Strike up the band

Once when I was a little kid, I grabbed my Dad's arm and pointed to the field. We were sitting in the south upper deck of Husky Stadium, watching the Husky Marching Band finish its halftime performance. Dressed in purple, the band had marched in rows off the field and headed over to the tunnel to usher in the team for the second half.

But out on the field, one of the tuba players had staggered and collapsed. He was sprawled out motionless with the tuba at his side. The rest of the band had left him out there alone. There was a puzzled murmur throughout Husky Stadium. Suddenly, two other band members raced onto the field with a stretcher. When they reached the fallen young man they set the stretcher down. With great care they proceeded to hoist the tuba onto the stretcher and carry it off the field, again leaving the young man behind. The capacity crowd at Husky Stadium roared with laughter and broke into warm applause. I turned toward my Dad and saw him laughing too (no small feat).

The Husky Marching Band, led by the late Bill Bissell, was always up to something mischievous. Before home games, while the rest of the band created a tunnel for the football team to run through, members of the brass section would sometimes play fake football games on the field. Half of the tuba players would be dressed as the Huskies, and the other half dressed as that day's opponent. Invariably, the Huskies found hilarious ways to score touchdowns. And when the other team happened to score a lucky touchdown, several yellow flags would immediately be thrown all over the field to signify a penalty. The fans adored that routine and never grew tired of it.

Once on Halloween the band performed while dressed as ghosts. Another time they masterfully recreated the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. And one year when the California Bears came to town, the Husky Marching Band spelled out BEERS and then BARES, before finishing with BEARS and playing Cal's fight song properly. Again, laughter and applause sounded down from the grandstands-- even from Cal's visiting fans.

Over two decades have passed since I was that little kid grabbing at my Dad's jacket and pointing toward the field from the south upper deck. Times have changed. I now spend half the games in the press box, and the other half sitting with my Dad in the north upper deck. As the Husky football team has been in a depressing down-cycle, so too has the enthusiasm for the Husky Marching Band.

The real low point was three weeks ago against Washington State. I was sitting with my Dad as the band performed at halftime. They created the `World's Largest Karaoke Machine' and proceeded to play `Oh, Susannah', while imploring the fans to sing along. When the fans ignored it, the PA announcer cajoled them by saying: "C'mon Husky fans, you can do better than that!" But nobody was paying attention.

Soon after I interviewed eleven former members of the Husky Marching Band who wished to express their thoughts. Following this, I requested an interview with band director Dr. Brad McDavid. While McDavid declined to speak with me directly, he agreed to respond through email.

Of the eleven former band members, ten of them spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressing fear that their participation in the Alumni band could be terminated. The one person that spoke on the record was Keith Rousu, who was a percussionist in the Husky Marching Band from 1992-1995. He is currently the director of the Blue Thunder Drumline for the Seattle Seahawks.

"Brad knew me pretty well and I maintain a pretty good relationship with him to this day," said Rousu. "He's been a great friend for me and helped me to get my job with the Seahawks- in writing a favorable letter of recommendation. I hold no animosity toward him. He's done innumerous positive things for the band, and the musicality of the band has never sounded any better... But when they started playing `Oh Susannah,' I thought, `Oh my lord.' I was very embarrassed of the fact that I played in the band once at that stage. It was just corny. It was just plain bad."

"I was on the sidelines watching, and I was like "Oh my God,'" said a former female member. "As an alumnus it was pretty bad to watch them do that. I am sure that it was much worse for those on the field having to perform it. I asked pointedly to some of the band members, `Hey guys what's up with the Souza show?' That show was so boring. I knew somebody that fell asleep during that show. It seems like they are not putting any time or effort into thinking about good ideas for shows."

"I don't think that there was a member of the alumni band watching who wasn't scratching their head," said another former member. "We were all wondering if Brad had lost his mind. Ultimately the buck stops with him; everything we see on the field constitutes what Brad thinks makes a good show. But Brad is a very talented director. He has a wealth of experience from Ohio State. He tries to incorporate other people's ideas, but it just doesn't happen."

When McDavid arrived at Washington in 1994 from Ohio State, he was taking over for the ailing Bill Bissell, whose status—even into retirement-- remained legendary. As Rousu explained it, McDavid had a profound and understandable difference in philosophy.

"McDavid got sick of the Husky Marching Band being the joke of the music department, even though we weren't affiliated with the music department, because we were with the athletic department," said Rousu. "Some of the best players in the jazz bands were constantly being put down for wanting to be in the marching band. So there's some animosity between the two departments. Brad directs one of the symphonic bands, and he has tried to morph the two together. So people who are in the jazz bands, and are killer trumpet players, are now in the marching band. Whereas before they would be told, `why are you wasting your time with that?'"

