If you want to be Badger, if you want to be in the UW marching band, you have to know the steps.
“I don’t know anyone else who does our marching style. It is similar to what a lot of people would call a chair step, where you would lift your leg up and make a chair out of your body but we have some elements that other people don’t do like “stomp at the top” which is literally you stomp at the top of the formation on the beat every beat and adds some physicality and adds some flash,” says UW Band senior Levi Morton.
While their musical performances have filled the ears and brightened the hearts of Camp Randall attendees since the band’s birth in 1885, Levi attests, “We care about looks just as much as sound”.
Levi started his band career as a freshman. Like a large majority of the student body, he did not get football tickets his freshman year. Unlike the majority of the student body, he saw this as an opportunity to join the band.
“I showed up the first day in not-so-athletic shoes, in khaki shorts and, needless to say I didn’t show up to afternoon practice in those clothes. Yeah I got my butt whopped”.
The senior trombone player has come far from his khaki shorts, non-athletic shoe days. He sat down with me to discuss “the typical game day in the UW band”. As many may guess, it starts early…very early. One “privilege” of being a Badger is that Game Day does not start at kick-off, but rather as soon as the sun raises over Camp Randall stadium.
“I get up at four, get dressed, and head to the field. Our band is divided into ranks, groups of 8 people of like instruments. My rank meets an hour before [morning practice], to make sure everyone shows up on time. We eat breakfast together and play football before hand.”
The actual practice starts with warm ups and stretches followed by practicing the pregame show.
“All our shows have a similar make-up- we always start with our run on, and then once we make that formation, we do some fanfare based on “On Wisconsin”. We always go into our school song, the opposing team school song, and then a set of songs that are related to the university that a lot of people don’t know. Songs like “Wisconsin Forward Forever”, “Songs to you Wisconsin”, and every once in a while we’ll do “Space Badger” which is the 2001 Space Odyssey with “On Wisconsin” in there. Then we go straight into practice for the halftime show”.
Practice does not stop there. The band must then practice the renowned UW band run-on. Many band members can be seen holding their instruments above their heads while charging through the Badger Tunnel.
“It’s a fun environment…the drums don’t run-on so they will do wacky stuff as the rest of the band runs through them. We are still working and will get yelled at if we do the pregame wrong, but it’s kind of like “Hey it’s game day, hey it’s game time” and we’ve worked hard this week and now let’s go out, perform a good show and have fun at the game”
Once the run-ons are done and the director, Mike, has given his pep talk, the band finally goes home and puts on their uniforms. Can you imagine wearing a 100% wool uniform all day? Did I mention it weighs 14 pounds?
In full uniform the band either plays at the new Union South pregame or Badgerville outside the practice field.
“Mostly older people show up, drunk. But we perform for them. We play the opposing schools song to a field of “boos” and then we play part of our halftime show. And there is this one song we play called “Bud”, it’s actually the Budweiser theme song. It’s the one that ends “When you’ve said Budweiser, you’ve said it all”. We replace it with Wisconsin; “When you’ve said Wisconsin, you’ve said it all”. So there is always some older lady that comes and grabs the microphone from Mike and says, “we want bud, we want bud” so everyone starts cheering and we start playing”.
Following the traditional “Bud”, the band heads straight to the stadium to go right into the pregame show. From there, the band watches the game, singing and dancing along with the student section. Then comes the halftime show. Unlike regular fans, the band is limited to beverage and food options!
“We usually only get water in-between pregame and halftime and then after halftime. We have a tradition of getting apples and Cokes. It was the only food they were able to find at one point in time and the stadium can’t really provide food for all of us. Our alumni donate apples and the stadium donates Coke. So that’s all we get during the game even if it’s right over dinner time”.
After the game, comes the famous, one of the most recognizable band traditions of all time- The Fifth Quarter. The Fifth Quarter “has never been rehearsed before. We don’t even play the written versions of [songs]; your freshman year you pick up the songs as you go along…Mike just kind of calls out songs. All have distinct beginnings so it is kind of easy to tell what is being played. And if we win the game, we’ll turn our hats around for the Fifth Quarter”.
The reasons for the backwards hats in unknown, although its speculated to have multiple meanings.
Some say, “it’s that we are looking back at the day behind us and on the win. I don’t believe it because it is way too cheesy. So, I don’t care why we do, but we do it”.
Traditions run deep within the UW band. Like most sports teams, it’s a tradition to have dinner the night before a big game.
“It is kind of way to bond with your ranks since you are marching with them all the time and a way to relax the night before and kind of nice”.
Yet, traditions don’t stop there. Every Game Day concludes with a performance in the back parking lot of Camp Randall followed by the traditional walk back to Humanities Building. “Once or twice I’ve seen cars try to pull through the band and I’ve seen band members open up the back door, climb through the back, and come out the other side” of the car.
In the courtyard of Humanities, bandleaders including Mike and band alumni assistance, stand on the second tier while the band stands on the main level. This is were the band ends their Game Day. Following brief introductions of alums, Mike says his closing words about the day, and 300 and more, sing “Varsity”, Wisconsin’s Alma mater.
In total, a UW band game day is twelve hours long depending on the time of the game. Yet, Levi does not mind a bit. Like the majority of his fellow band members, Levi loves game days and the opportunity to represent the University.
“It’s a great experience. My favorite thing about being in the band is the attachment to the university. I feel like I have experienced stuff that people who think they are close to the university never get to experience and I feel lucky that I’m able to do that”.
The UW band does more than offer the chance to represent a phenomenal university; it fosters friendship, experience, and life lasting memories.
“I am very close with many people in the trombone section. We had 76 trombones last year, but I’m pretty close with most of them. I know almost everyone in the band at this point. There are friendships that will exist way beyond band. It is kind of a community aspect- you can pretty much go to anyone and it is really nice. I am going to miss that. A lot of our members are former high school athletes, athletes that happened to know how to play instruments and there are quite a few of us who really loved high school marching band and wish it could be like that all the time”.
The band’s year does not end with Football: it continues on through the winter, with Ice hockey and Basketball, all the way to their annual spring concert. The awesome lights and flying floats draw in a crowd that fills the Kohl Center every year.
The first UW marching had eleven members. Today, there are over 300 Badgers who love spending their Game Day representing The University of Wisconsin-Madison through thick and thin. They practice long and hard. Injuries are not uncommon. The UW band proves that turf toe is not just a football thing.
Hopefully Levi will return to UW and be one of the alum Badgers trying to successfully master his old marching step seventy years down the line. And I bet: if you didn’t want to be a Badger, you do now.
For more information about the UW band, visit www.badgerband.com. Feature photo credit by Jeff Miller, WUBR, under creative commons.
About: Rachel Bozich
I am currently double majoring in Journalism and Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin. I love to travel and going on adventures. My true loves lie in trying new food, attending all and any sporting event, and spending time with family and friends. Ask me anything about where to eat, sleep, and party in Madison, and I'll tell you what you need to know and where to go!