Oct. 6, 2011
By Daniel Byrne
It is a scene that captures the essence of the Fighting Irish spirit. Students and other members of the Notre Dame community arrive from all corners of campus and gather together in front of the Golden Dome.
The balcony and steps of the Main Building are crowded; some climb trees and hang off the rails of the steps in hopes of getting a decent view. They are patiently awaiting those who will wake up the echoes. The bells of the Basilica ring out the new hour and the new day. It is officially game day.
Gathered near the LaFortune Student Center, members of the drumline eventually march toward their adoring fans.
As the ovation intensifies the drumline forms a circle within the crowd of observers and prepares to entertain with a tradition as strong as any on the Notre Dame campus … the midnight drummer’s circle.
“Nothing can prepare you for the first time you play at a midnight drummer’s circle,” Michaela Byrne (’11) says – an alum of the drumline and a former cymbalist. “The experience has a way of making you feel like a rock star and humbled beyond belief at the same time. On one hand, there is this giant crowd waiting to hear you play and cheering along with everything you do. On the other hand, Mary is standing on the Dome reminding you that you are part of a history and tradition that is so much bigger than yourself.”
The exciting display, held every Friday night before home football games, is a follow-up to the pep rally held just hours before and a preview of the game day atmosphere. For forty-five minutes, the drum cadences that will be played in Notre Dame Stadium the following day are performed. Many of these include the offense, defense and sideline cheers that are heard from the band and student section throughout the game. Also played are the Notre Dame Fight Song and the popular Rakes of Mallow that inspires the audience to jig in jubilation with those around them.
Senior Kelsey McManus, this year’s drum captain, savors every time she gets the opportunity to play and describes the experience as equally rewarding each new week.
“It’s this rush of adrenaline and excitement and you can’t really process it until it’s over,” McManus says. “Each one gets better as you do them. It’s fun to see the crowd’s reactions.”
Although it is hard work and adds to the exhaustion of a home football weekend, the four-year drumline veteran has no regrets sacrificing some energy to the drum circle.
“It’s really meaningful and rewarding,” McManus reflects. “I’ve been very fortunate this year because we have such a great returning class. If I didn’t love it so much it might be stressful, but it’s really just a lot of fun and really exciting. The drum line performs so well and it’s something to be proud of.”
Although the midnight drummer’s circle has been well attended in recent years, popularizing the event took great creativity and persistence from the event’s founding members.
“The midnight drummer’s circle was an idea conceived by members of the 2000 Notre Dame Drumline,” assistant band director Sam Sanchez says. “The idea of having it at midnight is that it would be recognized as the official kickoff to game day.”
Only one drummer’s circle was held that season, as 40 people attended the event then held at Stonehenge on the campus’s North Quad.
A year later, the show was held again, but this time at its current location in front of the University’s main building. Only 30 attended that night’s drummer’s circle and it was broken up after twenty minutes by security responding to noise complaints.
After two years of less than anticipated success, the tradition finally began to take form and grow in its third year.
“The drum captain in the fall of 2002, Dr. Mike Rerko, was able to get SAO (Student Activities Office) to sponsor the midnight drum circle and make it an official event,” Sanchez, who has worked closely with the drumline since 2000, recalls. “That year, we began to see crowds increase as Student Activities helped to publicize it. SAO provided pizza for students that showed up. Since 2002, the midnight drummer’s circle has been a regular game weekend event.”
Today, it is hard to imagine a football weekend without a midnight drummer’s circle, and the band members work to ensure they don’t disappoint the anxious fans. Unless there are dangerous weather conditions, the show goes on for the drumline. They have played through rain and temperatures close to zero degrees, while still drawing a large and enthusiastic crowd.
As sure as the men in blue and gold will race through the tunnel on Saturdays, so also will the drumline play for those who venture out to the heart of campus on Friday night. The drummer’s circle is a must-see attraction for any visitor to campus during a football weekend and another event that adds to the unique tradition of Notre Dame and its football program.
“Drummer’s circle is all about starting game day on the right foot; from the first seconds of Saturday morning, you are cheering for Notre Dame,” Byrne explains. “It’s about getting the student body together and getting them ready to cheer on the Irish all day.”
“It represents the best of Notre Dame,” Sanchez adds. “There are no extended speeches. It is not a pep rally. It is just pure spirit. If you could bottle it up, it would light up the University.”