Now that the disappointment of last weekend is starting to fade, it’s time to start to look forward to the home opener this weekend in Kenan Stadium. We all got a taste around college football of things that we missed in 2020, like fans, raucous cheers, and most importantly-bands.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m an alumnus of the Marching Tar Heels, and on top of everything that was missing from a Kenan game day last year, the lack of any noise from the west end zone when the Tar Heels crossed the goal line just made the games feel like a shell of themselves. I’m sure we all were happy to have football, but it wasn’t the same to see a touchdown being scored and have the press box cue up a recording of “I’m a Tar Heel Born,” which we call “Tag” in the band because it’s literally tagged onto the end of “Hark the Sound.” That will change this year.
To get an idea of what you all should expect, not to mention give you an idea of just how hard it was for these kids to miss last year and what they are doing to entertain you again starting Saturday, I hit up the Director of the Marching Tar Heels, Jeffrey Fuchs. Jeff has been at Carolina since August of 1995, first as an assistant, then ascending to the top spot in 1996. Prior to that he was an assistant at the University of Kansas where he was in charge of the basketball band. This meant he worked with Roy Williams at Kansas, and then got to work with him again when he came to Carolina.
Because this is his busy season, we did the questions by email, and his answers are provided below. Note some may have been edited for clarity.
Let’s get started:
Tar Heel Blog: We’ll start with a basic question-how does it feel to have the band back on campus after all of the challenges of last year?
Jeffrey Fuchs: It is great to have students back on campus! The campus is alive again with an energy that has been missing since March 2020.
THB: What have you had to change to try and increase the safety of the kids for Covid-19? Related, do you have any idea what the vaccination percentage of the band members would be?
JF: The band is over 98% vaccinated, which is fabulous. We continue to wear face masks when ever we are together and we are using bell covers on all instruments. We have reworked some procedural things to prevent students from being in close proximity to one another for extended periods of time as well..
THB: Most folks have no clue what it takes just to get to the first game weekend, starting with band camp, what sort of practice and preparation goes into your first performance?
JF: Preparation started long before band camp with ordering merchandise, getting the instruments repaired, and making sure all the uniforms were cleaned and repaired. Once the students arrived in early August we got to work learning all of the musical cheers, pop tunes, and show music for the year. We also spent time working on the visual elements (marching) we would use during the fall. In all, the students learned about 30 tunes in addition to the pregame marching routine during camp.
Stepped outside and caught some of the @UNC_Bands practice on Polk Place – the first gathering of the entire band since before the pandemic. Campus is starting to feel lively! pic.twitter.com/VmMZJBw893— Kevin Guskiewicz (@KevinGuskiewicz) August 11, 2021
THB: What’s the regular schedule like now that classes have begun?
JF: Our class meets Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6p to 8p. We also meet on Fridays between 5p and 6:30p when there is a home game on Saturday. Game day begins with a 90 minute rehearsal as well. (Author’s note: Yes, that means you basically can add about five hours to a day before a game’s start time with their rehearsal, performances in the quad, and then the actual game itself)
THB: You started at UNC during the end of Mack Brown’s first tenure there, and now he’s back. What’s changed, what’s the same, and how involved is Brown with the Marching Tar Heels?
JF: Honestly, not a lot is different now than it was when Coach Brown was here before. Some game elements have changed and technology is used more in Kenan but as for Coach, he is very much the same. He is still generous with his time and has an incredibly well defined image in his mind of how he wants to things to be, which I appreciate. He has been supportive of the band; he has recorded a recruiting video for us and speaks to the students every chance he gets. He is a great human being and the ultimate team player.
THB: If you were shown a picture of a certain year’s band, how many names would you know immediately? In other words, how have you ended up with such a freaky good memory?
JF: I have been blessed with a good memory but I have also worked with so many memorable students. I try to learn a little about each band member and this helps me remember them. I may only know their names when they start with us but I try really hard to know the person by the time they graduate, which makes remember them much easier. (Author’s note: in 2019 I attended a wedding of a fellow alumnus, and nearly 20 years after graduating he not only recognized us easily, he picked out our spouse’s names despite none of them actually being in the band prior)
THB: Can you give us any hints about songs or halftimes shows you plan to pull off this fall?
JF: This fall has been very fluid in terms of show planning. With the realities of COVID, we have had to cancel our Honors Marching Band event and we are still unsure how our alumni band reunion will play out. As for shows, we are planning a welcome back to Kenan production, along with some Latin jazz, a tribute to the armed forces, and special tribute to the class of 2020 with a commencement themed show.
THB: Have you had a chance to meet Coach Davis in his new role yet, and has any planning for the 2021-22 basketball season started?
JF: I have not met with Coach Davis since his appointment as Head Basketball Coach. I have seen him and said hello and shared some small talk. I am guessing we will start talking basketball in mid-September once we know the schedule and few other pieces fall into place.
THB: How odd is it to have dealt with every basketball coach UNC has had since 1961, including the most recent one in two places?
JF: I have been very fortunate to work with some amazing coaches during my career. I feel honored to have known coaches Smith, Guthridge, Doherty, and Williams and all their assistants and I have learned a lot from watching them work. To get to work with coach Williams twice was a treat. He is such a great human being.
THB: What message would you have for the fans as they plan to hear the Marching Tar Heels for the first time in nearly two years?
JF: Enjoy the moment and appreciate all the students do on the field and in the stands. They work very hard to represent the University and are fully committed to organizing the cheering efforts of the fans while also entertaining them. They do all this in absence of scholarships; they do it because they love Carolina and the activity.
THB: Anything else to add as you lead this group into Kenan for the first time since November 2019?
JF: This has been a particularly challenging fall due to so many students who have never marched with the band. Of the 240 members, 137 of them are first and second year students who have not performed in Kenan Stadium or even played the fight song prior to this fall. We have used this opportunity to make some structural changes in the program that will serve us well for years to come, but this adds to the challenge of preparing for the first game. The students are doing a great job and any shortcomings will not be due to lack of effort.
My sincere thanks to Jeff for taking the time to answer my questions. The best way fans can show their thanks? Be in your seats about 20 minutes before kickoff Saturday night as the notes of all the school songs will be played live on campus for the first time since March 2020. The moment promises to be special for fans and band members alike.