play mostly military marches, including “National Emblem” and “Semper Fi,” during field shows and parade performances. But they have also built a nice repertoire of more popular songs to play in the stands or at pep rallies. Every year, Major McNeill tries to add at least one or two more “stands tunes,” such as “The Impression that I Get” by the Mighty Bosstones, or even OutKast’s hit “Hey Ya!”

Since the HTs are a marching band, not all challenges are music-related. The cadets in the HTs pride themselves on their precision marching, which cannot be compared to most college marching bands, such as those seen in the movie Drumline, where the focus is placed on complex formations and dance-like movements instead of true marching.

The band sticks largely with traditional military marching drill. One of their more visually stunning moves is known as the “countermarch.” At some point in the band’s history, the band decided that it was not enough to simply stop and mark time, or halt, when a parade stalls. So they implemented a move where each rank does two right faces and marches back in the direction they came from until the drum major calls another countermarch. This move is very impressive in parades such as the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade, where the band will march directly up to the crowd, close enough for the trombones in the front rank to nearly touch spectators, and then suddenly change direction.

However, the countermarch has backfired on the HTs a few times. During my sophomore year, when we marched in the Endymion parade at Mardi Gras, it felt like the parade would always stall as we passed over the horse manure in the street. Naturally, the bigger the pile, the more we countermarched in that particular spot. That was one of the reasons I volunteered to march the banner in Governor Kaine’s inaugural parade, because up in the front, I could spot poop on the street and simply walk around it.

Beyond the marching movements and recruiting methods, the HTs find their identity in their camaraderie. The band members all live in the same place, currently on the bottom two floors of Monteith Hall, one of the three cadet dorms on Tech’s upper quad. They live together, work together, study together, eat together, even relax together. “The band is a family,” says Army Lieutenant Erikson McCleary, an alumnus from the class of 2006. “That’s what they tell us when we get here.”

It is this feeling of family that builds a sense of pride that stays with a bandsman even after graduation. That is why many alumni still come back every year at Homecoming to participate in the alumni band. Many band alums support the band through financial contributions, most of which is used for the $1,000 scholarships given to all incoming band freshmen. A few alumni have sent their children to Blacksburg to become HTs; the recently graduated class of 2007 had three members whose fathers were in the band in the 1970s. And I am told that this year’s freshman class, due to graduate in 2011, has a few legacy members as well, including Mr. Cornelison’s son.

There are definitely a variety of circumstances coming together to make the band the best it has been in a long time, possibly the best it has ever been. Cornelison attributes this new era to the people and philosophies governing the Corps of Cadets and the band right now. “I have never seen the Corps, from the outside, providing better leadership training than today. It is planned, not a matter of osmosis, which had been our training model. There will always be some criticism from within, because the system teaches us to improve it when our turn for command comes around. However, too often that has produced change for the sake of change.”

Major McNeill agrees: “The most important reason [for the turnaround] is the change in leadership style within the band. Treating everyone with dignity and respect, elimination of negative training and leading by example are what’s keeping the band numbers high.” And that will keep the Highty-Tighties in musical marching trim for years to come.

The Origin of that Name

Can a Highty-Tightie ever be hoity-toity?

About one thing everyone agrees: The Highty-Tighties have a very unusual name. As with any organization that has been around for more than a century, the history behind the name has become shrouded in folklore. Currently, there are two stories of how the name came to be.

The short and slightly less interesting one is that the name came from a cheer. The band simply got tired of not having a name and picked the name from a cheer. The same cheer is used by the band after every major performance.

The more elaborate story, and one worthy of being part of Highty-Tighty lore, involves a 1921 parade in which the band marched. The band had traveled to Richmond for a parade honoring Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France. The drum major attempted to toss his baton as he passed the reviewing stand. However, the wind caught the mace, causing it to bounce on the ground. The drum major picked it up on the bounce, without missing a step, and was still able to render the proper salute. Foch supposedly reacted to the nifty maneuver by saying, “hoity-toity,” which means “show off” in French.

And that’s the story that the band sticks with.

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