If you don’t live in the U.S. you might not understand “March Madness,” which is just wrapping up here. March is the month when the NCAA basketball tournament kicks into high gear and college teams compete to see who ends up on top. While the teams travel around the country to play (and are excused from classes for a university sponsored event), they take their “spirit squads,” which usually include the school’s pep band.
The way pep bands are run differ from school to school. When I was an undergraduate the pep band was a class, we received (small) class credit for it and earned a grade at the end of the semester. If I remember correctly it was required for us to play in for at least one year as a music major, but since I enjoyed it I played almost all of the four years I spent at Illinois Wesleyan University. While a graduate student at DePaul University I occasionally subbed in the pep band for basketball games. Students who played in the pep band didn’t earn credit but received a small stipend to play and support the basketball team. When I subbed in the student I played for paid me directly for filling in. These days I think the stipend is more the norm, as it is a huge demand on the students’ time, with games happening almost every weekend (sometimes more) and frequently requiring travel time.
With the NCAA tournament going on, the pep bands travel with the basketball teams and like the basketball players, the students miss out on classes. An anonymous pep band member recently wrote an article on Deadspin about his experiences playing at the tournament, frequently for other schools that don’t happen to have a pep band to play for their team’s games.
What’s a typical week for a spirit squadder? If the team is placed far enough from home, we get to fly with them. If the team stays close by, which happens only to top seeds in the first round, we’ll bus in on game day. That hasn’t been my experience, though. The round of 64 is played on Thursday and Friday. Let’s say Texas is playing at the Staples Center on Thursday; the Longhorns need to adjust to the new time zone, get in some practice, and make appearances for alumni and donors in the area. So they leave on Tuesday, which means that a saxophonist in the band gets a night out after he checks in to his hotel, then Wednesday is all his. If Texas wins on Thursday, he has the rest of the day and Friday to himself before the round of 32 game on Saturday. If Texas wins on Saturday, guess what? He’s got another free trip in store.
The band members get to miss a lot of class, and I imagine most of them aren’t spending their free time studying or practicing.
When we first check into our hotel we get three days’ per diem up front, usually around $55 total, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you realize that, for a college kid, “per diem” is Latin for “beer money.” If we win our first game, we get per diem for the remainder of the weekend when we return to the hotel. A $5 tax on all 29 people in the band makes for a nice slush fund for filling a hotel suite with booze. We never finished that Everclear. Every year we end up dumping liquor down the drain. Last year it was the moonshine I don’t remember drinking.
While I never attended an NCAA tournament or traveled as a pep band member, in my experience the picture our anonymous author paints about what goes on during his experience away from school during the tourney is typical.
I wonder if this is really what our music schools should be doing with their time and resources. Of course, these bands are more and more often supported by the school’s athletic programs rather than the music programs, which is a whole other can of worms.