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Homecoming & Band-Uh

The California Aggie Marching Band-Uh! practices formations for Homecoming.

My name is Paulo Camacho, and this is Macho Sports.

Pride, spirit and tradition. In the city of Davis, one of its most celebrated institutions has offered an abundance of all three. They have been around for as long as Davis has had a university, and provide a source of inspiration for the many sports teams it represents. Their entrance is unmistakable – a sea of blue, filing in with a distinct drum cadence, underneath a long, thunderous drone of unified voices. Residents, students and alumni alike have seen it many times over the years, in special events, public festivals and UC Davis sporting events. And, in a unique college community, they have a persona and an attitude all their own. They are announced in every sporting event they play:

“The Pride of the Regents of the University of California, the Spirit of the Davis Campus, the One, the Only, the California Aggie Marching Band-uh!”

Around since UC Davis’ inception in 1929, the Cal Aggie Marching Band-uh began as a pep band for the university’s football games. In 1938, the pep band was taught how to march by J.R. “Doc” King, a Pomology professor. Ever since then, the Band-uh has taken shape as an integral part of the UC Davis campus, as well as the community. It is an all-volunteer organization, comprised of student directors, student musicians and non-musicians. Because of this, members are highly committed, as they are required to pay dues to play. Including uniforms, travel, average cost for a Band-uh member ranges between $600 and $1000 per year. A part of Campus Recreation at UC Davis, the Band-uh is a Division I marching band – one of the only marching bands that are primarily student-run. Band-uh director Tom Slabaugh has emphasized this point.

“[The Band-uh] do all the hard work, they do all the heavy lifting,” he said. “The brunt is on the student leadership to get [everything] done.” He went on to explain that, as director for the Band-uh, he is there to provide a “safety net” for the students, should there ever be a need for help with various responsibilities.

As the highly anticipated Homecoming game on October 9 was quickly approaching, things were getting rather hectic for the Band-uh. I arrived at their home base, located at the campus Activities and Recreation Center. The Band-uh was about to begin practice, located at the CA field behind Aggie Stadium. As I went to follow them, some of the band members were carrying out instruments in their cases, and ladders for the student directors to stand on, to the field. A few of the tenor saxophone players – Clara Hull, Felicia Dyer and Joey Bingaman – had the right idea, though, loading their instruments into a truck to drive over to the practice field. Luckily, they had the truck from a previous engagement the Band-uh had at a soccer game, the night before.

Practices can be rigorous, held four times a week for two hours, not counting a two-hour dress rehearsal on game days. There are also one-hour sectionals, held by designated section leaders. Most of these rehearsals are mandatory, if the band members want to perform on game day. Practices will cover a little bit of everything, but will focus on a particular part of the routine for Saturday’s game. In this case, the Band-uh focused on their footwork, choreography and formations. “It can be a lot,” said fifth-year flute player Lisa Vance. “But, it’s worth it to pull the show together, and have everybody enjoy the show, with as much support as we have.”

It was a somewhat windy, sunny afternoon as the Band-uh began practice, completing march warm-ups and playing scales, as they stepped in unison. Marching requires precise timing, as was demonstrated with the metronomes used throughout the rehearsal, in order to keep time, on the loudspeakers. “We’re really trying to get tempos ingrained in people’s heads,” Bedak added. “[It’s important because] we’re marching more people than we’ve ever marched before – 180 [as opposed to 150] for the Homecoming halftime show.”

A unique aspect to the Band-uh is their emphasis on high-stepping (lifting the knees and pointing toes as one marches), as they are one of the few marching bands that do it. “It’s really good for our marching and playing,” said student director Arbel Bedak. “We’re seeing an overall improvement in our marching.”

The Band-uh is also known for their complicated, yet well-choreographed, halftime shows. For Homecoming, they were preparing a difficult set based on the music of Lady Gaga. The Band-uh are given their unique cues, in order to execute the choreography. They first practice the choreography without their instruments, as drum major Ryan Morrow guides them through the routine. One of the formations they attempted to complete was in the shape of a pinwheel, which proved somewhat daunting for the Band-uh as they began.

“People on the outside,” Morrow yelled, “a lot of you are falling behind! We’re going to try it again! Do the move!”

“DO THE MOVE!” the band repeated in unison.

Over and over, the Band-uh was told to go through each move until they were executed accurately and efficiently. The complexity of the Band-uh’s routines was evident in that, after an hour and a half, they were still in the process of learning the choreography. Evidently, these practices can be very draining for most of the band members, who were prepared with water bottles and energy bars. The Band-uh are given three water breaks during each practice, to relax and recover. Based on what I saw, it isn’t a stretch to say that, with the physical strain the members of the Band-uh go through, they are practically athletes, themselves. “There’s a certain amount of physicality any time you play a musical instrument,” Slabaugh stated. “That’s one of the unknown factors – it’s a very physical activity.”

“High stepping is not easy,” added Zakai Arnowitz, a sophomore alto saxophone player for the Band-uh. “But, you’re playing, you’re having fun, you have the energy going. It’s fantastic.”

While the Band-uh gives all of their spare time and energy to the group, they still manage to keep the atmosphere light. Though, they are worked hard by the student directors during practice, some of the Band-uh members find time to sing to their bandmate on her birthday. “Happy birthday, Mary-Kate!” they yell and cheer. After spending the day watching the Band-uh practice, it was also evident that they were a very close-knit community. Arnowitz called Band-uh one of the best experiences of his life, and many echo his sentiment.

“It’s made my experience in college a whole lot better because I was instantly surrounded by 200 new friends,” said sophomore tenor saxophone player Clara Hull. “They’re all really great people, and we have a really great time in band. I feel like it’s opened my life on campus, and I have so many options now, in how I can spend my time.”

Vance equated Band-uh to a big family. “We’re all there to be moral support for each other. If anybody has trouble with schoolwork, you have a 200-person family to go and ask for help.” Morrow had the same attitude, saying that he will be connected to the people he had spent time with in Band-uh for the rest of his life. “I’ve had a really amazing time with the band,” he said. “It’s really what’s turned Davis from being a town where I went to college to being home.”

At the end of rehearsal, Slabaugh repeated a credo he stresses often to the Band-uh. “Take care of yourselves,” he said. “Get some sleep, eat well and stay healthy.” Slabaugh cares for the Band-uh, as the members care for each other. Each one of them was important, and they all needed to be on top of their game for Homecoming, which was just days away.

As the pride of UC Davis, they weren’t about to let anyone down.

To be continued…

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