It was a beautiful December morning in 1994 when green-and-gold clad Colorado State University fans lined streets near downtown San Diego to watch the annual Holiday Bowl Parade.
It wasn’t long before the fans were treated to a performance by the CSU Marching Band – a group of 150 or so students cheerfully strutting along in the sunshine. Fans beamed with pride as the group performed.
Several minutes later, parade-goers were treated to something entirely different. The ground almost seemed to quake as the University of Michigan band – like most in the Big Ten Conference, more than 300 strong – thundered its way down the street. The din was impressive, and perfectly illustrated the difference between the two schools facing off that night in the annual Holiday Bowl.
Yet another lesson came when mighty Michigan beat the upstart Rams 24-14 later that evening.
Albert Yates, then president at CSU, noted the contrast. He knew he couldn’t realistically push CSU’s football program to Michigan’s level, but he could do something about the gap in marching bands.
Fast-forward 20 years. CSU’s marching band, once a modest group of average size, is now a mighty force of 250 members. And its reputation has grown exponentially to the point where CSU has become Colorado’s marching band.
“The early ’90s, as I understand it, were kind of at a low point for the band in terms of funding and university commitment,” said Richard Frey, assistant director of bands at CSU since 2011. “Since that time the band has really taken off. I think our students can play side-by-side with any of the Big Ten bands and feel like they can hold their own. That’s a credit to the hard work they do every year.”
Not who you think they are
A common misconception: Marching band members major in music. Or, at the very least, minor in music.
Here’s the reality: Nearly 80 percent of the students in the band are non-majors. Members come from every college across campus, including graduate students.
On the surface, the numbers make no sense. Between rehearsals and practices and performances, students commit up to 20 hours per week to be part of the band. The tangible rewards: One (1) academic credit and small scholarships – $500 for first-year players, $1,700 for fourth-year members.
So, why would a student in a challenging major like biology or engineering, which require hours of homework and study, essentially donate their time to be part of the band?
“Without band I pretty much spend my entire day working on biology, both through classes and my job as a research assistant,” said Ally Whitney, a senior clarinetist from Springfield, Va., majoring in biological science. “Band is the one time in the week where I don’t have to think about science and can exercise my more left-brained tendencies. It’s pretty great stress relief.”
Added Tyler Massey, a senior engineering student from Grand Junction: “Balancing school and band can definitely be difficult at times, especially as the classes get harder over the years and the schoolwork and projects become more demanding of your time. Personally, I do band because it’s a great stress reliever and distraction from the everyday perils of an engineering degree. Being in the marching band is a no-brainer and I would do it all over again given the opportunity.”
Why they do what they do
But there’s more to it than that. Band members cite lots of reasons for participating, from supporting the Rams at football games to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like marching in the 2013 St. Patrick’s Day Festival and Parade in Dublin. They love representing CSU, and they love entertaining people.
Mostly, though, they just have fun. Frey said he meets with the band each fall and spells out four primary objectives:
- Entertain the crowd at every event
- Support our athletic teams
- Represent the University locally, nationally and internationally
- Have a great time accomplishing the first three
One member said being in the band is like having 250 close friends. Whitney loves the spontaneous nature of the group, recalling that members of an Italian band and CSU’s band broke into an impromptu dance in the street while lining up for the parade in Dublin.
“It was such a cool moment because it was these two groups of people who didn’t really even speak the same language but made a connection through music,” Whitney said.
Others talk about the thrill of playing in front of 80,000 people at a Denver Broncos game, or leading the annual Parade of Lights in Denver. And all seem to love being part of the football team’s current 10-2 season.
“It’s great being part of the football team’s success,” said Lindi Durrett, a junior chemistry major from Estes Park who is part of the band’s color guard. “We not only get to watch every game from the best seats in the house, we get to dance and play through the whole victory.”
The marching band is known for many things, but its signature moment during performances is when the trombone section breaks out of the group and performs to Cadence No. 5, a percussion sequence. The trombonists swing their instruments back and forth in between leaning over and standing up.
The dizzying display, somewhat ironically, came about when CSU trombone players watched a high school band’s trumpet section swing their instruments from side to side while performing at the 1994 Holiday Bowl Parade. Cadence No. 5 made its debut in 1995 and has been a CSU fixture ever since.
The routine almost always comes off flawlessly, but there have been a few instances where trombones and players met face-to-brass on not-so-friendly terms.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever messed up, per se, but my freshman year, on Ag Day, I got hit on the head while running from the alumni side of the field to the student side,” Massey said. “I could see blood flying off my head, and there’s still a fain blood stain in my shako (hat) to this day!”
Another recent tradition is leading the way each year at the annual Parade of Lights in downtown Denver. The 40th annual holiday parade, which is attended by more than 350,000 fans, has become a band favorite.
“That parade is so much fun to perform in every year because we all decorate our uniforms and instruments, and the crowd loves seeing us there,” said Spencer Poston, a junior music education major from Loveland who plays snare drum.
Even when the weather is less than festive, the band still manages to create memories. Last year it was minus-4 when the parade began, freezing the valves on many of the brass instruments. Students did what they could to keep their instruments playable.
“It was so cold it was ridiculous,” Frey said, laughing. “One of my tuba players used a mixture of rubbing alcohol, valve oil and Preparation H on their valves. It didn’t work.
“We sounded better than you might expect in sub-zero temperatures with frozen valves! The big thing is there was great spirit and we were happy to be part of it.”
So, if you see a group of 250 green-and-gold clad students playing instruments, representing CSU and having a great time, you’ll know it’s the CSU Marching Band. Especially if one of them is carrying a tube of Preparation H.