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Rhythm Nation

It's low tide in Mobile Bay, and on the far side of the inlet there's cotton on the stalk.  Four seasons of rolling back and forth through the cornfields near where I grew up renders this an alien landscape.  I walked off the plane from Ohio to palm trees in the airport parking lot coated with Christmas lights.  It's not new to me... but it's not familiar, either.

Familiar territory, on the other hand, is where JI Row lives.  

Their territory is the concrete yards of the stadium ramp, the red dots marking the way and the slight cracks in the walls.  Seven Saturdays a year, they march down the ramp, along the dots, bend around the north goalpost, and mark time, beating a cadence for the rest of The Ohio State University Marching Band as it follows.  They have taken for themselves the slogan "First On the Grass," and their entrance into the stadium is the opening rite of the pregame ritual, the very first sign the crowd has that this game Has Begun. 

That is why Olivia, Warrior Princess was brooking no crap on the morning of the final home game, for JI Row is rightfully serious about this.   At the end of each rehearsal, while the other rows stand clustered in squad meetings or drift back to the Band Center to reclaim backpacks and instrument cases, JI is practicing the ramp entrance.  In the rain.  And the cold.  Twice.  And sometimes more.  For in Ohio Stadium, as the ramp entrance unfolds, the Drum Major takes his cue from a member of X Row; X Row takes its cue from the final placement of the other rows in the Band, and the other rows in the Band take their cue from JI.

And JI takes its cue from I Row squad leader Jacob Lowe.  During drill set rehearsals, as horns lay scattered in the sideline pellets of the practice field, Jacob's snare is still hung about his neck, tapping out the design for his bandmates to form.  The OSUMB is a mighty beast; JI Row is its beating heart; Jacob is the aorta.

One day the aorta called to me across the rehearsal hall.  "We get here an hour and a half before everybody else on game day.  If you'd like to come early on Saturday and see what we do," he said, "you can."

I think I nodded.  My instinctual reply was rather more girly-submissive and I had to remind myself not to flutter my hands about, or sink into a chair, for as we all know that's frowned upon in these parts.  But I had just been extended a tremendous honor, one which I hadn't even imagined might come my way.  Other authors dream of Pulitzer Prizes and PhD English chairs; I drove away from the Band Center that day crying into the steering wheel cover because 29 percussionists had invited me to break doughnuts with them.  For "JI keeps to themselves," I was warned multiple times.  "Don't even try to get to know them." 

If that's the case, the exclusivity is a right they've more than earned; of all the instruments feeding in from the top marching high schools in the nation, you are not going to have trouble fielding a bunch of drummers.  And fast hands and an internal clock aren't enough.  Dozens of top DCI candidates are turned away because they can't master TBDBITL's marching style.  There's a reason why, every year, when the Band plays pep songs for the football team and the invitation comes to grab an instrument and march along, these media guide cover boys run like small children for the snares and bass.  And then, when the players had dropped the sticks and scattered from the rec center and their fellow bandsmen were long for the parking lot, several members of JI row hoisted their instruments to practice marching.

In an organization hellbent on beating the living daylights out of mediocrity, JI arrives early and stays late.  It is their cadences which daily called me up the steps of the Band Center at 3:58 each afternoon as the rest of the Band assembled to kick off "Buckeye Battle Cry"; they are the ones who play on during parades when everyone else has laid down the mouthpiece.  It is bass drum players who I saw checking and adjusting one another's posture as they placed their mallets on their shoulders during the final rehearsal of the year.  Rookie Alex Calderone told me that he spent hours sitting on the floor prior to tryouts, swinging the mallet, just swinging and swinging it, to swish the move in precisely the correct manner. 

And it is the bass drum players who will purchase the extra screen time those enormous shiny "OHIO” drum heads tend to garner in knotted muscle and bloody strap burns.  After the rigorous cardiohell which is a full ramp entrance, bass drummers proceed to swing the drum against their upper chests during the playing of "Carmen Ohio"… and hold it there.  During penalty drills, I saw one member of J Row haul his instrument up and down the hash marks at the same speed and with the same squareness as D Row with their batons and A Row's cornets.  By the time he arrived at where I watched at the 40 yard line, he was screaming as he swung the bass about at each turn, but was still in step with his fellow bandsmen, and, I imagine, remained so.  I couldn't bear to watch him any more past the 35.

Snare players lay down their drums like firstborn children before the Drum Major just prior to ramp; their sticks are flashing silver and at least one member, Matt Barrett, gives them away to kids at the end of each game day.  I sat next to Matt as we rode the band bus from Columbus to Ann Arbor; at one point he left his seat and his sticks hit the floor during a sudden stop. I scooped them up and held them tightly together across my lap, the tip of one resting against the end of the other.  These were important.

On game day, JI Row gathers at the ramp before the rookies wheeling coolers, before the ushers, before the football team.  Sometimes Olivia wears her hair down, the crash of the cymbals blowing it away from her face, but on Saturdays, there's not a spare strand to be seen.

The morning I was permitted to join JI, I stood in the first tier of spectator seats and watched them align-- without directors, without Drum Major, without a soul to applaud them.

"Drums on the side," Jacob yelled, and down they went… halfway, because one person was out of step. So they went again. And again.  And again.  With each run, they stopped right at the goalpost, just before reaching the grass of the field.  That was for later.

Once Jacob and Olivia were satisfied that the steady beat of JI Row would anchor their bandmates once more, they stood together, hands on one another’s shoulders, and faced away from me, away from the field—up the ramp and out into the world. They murmured to one another; I backed away so that I could not hear.  You can’t miss the noise a drumline makes, but I had no right to listen to this.

It’s “drums on the side” just before you see them, but that’s not how JI lives.  When you’re first in the rehearsal room, first in the parking lot, and first on the field, you better have your instrument directly in the center of your sightline.  They march down the sides of the ramp, but the heartbeat... that always issues from the center of the body.

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