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To Play With The Best Damn Band In The Land, First You Had Better Practice

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Erin Gottsacker
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Ryan Dunson, second from left, practiced for months before the Ohio State Marching Band tryouts.

In mid-July, weeks before official tryouts for the marching band, nearly 300 students clutched shiny instruments on a field outside Ohio Stadium.

Ryan Dunson stood among them. He plays the snare drum, the instrument responsible for keeping the band in time, and he spent his entire summer preparing for tryouts.

"You keep practicing all the music, you go out and practice your marching every single day," Dudson says. "I do, at least."

The Ohio State football team kicks off a new season Thursday night in Bloomington, Ind., as the Buckeyes take on the Hoosiers. But the start of football season also means another prestigious, and notoriously selective, group of Buckeyes taking the field: the Ohio State Marching Band, nicknamed The Best Damn Band In The Land.

During the summer, Dunson said he spent at least two hours a day practicing on his own. And that’s on top of attending optional evening practices for aspiring band members to learn how to march and play beloved Ohio State tunes.

"Every Tuesday and Thursday we go about four and a half hours," Dunson says. "Wednesdays, we meet for about three hours."

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Credit Erin Gottsacker
Marching band practices, which run between 3-5 hours three times a week, begin with stretches.

All of this practice is in preparation for two days of tryouts, where about a third of the aspiring marching band members are cut. Band director Christopher Hoch says tryouts are intense.

"It’s very competitive," Hoch says. "We’ll have probably about 325 to 350 students auditioning for the band, that’s typically what we get in a year. Every section is competitive. These kids work their tails off all summer."

This is Dunson’s second year trying out for the band. Even though he made the cut last year, he doesn’t have a guaranteed spot. Last year, 13 veteran snare drummers returned to try out for 14 spots. One of those veterans was cut to make room for Dunson and another newcomer.

But he’s confident about this year’s prospects.

"This year there are seven spots open, seven people who have graduated, so I’m feeling pretty good about my chances this year," Dunson says.

With tryouts only a few weeks away, Dunson says he felt ready, but the whole process was nerve-wracking.

"Usually people go in there with a bunch of nerves, me especially," he says.

At the tryouts, students receive two scores: one for music and one for marching. For the music score, they play scales and songs for a panel of professional musicians from around the country.

"The most nerve-racking part is individual playing audition that we have," Dunson says. "Thankfully, there’s just one of those."

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Credit Erin Gottsacker
Marching band tryouts include a music audition, in front of professionals from around the country, and a marching audition.

Then, for the marching portion, a handful of students line up on the football field, where they’re told to execute a series of complicated commands.

The students march forward, backward, diagonally, making sharp turns, desperately trying to remember the series without making a single mistake. Every move is watched closely.

Late at night, after the second day of tryouts, members of the 2017 marching band are announced. Students clutch each other’s hands as the director reads a list of names.

Like last year, Dunson makes the cut.

“I get that euphoric moment of ‘Oh I get to play in the skull session,’ ‘Oh I get to march in Ohio Stadium,’ ‘Oh I get to go down the ramp,’ and all those other great traditions I get to be a part of," Dunson says. "I’m still blown away by it every time.”

So what's he most excited about this year?

"Definitely the Oklahoma game, since the drum line leads the band onto the field, and definitely Script Ohio," Dunson says. "The crowd is going to go crazy, and I can’t wait to hear the crowd’s response."