The Pep Band Perspective
“Timeout. Media Timeout.”
That’s our cue to play. And by “our,” I mean the pep band. I work at WFUV, but I don’t call basketball games, I play music for them. As President of the Fordham Band, I help lead the group of rugby shirts next to the student section. So, in way I’m helping provide “color” to the game, but it’s quite more than that.
This was a special year for the Fordham Women’s basketball team (26-9, 12-2, 2nd place A-10 Championship, 3rd Round NIT) and consequently it was also special for us. We’re not the typical big brass college band but our size appropriately fits the Rose Hill Gym, at least that’s how I think of it. We feel like a big band at women’s games because during the regular season, we often make up the majority of the crowd. That’s not a slight to Fordham fans, just the reality of women’s sports. But, and this has been the band’s consensus, women’s games this year, in the midst of their historic season, were the most engaging and enjoying to play for and watch.
Part of it is the personal connection. Working at the radio gives me special privileges to interview coaches, hear stories on road trips, etc. Before head coach Stephanie V. Gaitley’s inaugural season, she gave a workshop to the entire WFUV staff to introduce herself, her philosophies, and field questions about the squad. It was impossible not to be impressed after she was done speaking. Paraphrasing, she said, “I tell my girls to appreciate everything in their lives, to give the maximum effort because they are so blessed to be where they are right now.” There is both a grace and a burning desire to constantly get better, an appreciation of circumstances with fire under the belly.
Then there’s the appreciation dinner, a team-organized event that asks anyone who works or cheers or plays for the basketball games to gather for pizza, meet the team, and get introduced to the roster right before the season. “Any questions for the girls?” Gaitley asks us in front of her culturally diverse team before they depart. Naturally I raise my hand and ask, “what songs would you like us to play this year?” They weren’t ready for that one. Arielle Collins, a band favorite, chimes in with “Party Rock Anthem.” Emily Tapio throws out TLC’s “Scrubs”. The team is still an unwavering fan of “Sweet Caroline.”
During the season we make signs for the girls because we are also their biggest fan group. “Ace in the Hole” is for Collins as is “Arielle Will You Marry Me?” That got several points and laughs from the bench. We jest that the “V” in Stephanie V. Gaitley stands for Victory and during the final stretch of the season, proudly hoisted the sign, “Philly Bound” in anticipation of the Atlantic-10 tournament. We could also make a living shouting our lungs out at the referees and making our faces the same maroon as our shirts. In an echoing gym, we know they can hear us. What goes around comes around. The more the women make it clear they appreciate our presence at games, the more we make our presence felt.
In game for the band, there are many things to think about. Let me break it down.
The biggest points of concern are media timeouts, whose presence is felt every four game minutes. They are the opportunities we get to play and most times I scout the scoreboard more for the game-clock than I do the actual score. The clock is also a point of anticipation, for tuba players to duck under the circular piping, for the band to flip to the right song. The key for us is maximizing our playing time in our temporary timeout slots. As the game winds down and 30-second timeouts become more proficient, I’ll analyze the visiting coach, watch her gestures as she motions her point guard towards the sideline and then makes the symbolic T-shape with her hands. When a referee blows the whistle, when the extended buzzer goes off, we must be ready, and in some cases must be conducted-in immediately to keep silence at a minimum.
We have an arsenal of older songs in our repertoire but we’re working on expanding it. Part of the pep band culture is taking top 40 hip-hop hits and molding them into relatable brass sounding tunes, making an Usher song spark “aha” moments from the student section as they hear a dance standard in new form. For longer timeouts we’ll strike up a longer song. “I Want You Back,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Just Dance,” are some of our dynamite songs but I’m cognizant of when we play and when we stop. My eyes split the music page and the team’s huddle. We can play right until the ball is inbounded so a perfectly timed cutoff is key as the referee hands off the ball. No one will understand the momentary pleasure of a tight and logical sounding cutoff to a song that ends in perfect conjunction with play starting up again like the band.
