Down, not out: Band fights to stay alive

Exiled from University athletic events two years ago, the Virginia Pep Band continues its struggle for hearts, minds, and ears. What it's learning, however, is that UVA would rather fund the official replacements– even resorting to paying stipends to students– than hear the irreverent (free) Pep Band at athletic events.

Since the 225-member Cavalier Marching Band does not have time to play at all varsity events, Pep Band director Caitlin Vogus thought her group had found a "niche" with varsity sports. Although Pep Band participation numbers are down from 100 in its heyday, with 35-40 current members and only 15 new recruits, Vogus petitioned to play at varsity sports– lacrosse, soccer, tennis, everything except football or basketball.

But UVA athletic director Craig Littlepage rejected the proposal.

"With one band program we can ensure a unified look, a unified sound, and a unified performance that is preferred by many of our fans and the Athletic Department," says Littlepage.

In an e-mail, the Athletic Department offered marching band members $25/per game to play at varsity lacrosse games. Stipends for 25 musicians at five lacrosse games could ring up a tab of $3,125.

Cavalier Marching Band Drum Major David Knight verifies that UVA pays stipends to marching band members, but says the payments are designed to cover food and other expenses of holiday-time performances, and vary in amount from show to show. The Pep Band did not request any stipends in its offer to play at varsity sports events.

"It's interesting that students were being paid to play at lacrosse games, when the Pep Band was willing to do it for free," says former Pep Band Director and UVA alum David Black.

Black and other Pep alumni organized an alumni association, Friends of the Virginia Pep Band, to provide financial support and advocate on the band's behalf with the University. With 1,000 members on their contact list, the group has raised over $25,000 in two years for performance-related expenses, instrument repair, and travel.

"There is substantial support among the alumni to have a Pep Band presence," says Black. "There's no reason for UVA not to maintain both traditions, the Pep and Marching bands. We're not making an 'either-or' proposition."

Black notes that Virginia Tech maintains two bands– the 330-member Marching Virginians and The Highty-Tighties (a regimental band)– both of which play at varsity football games.

It was a skit in the Pep Band's performance at the 2003 Continental Tire Bowl against West Virginia that paved the way for the Pep Band's exodus. A stereotyped West Virginia schoolgirl in pigtails and overalls so badly irked West Virginia Governor Bob Wise that he demanded an apology from UVA President John Casteen.

Former UVA football star and multi-millionaire energy company owner Carl Smith and his wife, Hunter, having already given $23 million toward Scott Stadium's overhaul, donated $1.5 million for the creation of a marching band.

Shortly thereafter, the 30-year old "scramble" band was locked out of its equipment room, denied University funding, and banned from varsity athletic events. Since the infamous takeover, the marching band has grown and continues to play at varsity football, men's and women's basketball, and lacrosse games.

"When you go to athletic events now, you hear one sound of consistent quality," said Director of Bands William Pease. "You will hear our same similar tunes with similar expertise and quality with a similar look everywhere we go."

Pease added he was not hired "to get rid of the Pep Band" but simply to "train a band that performs at athletic events."

Yet many students and alumni claim the University's treatment of the Pep Band rejects Jeffersonian ideals of student self-governance, both in the marching band's faculty-led orientation, and alumni donations dictating University policy.

"The administration should be promoting and providing opportunities for UVA students to be involved, to lead, to learn, and to grow from problems," said Black. "This student group [Virginia Pep Band] provided a musical service to members of the community."

However, Marching Band member Knight notes that 60 student leadership and on-field conducting opportunities are available with the new group, and all the movements on field are student-designed.

To the chagrin of Pep Band members, the marching band also recruits students from Piedmont Virginia Community College (13 students in all are in the current line-up).

The marching band "has been a unifying component of the game experience with which we are pleased," says Littlepage. "As the band continues to grow, it will have sufficient members to meet the needs of all of our sports in the numbers and quality that we aspire to have to represent our program."

Pease praised the band's success and community support during the football season. The marching band office received thousands of supportive e-mails and phone calls from alumni, students, and community members. With 85 first-year recruits, and 140 returnees, Pease wants to increase the band to 280-300 members, and has high hopes for national recognition.

Meanwhile, the Pep Band, says director Vogus, will "stay alive" and expand its involvement with club sports. She says the Pep Band, besides playing amid football tailgates outside of Scott Stadium, played at the men's and women's rugby games, the October 2 Alzheimer's Walk in Charlottesville, as well as the September 10 Washington Nationals game.

"We are still about having a good time, that's what we are all about, being students in our own group, and hopefully we'll eventually return to the field."

Brittney Maslowski leads the band in a warmup before the show.


Only tailgaters get to hear the Pep Band at football games