Michael Janssen watches the University of Iowa Marching Band like a hawk. As this year’s drum major, the 2015 Cedar Rapids Washington High School graduate struts into Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on game days, leading more than 260 marching Hawkeyes through 138 years of tradition.
Described on its website as “the heartbeat” of the stadium, the band provides the soundtrack to the game — augmented by the roar of nearly 70,000 fans in the stands.
“The marching band adds to whole atmosphere at Kinnick Stadium,” Janssen said. “It’s really not the same without the marching band there. Even when we’re not playing, because we get some snacks after halftime, in that three or four minutes where we’re not playing, it almost feels like the energy flatlines a little bit.
“The band is there to add that next level of fan interaction — the next level of team spirit — to the game.”
Kinnick audiences will see him high-step, bend over backward and twirl the ceremonial mace baton as the band moves through the halftime show, but he does even more work behind the scenes.
As the highest-ranking student leader in the band, Janssen, 22, attended a drum major camp in July, then ran a band camp for incoming and returning UI marching band members in August, the week before classes started. He continues to teach and review marching fundamentals during rehearsals, which run from 3:40 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, with another session from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday.
One of his special joys is conducting the band as they sing “Alma Mater Iowa” in the tunnel before entering the football field. His parents, David and Kristin Janssen of Cedar Rapids, have degrees from the UI, and Michael was born in Iowa.
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“Being able to conduct the ‘Alma Mater’ is something I’ve looked forward to ever since I got the position,” he said, adding that standing on the ladder, looking over the huge band is “a lot of fun.”
Eric Bush, director of the Hawkeye Marching Band, leads the conducting team during halftime shows, but Janssen gets to conduct during and after the game, and said being up on the podium is “thrilling.”
He’s also grateful for the fan commitment and support.
“It’s one of the older marching bands in the country, and it’s exhilarating to perform in front of 69,400 fans in Kinnick screaming and cheering,” he said. “From all of the Big Ten stadiums I’ve been to, Iowa supports its marching band the most, hands down. ... It’s something I think could be taken for granted — not knowing how difficult it is for marching bands across the country to get this kind of exposure and this kind of support from fans.”
Janssen’s time commitment doesn’t begin and end on game days and at the band’s indoor and outdoor practice fields at the Hawkeye Tennis & Recreation Center. He also spends a lot of time choreographing his own routines and maintaining his marching form.
“It’s a lot of just practicing mace, practicing the basics, taking time to choreograph what I want to do during the pieces, listening to the music and figuring out what moves I want to put where,” he said. “A lot of the physicality of it just comes with the repetition.
“I do lift weights on my own, but that’s separate from the position,” he added. “It helps, certainly, especially when we do some more complex partner tricks with the Golden Girl (twirler Kylene Spanbauer, the reigning 2018 College Miss Majorette of Iowa). For example, during pregame, it’s tradition for the Drum Major to lift the Golden Girl.”
At the first game, he lifted her onto his shoulder, but now they’re working on perfecting a chair lift, where he elevates her on just one arm. And the back bends that he does on the field require a strong core — especially the abs — so he won’t fall over.
Janssen’s band odyssey began in fifth grade with playing the trumpet. In sixth grade, he switched to French horn, and has been playing both ever since. In 10th grade, he added mellophone to the mix, which he said is the marching version of a French horn and is shaped more like a trumpet. He played that exclusively in marching bands until winning the role of UI drum major on April 14. He still plays trumpet recreationally in a jazz band with his friends in Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the UI men’s music fraternity. He’s president of the campus chapter, where members have service hour requirements and put on a recital every semester.
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Janssen’s family moved to Cedar Rapids from Grosse Pointe, Mich., in 2012, when his father was named executive director at Brucemore, a 26-acre historic estate and mansion in the heart of the city.
Janssen had auditioned for the drum major position in high school, but that honor went to one of his friends, so he kept on marching, right through coursework for a minor in music at Iowa. His focus off the field is finishing up a bachelor of business administration at the UI’s Tippie College of Business. He’s on track to complete that in May, then plans to return next fall to begin working on a master’s degree in sports and recreation management.
His drum major duties don’t come with a paycheck or scholarship, but they dovetail nicely with his academic work, from applying conflict management and resolution skills to time management and public speaking in both arenas.
“Being in front of large groups of people is something that really applies pretty globally,” he said. “Being comfortable speaking with people, being comfortable making connections, having conversations with your bosses is a skill that marching band has helped me cultivate.”
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