Old Cabell Hall rustles with the sounds of students chatting, shuffling sheets of music, tooting casually on their instruments and exiting the stage for a quick break.
It is halftime in a long evening of auditions. Candidates for drum major strut their stuff one by one in a concert setting, leading the fifty-some musicians through passages of “My Favorite Things.” Four have finished conducting; four still await their turns.
As the musicians take their breather, third-year clarinetist Bonnie Carlson clutches the score in one hand and stretches one leg to keep limber. She, like the other hopefuls, has 12 minutes to show her peers and the band staff that she has what director Bill Pease calls “the it factor.”
Carlson takes the podium and leads the band through a passage of tricky accents. Then, it’s tuba time—the big dogs of the brass section charge through a thicket of eighth notes.
“Good job,” she says, and the band applauds. “Now, make it a little more staccato,” she adds, and everyone cracks up.
The 12 minutes pass, and Carlson yields to first-year Brian Francica, who soon yields to third-year Theo Smith. The latter cuts a dapper figure in a green-and-white knit cap, and his hands move in mesmerizing patterns—hammering accents one moment, clapping in tempo the next, then gliding in fluid arcs, as if he were polishing glass.
Soon, helpers collect ballots from the musicians, and Pease, his staff and student leaders begin to debate which people have the right stuff for two openings.
The winners will front one of the University’s most conspicuous groups—the high-stepping, hard-charging, horns-gleaming, drum-line-thundering, hang-on-to-your-plumes Cavalier Marching Band. And the boisterous explosion of color and sound that takes the field, or the stands, at athletic events is only the most visible part of a program that relies on countless hours of quieter, behind-the-scenes work.
“This is actually our most important time of year,” Pease says in the midst of the February auditions and other chores that lay the foundation for the coming term.
Just five years ago, what now operates with the precision of a drum cadence had its first heartbeat. And though plenty of challenges remain, the band has birthed a tradition at an institution that prides itself on its traditions.
“Given what they’ve done with what they have, it’s astonishing,” says Bruce Holsinger, chair of the music department.
The standards that define UVA—student self-governance, the pursuit of excellence, community outreach—pervade the band, yet it is shaping its own identity as a multifaceted, tightly knit group connected by a passion that goes beyond academic credit or career potential.
“I think one of the great things about this band is that everyone wants to be there,” says Lauren Rush (Grad ’08). “Nobody has to be there. If someone doesn’t want to be there, they can just leave.”
David Knight wanted to help, but he didn’t plan to join.
A trumpet player at Poquoson High School, Knight hadn’t considered being in a band at the college level. But in 2003, when he was a second-year, he received an e-mail inviting students to an organizational meeting.
“I was hooked from the beginning. It was the excitement of starting something new, and it would definitely make an impact on the University,” says Knight, a graduate student in environmental science and executive assistant in the band office.
Pease remembers those first steps. There was no path to follow. The last time a full-fledged, “capital M” marching band had suited up at UVA, John F. Kennedy was president.
“Imagine going into anything without a model,” Pease says.
He was hired in the summer of 2003 from Western Michigan University, where he was associate director of bands.
The Marching Broncos had 350 pieces. Virginia?
“I always say we started the band with four or five people,” Pease says.
The first notes—in public, anyway—came at a basketball game. As word spread, especially that the band was open to all students—non-music majors as well as majors—numbers increased, though not by a flood. By the time of the Scott Stadium debut in 2004, the Cavalier Marching Band had 169 members.
“I was concerned about the numbers,” Pease says. “The instrumentation probably worried me the most—getting the right instruments to play in that big a venue, to put out that kind of a sound to fill it out.”
And how would you describe the sound of the Cavalier Marching Band, in a word?
“Full,” say Lauren Schmidt, a drum major and clarinetist, and Knight.
For Bryan Myers, another drum major, the word of choice is “intense.”
“We’re entertaining for 60,000 people. If we’re not intense, it’s not going to be fun for those people,” says Myers.
Much of that intensity relies on the big brass—tubas, baritones, mellophones. It also relies on knowing the music, so the students memorize every note of every piece for every game.
Section leaders for each instrument keep the playing sharp. Drill instructors oversee the marching, which is choreographed by associate director Andrew Koch. Pease runs herd on all of it, but much of his job is orchestrating people, not notes.
The system relies on student leadership.
“The students are really making the band their own and contributing and making decisions,” Pease says.
September 11, 2004
The Cavs are at home against North Carolina. The stands hold about 62,000 fans.
It’s sunny—a good day for football. A great day for the much-anticipated debut of the Cavalier Marching Band.
“That, to a person, is the most memorable day in their lives,” Pease says.
Snazzy new blue-white-and-orange uniforms. Polished brass. Hours of practice under their belts. Adrenaline pumping. Drums thumping.
Schmidt, a fourth-year, won’t forget it, surging out of the Scott Stadium tunnel for a big pregame entrance, strutting to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” playing “America the Beautiful” on the anniversary of 9/11.
“It was phenomenal. I just can’t explain it.”
Featured twirler Erica Seredni, then a high school senior (now a third-year), recalls some jitters as the announcer called her name and she ran onto the field.
“I was just thinking, ‘Please don’t trip, please don’t drop [the baton]. Let’s just make this great.’”
Craig Littlepage, UVA’s athletic director, remembers some butterflies as well. He’d heard practices, but this was the real deal.
