Drum major tradition

Submitted by Mitch Cumstein on October 21st, 2009 at 8:51 AM

This past Saturday as I watched, for at least the 100th time, the drum major bend over backward and touch his head to the ground I became curious as to when that tradition started, how it started and what it actually means. I like it, and its cool especially when everyone cheers right when he hits the ground. Does anyone know anything about the origins of this tradition? If you could shed some light on it I would appreciate it.



October 21st, 2009 at 9:01 AM ^

Not sure when it started, but it used to be a special occasion when he took his hat off and did the back bend. You knew it was a big game when he'd take his hat off in the past, now it's just routine.


October 21st, 2009 at 2:39 PM ^

that went to OT @ the big house. the PSU drum major bent over backwards and touched his hat (which was about 3' long like most DM hats) to the ground. MMB's DM's response was to remove his hat and touch his head to the ground.

that's the first time i remember seeing the DM touch his head, but it has gotten to be an every game kinda thing....it doesn't, however, make it any less of a feet of great strength and flexibility of the individual who does it.

Bando Calrissian

October 21st, 2009 at 9:33 AM ^

The first drum major to touch his hat to the ground was Mark Brown (1969-71). He was an acrobat, so he could basically bend himself in half and put the plume between his feet. I've been meaning to put a video up on YouTube, it's rather impressive.

Before Brown, the Drum Major bent backwards, but didn't touch the hat. The DM after Mark Brown, Albert Ahronheim, actually did a backflip instead of a backbend. It seems the backbend as we know it developed after Ahronheim, and evolved into the feet-apart, knees-almost-touching-the-ground style.

The first DM to touch his head to the ground was Matt Pickus (~91-93?). It was not required (Karen England, the first female DM, never took off her hat) until it became the standard around 2004-5ish.


October 21st, 2009 at 10:19 AM ^

I don't think there's any special meaning to it other than, "Look what I can do!" I have seen other Big 10 drum majors do similar backbends.

As far as I know, it is just a part of the Drum Major's pregame performance, like the strut ("running" with an arched back and legs extended) or tossing his/her baton over the crossbar of the North goalpost. (Superstision is that a catch means a win and a drop means a loss...)


October 21st, 2009 at 10:46 AM ^

I do recall the goalpost toss was dropped right before ... you know. Since then, I don't care if the drum major touches his head or his hat on the backbend, or drops trou and moons the crowd.



May 20th, 2010 at 4:18 AM ^

I was in the MMB at the same time as Mark Brown.  At that time we certainly thought his backbend was cool, but didn´t perceive it as the beginning of a tradition, of course.  There was a number of milestones in the 69 MMB which were spotlighted at our 40th reunion last fall:  Bo´s first year at Michigan, the Block-M which the band floated down the field, the then-controversial "Peace" show, and Michigan´s historic 24-12 upset over the national champion favorite OSU.

As for those of us who marched with Mark, I don´t think his backbend is what we predominently remember him for, but rather as the class act and the natural leader  he was.  Last fall I had the good fortune to spend some days catching up with him at our reunion.  We roomed together and I was amazed to see Mark, nearly 59, doing his yoga exercises before bed.  When I saw what figures he could still mold his body into, I knew that he could still do that backbend.

But at the Saturday game, he chose not to, opting to twirl like most of the other alumni drum majors.  I didn´t ask him why, I just sensed that he didn´t want to grandstand or upstage the others.  And that´s the way the ´69 band will always remember Mark Brown.  As a genuine class act and our leader.


October 21st, 2009 at 10:03 AM ^

Bando: I think you are correct about Mark Brown being the first ever to do the backbend, but I'm not sure if Pickus was the first to go hatless. I seem to recall a picture in the shrine at Revelli Hall that showed a drum major in an older uniform doing it. I could be mistaken though. Correct me if I'm wrong here.

I think the process of going hatless for every game is pretty recent, and it really depends on the DM. Some DM's prefer to wait until the opening of conference play to remove the hat. Several other drum majors in the conference also have some kind of band bend type move in their pre-game routine; I believe only Michigan and sometimes Iowa go hatless. I've heard some traditionalists say that removing the hat is not classy because technically the DM is removing part of their uniform during a performance. Personally, I always thought the hatless backbend was pretty cool.

Bando Calrissian

October 21st, 2009 at 10:38 AM ^

As far as I can tell, and from everything I've heard, it was Pickus. Although you'd know better than I.

I just fired up Youtube.

Hatless backbends:

Ohio State
Michigan State

Purdue and Penn State don't do a backbend. Doesn't look like Illinois does one, either.


October 21st, 2009 at 11:30 AM ^

When the hatless back bend began, the crowd used to go crazy if the DM removed the hat because it was unpredictable. Like I said before, it's been happening every game recently so I think it's lost some of its significance. Scale it back to 1 or 2 games a year and I'm sure it will amp the crowd a little more.


October 21st, 2009 at 10:14 AM ^

I marched for four years starting in 1989. At that time many of the Drum Major traditions were well established, but not touching the head to the ground.

The 1989 Drum Major (Jeff Stokes) did a backbend and touched his plume (sticking out of the top of his hat) to the ground.

The following two years, Rodney Weir was the DM and he did the same thing. He usually smashed the plume down, hitting the top of his hat to the ground. Same with Greg Macklem the following year.

As another poster indicated, I think Matt Pickus ('93 and '94) was the first to doff the hat and regularly touch his head to the ground. For most of the homecoming games I've seen him attend, he still does the head-touching backbend during the half-time alumni performance.

Lest you think the drum major is just a "band geek" and/or not athletic, note that a couple of weekends ago, Greg Macklem (mentioned above), now in his late 30's, just completed the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii...


October 21st, 2009 at 11:02 AM ^

it being a big deal when I went to games as a kid. When I went to the Indiana game this season I nearly missed it altogether. I can't tell if I changed or it (the general enthusiasm about the entire MMB) changed.

I don't really remember what my perception of it was between the ages of 19 and 28.


October 21st, 2009 at 1:45 PM ^

The games I attended in the 70s and 80s, the DM would do the back bend and touch the plume to the ground.

My take on the removal of the hat is that it showed to other schools who performed a back bend routine that it was a sort of in-your-face, "Michigan can do it even better -- no hat!"

I agree that the crowd loves it. The meaning behind the back bend and head touch needs to be passed down so our kids yell and scream just as much as we did.

Bando Calrissian

October 21st, 2009 at 5:34 PM ^

There is one thing I've been wondering about, and hopefully some band alum/observant fan from the early 90's will remember.

I know there was a game (or two) in 1998 where Ramon Johnson and Gregg Whitmore both suited up and did a two drum major pregame, as it was already all but determined Whitmore would be taking over the next season. There's a picture of it over at Dick Gaskill's site, I think, and definitely one in the Cavender Room at Revelli. It's definitely odd to see two DM's side by side doing the strut, and to my knowledge it's the only time Michigan had two drum majors performing at pregame.

That being said, I have this lingering memory from when I was a kid of there being two drum majors suited up in the old royal blue-and-white DM uniform for one game a year. This would have been 1993 or 4, maybe even before Matt Pickus. Only one performed, but there were two on the sidelines, and it was said that there was some kind of assistant drum major who was ready to go if the main DM got hurt or something, and they let him suit up once a year. Might have been homecoming. Does anybody else remember this, or am I just completely imagining things?