Playing at Halftime, Grambling State University, Grambling, Louisiana
Before halftime at Grambling State games, Lexia Thomas, piccolo in hand, walks to her place behind one of the end zones. Her heart pounds in her chest. “It’s like the first time, every time,” she says. Adorned in her wool uniform—warm enough anywhere but hotter than a boiled crawfish in the Louisiana heat—she gives herself a reminder: “Breathe.” And for good reason: She’s about to play for thousands while going through a workout worthy of a running back.
Few college football bands get—or deserve—as much attention as Grambling State’s. With routines that are part concert, part dance show, and all energy, the Grambling State World-Famed Tiger Marching Band, founded in 1926, has performed for Super Bowls and state fairs, Barack Obama and Beyoncé.
The choreography itself can be dizzying. One move, known as “Breakdown,” involves hopping on one foot, and then jumping off two feet, spinning 180 degrees, and then repeating that, gyrating throughout. The season culminates with the Bayou Classic, the annual showdown between Grambling State and Southern University, where the competition between bands is arguably fiercer than the football game itself. The first time Thomas, a senior this fall, played that event, she couldn’t believe she was there. It’s the Carnegie Hall of college football marching band shows, and as she stood on the field, she thought, Am I really a part of this?
But no matter the game, once the band begins, Thomas’ nerves fade. Her concentration on the notes and the moves is so complete that she becomes unaware of the world around her. The aura the band produces, though, is unmistakable.
“The band creates the atmosphere at games,” she says. “It gives [the fans] that extra college feel. Even the football players ask us to play certain songs to get them hyped on the field. They might end up scoring a touchdown because we played a certain song.”
Thomas is a math and physics major, and her performance rolls her coursework into an exuberant explosion of controlled chaos. Music is the application of fractions—whole notes, half notes, quarter notes—and a halftime show is physics come to life, a harmonious formula of angles, spatial relationships, and timing.
When the show ends, she begins to notice the crowd again and hears the chant: “G-S! G-S-U!” She looks up and tries to judge from fans’ expressions how the show went. Are they standing, smiling, clapping, yelling? If yes, then all the pressure to perform, all the hours of practice (during the summer, it begins at dawn and ends at night) become worth it. Has the crowd ever not reacted that way?
“I haven’t experienced it,” she says.