“They did a great job that day,” Littlepage says. “There was a lot of relief.”
Two years before that debut, Stephen Spiller entered the University and decided to play in the UVA Pep Band. “I knew I wanted to be in the UVA band, whatever form it happened to be in,” he says.
The form at the time happened to be unconventional, irreverent, often endearing and occasionally offensive. One skit that year provoked sufficient ire that UVA President John T. Casteen III issued a formal apology to West Virginians outraged by the group’s halftime show at the Continental Tire Bowl.
Shortly afterward, Spiller received word that the Pep Band’s services would no longer be needed. UVA was starting a formal marching band.
“At first, I was certainly surprised,” Spiller says. He wasn’t sure what to do, but he figured he’d be able to make a greater contribution in a marching band.
Treatment of the Pep Band stirred controversy, particularly among members of the University community who viewed the group’s quirkiness as symbolic of the institution’s distinctiveness. Halftime skits were written by students and uncensored, another point of pride.
Pease and others are quick to point out that establishing the marching band was not meant to diminish the Pep Band’s contributions.
“It would be ridiculous to put down an organization that supported the school for that amount of time,” Pease says.
Still, resentment flared, and some die-hard Pep Banders lashed out at Spiller when he decided to join the marching band. Others supported him, and looking back on it—he’s now studying at Fuqua School of Business at Duke—he has no regrets.
“My experience with the marching band was nothing short of phenomenal. Joining it was surely one of the best decisions I made while at UVA,” he says. “There’s some sort of immediate camaraderie that forms among bandies.”
That bonding among bandies is one reason Rush has an eye on the future.
She is president of the band’s new alumni group, which last fall held its first official function, a breakfast before the Homecomings game.
It’s not just a buddy network. The band’s growth depends on financial support for scholarships, equipment and other needs.
Myers, a third-year Ridley Scholar who will be living on the Lawn next year, is spearheading an effort to encourage gifts by young band alumni. He has pledged a gift to the band fund at his graduation in 2009, with a matching gift from his parents.
Commitment like that has been evident among students since Pease first considered the UVA job. “There was something about those students that made me believe that this was going to work.”
Born and raised in Virginia Beach, he had thought about attending the University but decided to study music at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and James Madison University in Harrisonburg. Even when he left the state to become associate director of bands at Western Michigan University, Virginia stayed in his heart—and on the plates of his car.
News that UVA was forming a marching band made headlines in 2003, and Pease found the attention, including a press conference, unusual turf for a band director. He credits strong student leadership with laying the band’s foundation.
“We were very lucky that the students we had initially did a super job without really having any reference,” he says.
Five years later, Pease is building on that foundation.
“Everything that the band has done under Bill’s direction has been professionally presented,” says Littlepage. “The way they look and the way they sound speaks to a high level of professionalism.”
With his rounded features, fuzzy close-cropped brown hair and mild-mannered demeanor, Pease comes across as a gentle bear, though there are high expectations behind his low-key demeanor.
“Work on it,” he told tuba players at a recent rehearsal of the Wind Ensemble in Old Cabell Hall. Attack the notes more, he said. “I know I’m boring you, but this is how you get to the next level.”
Though students sometimes describe him as a father figure, there’s plenty of tough love, says Rush. Students learn they are accountable for decisions, but those decisions aren’t made in isolation.
“We think very much alike,” says Myers. “Sometimes I think of him as an older version of myself.”
For Pease, the students still are a source of inspiration. “I feed off them. How can you not?”
Take, for example, the enthusiasm of Carlson. She didn’t make the cut to be a drum major, but that’s OK because she loves being a section leader for clarinets.
Smith and Francica, however, will join Myers and Jimmy Royston as drum majors. “It is such an honor,” says Francica.
They envision a bigger “cheerleading” role for the band at games, collaborating with the Hoo Crew and encouraging more interaction between the band and students to boost the atmosphere at Scott Stadium.
It’s all in the spirit of building on a fresh tradition. “It’s great to be part of such a new program,” Francica says, “because it is so malleable and has such a great future.”
Past, present and future
The first mention of a band at UVA, according to music historians, is found in a 1908 newspaper article about the recent presidential election. The report told how the University Band joined students at a downtown billiard parlor and “added greatly to the general spirit of excitement by its presence.”
The first performances at athletic events came in the 1920s, and the band grew to 60 members in the following decades. In 1941, the band bus caught fire, destroying uniforms and instruments. Performances continued, but funding waned and in 1962 members voted to discontinue the group. The student-run Pep Band took the field at halftime from 1969 until 2003, when a $1.5 million gift from Hunter Smith and the late Carl Smith laid the foundation for the present band.
Over the past five years, the band has grown in numbers and reach. High school musicians congregate for the annual Band Day, the Cavs have toured internationally and in September Yamaha Corp. featured the UVA drum line in a national advertising campaign.
But the band faces space issues. There is no band room or central facility, making the shuttling of people, equipment and supplies on game day a logistical challenge. Offices are crammed into Onesty Hall, where there’s no space for congregating or instruction.
“Never once have I been able to draw up something on a chalkboard,” says Pease. “We’re gypsies. We have to beg and borrow space all the time.”
Band facilities are envisioned in a “Gateway to the Arts” project approved last year by the Board of Visitors. Construction on the project, to be built in the area north of the intersection of Emmet Street and Ivy Road, is expected to begin in 2009 and be completed in 2011.