30-second timeouts are a bit different. Here we can play the same melody over again as long as it builds steam. Tonally, they must be appropriate, too. If there’s anything band has taught me, it’s being an unconditional fan. If the opposing team goes on a 10-0 run and Gaitley motions for the timeout, it’s not time to wail on the “Hey Song,” but its also not time to play “Danny Boy.” Wait a few moments, let the frustration sink in a bit, and then play a nice “Go Fight Win” cheer to raise the spirits.
“Shot clock winding down. Collins off the pick, kicks it out wide to Strickland in the corner. Good! Fordham takes the lead! Timeout on the court.”
There is nothing better than a momentum timeout to fire out a song. There is nothing better than anticipating that wave of sound to fill the gymnasium. From the moment our trumpet section (the instrument I play) begins “Seven Nation Army” and slowly garners fans’ attention, to the subsequent filling low brass presence that sparks the entire student section to chant the omnipresent sports anthem melody, I find momentary bliss. Luckily this season, I’ve had a few of those moments. But that’s one of the great things about watching this team win this year. We play at every game, but we also get to observe.
Here are some things I’ve noticed: the authentic excitement from the bench from a play seemingly drawn up and then perfectly executed; the small portion of fans that inhabited the Rose Hill Gym for women’s games that steadily grew with each win; the thankful acknowledgment from the team for the band’s presence.
It was especially rewarding travelling to St. Joseph’s for the A-10 playoffs, a whirlwind of teams and colors and bands escorted in and then out. We thought the only competition would be on the court, but it turned out the bands had their own battles, too. 26 members strong, and positioned according to other band’s set-ups, we filed in and warmed up quickly. Pre-game is when we must bring it. Positioned at the baseline and staring at our opposing team’s band we rattle off our songs back and forth and subjectively deem ourselves winners. After a quick “Eat em' up,” we progressively shout out DE-FENSE chants and maintain our imposing presence in Philadelphia against a weaker Temple team during the second round. One of things I like about travelling is witnessing the other bands from the A-10, sizing up their students, their sound, their songs, and their antics. Don’t let me get started on Dayton. It’s like an expo. Think Comic-con or auto shows, a chance for vendors and buyers to scout the latest trends, see the weirdest things. The A10 tourney, as much as we enjoy watching the game, is like this, a temporary display of culture and competition confined to ten rows of bleachers.
When the final buzzer sounds, my Fordham pride kicks in. Normally I’m quite dormant as a fan, but this year unraveled my spirit, especially playing in different environments. We start the fight song, which is really a march just amped up on steroids the way we play it, and subsequently pressing valves, I raise my fist to Marah Strickland as she claps gratuitously in our direction. That extra school spirit I think lies in all of us, it’s just waiting to get tapped out by antagonists. I can cite the men’s game in Madison Square Garden taking on St. John’s in which crowd detail curiously positioned both student sections on top of each other. As the game action slid favorably to the Red Storm, the insults flew and Fordham students decided to represent the “Academic Excellence” slogan rather than the “Proud Athletic Tradition” in their “Safety School” chants. It’s amazing what happens when you awaken the giant.
I think part of what made it so disappointing and frustrating to see the girls lose at the Barclays Center for the A-10 championship was how much time we had spent with them. We knew every player, knew her strengths, her weaknesses. We knew Abigail Corning was the glue to the team, that Arielle Collins really turned her game around midseason, that Marah Strickland was a legend from behind the arc, that Sam Clark is just as good at getting rebounds as she is making shots in the corner. We also knew how Erin Rooney led this team, and that every second half, when they forgot how to score in the first five minutes, that someone would step up and rekindle the fires in their bellies.
There was a certain arrogance in knowing the team like this. When students started attending games late in the season, I thought, "they don’t know half the names on this team, why are they even here?" Now they do know them, but not like us. I don’t want to sound protective, but there’s an authentic symbiosis between a band and a team who travels and guts it out and cathartically blows their horns to match the excitement on the court. I remember my freshman year not having a team to get excited about. This year that changed. This year, I got to play “The Fordham Ram” more times than I can remember.
“We do or die!”
This year, those final lyrics echoed and resonated louder than ever.