"Brad used to be so laid back, but he became stricter as time went on", said a former female member. "I heard that this year he got rid of the Friday Night Rallies (due to unruly behavior). The band is getting more rigorous and militaristic, like Ohio State. I would say to Brad, `let's do some choreography! Let's start facing the student section instead of the old people's section,' as he calls it. The students want to get into it, let's do something more modern."

Dr. Brad McDavid was asked if he has received complaints from fans in recent years; and if so, how much of it is a corollary effect from a Husky football team that has been terrible?

"My counterpart over at WSU always used to tell me, `Watch out! If your team ever starts to lose, you won't believe what fans will start complaining about,' replied McDavid via email. "Since I'm essentially the person in charge of all spirit components of the athletic department, I'd have to admit that I've received emails and phone calls the last few years from everything ranging from our arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner, to the way we blow the siren after a score, to the length of the cheerleader's skirts! The comments that really crack me up are those that call and say `I've been a fan for thirty years and you're not sending the Helmet Car around the track enough,' or `You're not playing Louie, Louie five times per game and your predecessor ALWAYS played it five times a game.' The hilarious thing about it is that sometimes they refuse to listen to your answer even after you've explained to them that the Helmet Car and Louie, Louie are connected to the team scoring and there's not a lot the band and I can do about that! So yes, based on some of the communications I've received the last three seasons I would base most of the disgruntled comments on the challenges our football program is currently facing."

Another former band member reflected on his personal experience.

"The band was the best thing that happened to me while at the U," he said. "The family atmosphere that the band provides is invaluable. Musically, the musicianship—which is the word we use, the musicianship definitely improved under Brad.

"And I grew up as a Husky fan," he continued. "I went to the games and saw the Bissell bands. So I knew what they were all about. Everybody knew there was a certain flair and he never took anything too seriously. The shows we performed under Brad McDavid lacked the fire and creativity of the Bissell shows. Still, for awhile I definitely thought we were the best band in the Pac-10. But now I don't feel that way anymore. I remember going down to Cal a few years ago and seeing their band put on a Michael Jackson show, and that was the first time that I thought their band put on a superior performance. It was clear to me that we no longer had the best band in the Pac-10. I am sorry to say this, but the shows these days just lack creativity. They don't get the crowd involved like the Bissell bands."

McDavid shared some related thoughts.

"…When I took this job, I wasn't brought in to develop a band that plays only one type of music," he said. "I've seen A LOT of college marching bands, and few bands play the variety that we play; not only in terms of style but also in terms of when it was popular. There aren't a lot of bands that will play jazz one week and then Aerosmith the next or maybe a Broadway show followed by a show saluting some of today's hottest `Divas.'

"When many college bands are continually struggling to find an identity or to establish `signature' formations, thankfully we've never had that problem," he said. "And it is indeed for the older fan base that we continue to salute and to `tug' on their U-Dub heart strings by performing occasionally many of the same songs and formations that they loved when they were students. But overall, energizing the crowd and getting them pumped for the game is what this band has always been about. That's why we continue to be a high-stepping, `traditional' style band. Can you imagine the band playing Vict'ry for Washington and have it glide down the field like a lot of corps style bands?

"We also try to play a portion of every pre-game and halftime show to both the north and south sides of the stadium," he said. "That is something that is virtually unheard of in large college stadiums. However we see it as a vital part of getting the entire crowd not only pumped for the game but also because the younger fans on the north side deserve to hear the band just as much as those older fans on the south side. That's also a reason why you'll also see us stop occasionally down at the west end of the stadium after a halftime show and perform solely for those fans. I've received several emails regarding that over the years so I know they really appreciate hearing the band at full strength as well!"

"Bill Bissell always emphasized the intense spirit of the band," said another former member, who played under both Bissell and McDavid. "Bill said that the philosophy was to enhance Husky Stadium.

"McDavid changed the whole structure of how our halftime shows were done so it would look more like Ohio State's," he said. "We went from the tough Husky band to a kinder, gentler Husky band. As an example, in 1990 we stomped USC 31-0. The band was given the game ball. We played `Trojan Slowdown' (a song playfully mocking the monotonous Trojan fight song by slowing it down considerably). Brad refuses to play that. He thinks it's not sportsmanlike. That encapsulates the difference between the Bissell band and the McDavid band. That song got the crowd cheering. The crowd LOVED that. They got into it. It had the `Bow Down' tag at the end of it. Bill Bissell said that we were here to support the team no matter what it takes. In doing so, if it means that we're not the absolute best musical band, that's OK, as long as we're the most spirited, and give the Huskies the best home-field advantage and give the fans a good time. Bill always said that you bleed purple and gold and you're here to help the team win, not to put on a concert for the alumni."

