March Madness

Even though many differences exist in how basketball pep bands operate, they have a common desire to pump up the crowds and cheer on their teams. Directors and students at leading basketball schools share how they hoop it up for the love of the game.

Photo courtesy of the Duke University Marching and Pep Band

In colleges and high schools across the nation, basketball pep bands create a synergy with their crowds. The excitement roars as the fight songs are played, and traditional and modern pep tunes take turns inviting response from spectators of all ages.

Duke University Blue Devils

With the strength of the Duke basketball program, winning four NCAA Division I championships including in 2010, the energy is constantly fl owing, and the basketball band feeds off the excitement.

“They’re watching Duke basketball,” says Jeffrey Au, director of Duke’s basketball band. “The entire arena is energized, so [the band members are] riding that wave and staying involved. They’re all huge basketball fans.”

Like many basketball bands, Duke plays a mixed repertoire of traditional and more recent pep tunes, but Au says that the group tends to play more current songs such as “Everytime We Touch” by Cascada.

“The level of support [basketball band] gives the teams is pretty impressive, and the fervor in which they support all the athletic teams is pretty high,” Au says.

University of Kentucky Wildcats

Similarly, basketball is embedded in the way of life at the University of Kentucky (UK), a seven-time champion. “I think part of what makes us unique is the inherent draw of Kentucky basketball,” says Carl Collins, assistant director of bands and director of athletic bands. “The students want to be part of that. Also, we are positioned in the arena as part of ‘eRUPPtion Zone’ in the student section. It really gives the basketball band the opportunity to be involved in the game.”

As an upperclassmen, junior music education major Jacob Williams enjoys the ability to go to every game. “At UK, basketball is such a part of the culture that I really don’t think you can experience being a UK student without going to a few UK basketball games,” Williams says.

The basketball bands at UK are organized differently between the men’s and women’s games. For the men’s games, the members are divided into two different pep bands, a “blue” band and a “white” band of 60 to 75 players, and they alternate throughout the season. This way, everyone who wants to be in basketball pep band can be.

“Now, the blue band, for example, doesn’t take up the entire space,” Collins says. “We usually have room for 10 or 12 more players. So we let the members sign up by seniority for the extra spots in the opposite band.”

For the women’s games, the band is divided into four smaller bands of about 30 to 35 players. The bands are named after their Wildcat mascot: There is a “C” band, “A” band, “T” band and “S” band. The students usually end up playing for two or three of the women’s games, and they get paid.

Similar to Duke, the Wildcat band has a variety of tunes to keep the energy fl owing during the games. With traditional pep tunes such as “Hey Baby,” the band also likes to mix in more current songs like “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga.

UK has a large mix of student majors that make up its basketball band. “I’m a science major and during games I stand next to music, geography and history majors,” says sophomore Andrew Litterst.

“We all have different personality types that bring out a little bit of everything in the band.”

Long Beach Poly and Hopkins High Schools

While Duke and UK basketball bands are run by the band directors, Long Beach (Calif.) Polytechnic High School, Hopkins High School from Minnetonka, Minn., and Syracuse University are all student-driven.

At Long Beach Poly, ranked fi fth in the nation as of Feb. 22, band director Chris Stevens oversees the basketball band. “[However], the students basically run it themselves,” Stevens says. “It is not a class or anything; it is totally voluntary, but it turns out to be pretty big.”

There is a common trend of support that develops between basketball bands and their athletic departments and community. “At Poly, we really support each other,” Stevens says. “The music department is pretty loyal to the athletic department and vice versa, so the kids like to play at the games.”

Students concur that they join basketball band because they enjoy the game as well as the camaraderie. “[My favorite part of basketball band is] the whole experience of getting to watch the games,” says junior Lathell Powell, bass drum section leader. “Plus, we get to come together as a little bit of a smaller band.”

Nearly 2,000 miles from Long Beach, Calif., the basketball games at Minnetonka, Minn.-based Hopkins High School— ranked seventh in the nation—are highlighted with the sounds of The Lean Mean Performance Machine (LMPM).

“Pep band is part of the culture, not just in basketball, but in any event that goes on,” says Kyle Miller, associate director of bands at Hopkins. “We are a major part of the school, and I consider the pep band to be a service organization. We go to serve our athletic teams and rile up the crowd and cheer on our teams.”

LMPM is an extracurricular activity. The 56 members involved receive credit every year they participate. “Also, we get to go with all the teams that go to State,” says senior Shai Comay, head drum major.

During game time, Hopkins has more of a traditional list of pep tunes, with a few newer songs mixed into the selection.

“A new song that we play that everyone sings along to is ‘I Got a Feeling’ by The Black Eyed Peas,” Miller says.

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish where the energy comes from during the games. “There is something about the game night that gives [LMPM] the energy,“ Miller says. “I think a lot of it has to do with the music we play and the feedback we get from the student section and the cheerleaders. I think we feed off of each other. Also, we try to stay on our feet the whole game and be a part of the cheering section.”

Junior assistant drum major Rachel Dieter believes LMPM is distinctive because they are solely a pep band. “We are able to really focus on being the best pep band possible for our school,” Dieter says. “Instead of taking rehearsal time to teach the band how to properly march, … we are able to use the time to perfect our songs and techniques.“

Syracuse University

Unlike Duke, UK, Long Beach and Hopkins, The Syracuse University pep band—called the Sour Sitrus Society— does not have a band director overlooking rehearsals and game day.

“We are one of the very few pep bands in the country that is completely student-run,” says Justin Matthews, chairman of The Sour Sitrus Society.

Five non-paid student officers run The Sour Sitrus Society. “Our faculty advisor deals with athletics and the business ends,” says Derrick Allen, a second-year graduate student and flute player. “Otherwise, those five people take care of the 200 people in the band.”

Members of The Sour Sitrus Society are allowed to play in any women’s home games they desire, ranging in participation from 90 to 130 members. The men’s home games, however, are limited to exactly 96 seats. They also have a traveling group of 30, because of NCAA restrictions, that goes to some away games.

“We traditionally have a very exciting basketball program, especially when conference play starts, and we start playing other Big East teams,” Matthews says. “The games themselves are more exciting to watch, and we are lucky enough to basically have front row seats to all of the games.”

Alison Varner, junior tenor saxophonist, believes that The Sour Sitrus Society has an exceptional amount of spirit. “I think we really do bleed orange,” Varner says. “We are in tune with the student section to really get the crowd going. We create an awesome environment for people to cheer on our team.”

The Sour Sitrus Society also has a wide variety of tunes that they play to keep the energy alive. Matthews describes genres from classic rock to hip hop and even some songs dating to the 1960s.

“Most of the songs that we do during pregame are songs that the student sections and ourselves have collaborated on to keep the energy up,” Matthews says. “There are dances that go along with almost all of our tunes, and we have started our own tradition. Probably one of our most popular tunes is ‘The Horse.’”

Duke, UK, Long Beach, Hopkins and Syracuse range in size and leadership. Some are run by the band directors, and some are run by the students, but they all agree that basketball bands have become part of the culture of the basketball experience. “There is something authentic about having musicians at a basketball game,” Varner says.

About the Author

Lydia Ness is a visual journalism student at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. She has performed in the Glassmen, the Bluecoats, and The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps as well as the Riverside Community College indoor percussion ensemble. She teaches the front ensemble at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, Calif., Lydia plans to go to law school and focus on international and global justice.

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