Dr. McDavid was asked if he was aware of a general apathy from the home crowd while the band is performing.

"Honestly, I'm surprised to hear you say that," he said. "Obviously when you're performing in front of potentially 72,000 fans at every home game, not everyone is going to be a fan of each halftime show. My three predecessors would, I'm sure, have told you the same thing. The mantra of this band has always been, above all else, to entertain! Many college bands have chosen to become clones of Drum & Bugle Corps and perform only one show a season. That's fine if that system works for them. But the Husky Band has never lost sight of its first priority and that is to entertain our fans. That's why the band has always done a different halftime show with a different theme and musical style for every home game. If we did one show a year, I'd be bored, the students would be bored, and I'm quite certain our fans would be bored."

Another former member stated his belief as to why routines have grown conservative in recent seasons.

"It was around the time the band's budget was reduced," he said. "I (think) that the performances stopped being about what would appeal to the general audience, and started being about what would appeal to the wealthiest boosters. It became what was going to generate the most money for the band. The budget was reduced primarily due to various legal bills the athletic department had to take care of. So the band had to resort to other means of fund-raising. If you had taken a look at the shows we started doing outside of game day, we weren't doing shows at middle schools. We were doing shows for lucrative white-collar venues, like T-Mobile or the Rainier Club."

McDavid was asked if there was anything he would like to bring to attention about the band of which the general public isn't aware.

"Yes, I guess there is one thing that I'd appreciate the opportunity to shed some light on," he said. "The one thing I've probably received more letters and phone calls about over my twelve years as director has usually centered around people asking why the band doesn't make its tunnel entrance any more. For those newer fans, they may not be aware that prior to the 1994 season the band used to enter the stadium through the tunnel. Obviously with the reverberation inside the tunnel, it really got the fans excited that were seated in the northwest corner as they could hear the band's drum cadence gradually getting louder and louder until the band burst from the tunnel. I can tell you, from the videos I watched and from the alums that I've spoken with, it was certainly a huge `rush' for the band members as well.

"Unfortunately though, to enable the band to do such an entrance it meant having to pre-stage them along both sides of the tunnel while both teams were exiting the field after their pre-game warm-ups," he said. "Unfortunately at some point toward the end of the 1993 season there was an incident where members of the opposing football team started shoving members of the Husky Band. It was then upon my arrival in 1994 that I was informed of the (Hedges) administration's decision to discontinue the tunnel entrance. Since this decision came prior to my first year many people automatically assumed that `the new guy' put the kibosh on an endearing tradition when actually nothing could be further from the truth.

"Being a diehard traditionalist myself and also coming from a school that takes its band traditions just as serious as we do here at the UW, I can certainly understand the fans disappointment that the tunnel entrance no longer exists. However, given the circumstances and the potential danger in which it placed each of our members, hopefully they can understand why the decision was made several years ago to no longer continue with that particular tradition."

The final question posed to Dr. McDavid was what he is proudest of in regards to the Husky Marching Band.

"There are really two things that constantly remind me just how proud I am to serve as the band's director," he said. "One is its commitment to an entertaining style and the other is its dedication to the band's slogan `A Touch of Class.' It's tremendously satisfying to know that no matter where the band travels to (even `challenging' atmospheres like Eugene, Oregon!) that the members are always cognizant of their image and the fact that they are representing the university and all the alumni members who went before them!"

For those who subscribe that improvements need to be made to the Husky Marching Band, the former members were asked for their suggestions.

"Brad has tried at times to get input from band members about the shows we would like to perform, but wouldn't take the ideas too seriously," said one member. "I heard some pretty creative ideas from band members, but they were never implemented. I wish that a sense of humor would be injected into the performances."

"When performing you need to entertain the eyes as well as the ears," said Keith Rousu. "It's not a one-sided medium. There's a way to blend the old with the new. Brad is a very talented director. I think he can improve (the situation). But he needs to be surrounded by the right people, like anybody in a position of leadership."

"Brad needs to needs to think about what the fans want," concluded a former female member. "It's about entertaining the fans. Brad needs to relax. He's a nice person, but maybe he just doesn't know how to boogie down. He just needs to get his groove on."
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories