Marching to its own beat, the Cal Band eyes its next chapter

In the fall of 2017, drum major Daniel Grubb leads the Cal Band in its traditional “flying wedge’ formation during a pregram show againt USC. Photo: Abhas Misraraji

Colin Loyd remembers the exact minute he chose UC Berkeley. The San Diego high schooler was at Cal Day 2015, the campus’s annual open house.

“I was in front of Sather Gate, and I saw the Straw Hat Band,” a subgroup of the Cal Marching Band, says Loyd, a legal studies major. “They were playing music well but also having so much fun. That was the moment it hit me, that this was the place for me, and I wanted to be in the marching band.”

At the time, the tenor sax player had no idea the Cal Band — unlike most bands at Berkeley’s peer institutions – is primarily student-run. The 240 band members, who perform at more than 165 events a year, also produce their halftime shows, book their travel, recruit and train new musicians, conduct music, repair their uniforms, fix their instruments and even train to handle minor medical incidents.

They receive no pay or academic credit, and most contribute 16-18 hours a week to the band. Students on the band’s executive committee — Loyd, now in his third year at Berkeley, was elected to it in January — work as many as 50 hours a week during football season.


“The Cal Band is unique in its organizational structure,” stresses Brad McDavid, director of the University of Washington’s Husky Marching Band. “Here, we have people in full- or part-time paid positions doing all these tasks; responsibilities routinely managed by Cal Band students are almost universally handled at other schools by university employees or are subcontracted out.”

This unique culture is what the 127-year-old band hopes its new director — a nationwide search is on, as UC Berkeley Director of Bands Bob Calonico heads toward retirement at the end of June after 28 years — will continue to foster. The director is the only paid member of the Cal Band, which is part of Cal Performances’ Student Musical Activities department.

“It has to be someone who appreciates the way the band is run and will work to empower the students. Bob does that for us,” says Isaiah Apfel, a piccolo player double majoring in chemical engineering and classical languages. Apfel’s job is to manage Tellefsen Hall, a longtime residence for 44 band members.

“It should be a person who embraces student leadership, student government, is a terrific musician, and takes the band to the heights that my successor and the students set for themselves,” adds Calonico, 63, himself a former Cal Band member.

Berkeley’s mission is to educate the next generation of leaders, then we’re doing it on a small scale with a 240-piece marching band,” he says. “I tell the students they’re getting an experience they can’t buy. When they go out into the workforce, they’ll have been through a lot of these situations before.”

It’s hard to find students in the Cal Band — so popular that it’s played at several world’s fairs, led the San Francisco Giants 2014 World Series Championship Parade and performed at halftime at Super Bowl 50 in 2016 — who balk at their work load.

The Straw Hat Band, a traveling subgroup of the Cal Band, grew out of a loosely-organized post-World War II pep band. It supports men’s and women’s basketball as well as other sports. It also plays at campus and off-campus events. Photo: Alyssa Ransom
The Straw Hat Band posed in 2015 with Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr. Kerr was there to see his son, Nick, now an alumnus, who was a guard on the team. Photo: Alyssa Ransom
Jaime Tellez Patino (left) and Dorothy Bechler play the trombone at a quick practice before loading on to a bus to San Mateo for a performance Friday, Feb. 23. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small
Shelves in the uniform closet are filled with caps for the Cal Band. Photo; Brittany Hosea-Small

“The band is my support and family away from home and one of the biggest influences in my life,” says Loyd, who is on the five-member executive committee that sits atop a layered system of student teams that handle marching, music, logistics, publicity, finance and more.


“When people ask me what my degree is in, I tell them math and statistics,” says Berkeley alumna and former drum major Erin Proudfoot, secretary of the Cal Band Alumni Association. “But I really majored in Cal Band. I loved it so much, it didn’t feel like work.”

History of school spirit, perseverance

In 1873, five years after the university’s founding, students created their first band, the University Brass Band, after raising $500 to purchase 18 instruments. The band played for commencement in 1874 but folded two years later. “The cattle in the neighboring hills now dwell in peace and clover,” declared the 1876 Blue and Gold yearbook.

The Toot Horn Brigade, also called the Berkeley Brass Band, formed in 1878, but disbanded in 1884. The Berkeleyan reported that when the band was at “full blast,” it was best to keep away “persons whose nerves are easily unstrung.”

The Cadet Band of 1891 is considered the start of today’s Cal Band, as a band has existed at Berkeley from that year on without interruption. Faculty and administrators helped get the group off the ground, but students led it.

In the decades to come, student management of the band would be tested repeatedly. At each step, the band pushed ahead and thrived.

In 1917, during World War I, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) on campus absorbed the Cadet Band, but students regained control in 1922 after persuading the ASUC to sponsor it. The band played for the first time at a 1922 Cal vs. Stanford game.


At the 1950 Rose Bowl, the Ohio State Band’s brassy performance outshone the much less polished Cal Band. Negative media coverage led band director professor Charles Cushing to resign; the band’s student governing system was threatened.

The band’s response was to improve and modernize itself with Big 10-style marching and uniforms, a new director, a preseason training program, a more democratic band constitution and inventive student leaders. In 1957, the band was asked to represent the U.S. at the Brussels World’s Fair.

During the turbulent ‘60s, the highly regimented band was viewed with disdain by an increasingly liberal student body. Band leadership upheld tradition — members refusing to march in the annual Veterans Day show were demoted; Straw Hat Band members asking to wear trendy denim instead of white shirts and dark pants were refused.

Meanwhile, the ASUC shifted its financial support from the band to off-campus political interests. Struggling financially, the band severed ties with the ASUC; campus administrators — fond of the band as a symbol of campus pride and tradition –– provided funds to help.

In the 1980s, significant state and UC budget cutbacks threatened the band. Rising student fees forced many students to get jobs and work more hours, leaving little time for band.

As a remedy, the Cal Band Backers formed in 1987 and created the Cal Band Endowment Fund. Later, in 2000, the George Miller Scholarship also was launched to help. And the volunteer Straw Hat Band took on more paid performances at events including weddings and retirement parties.

Today, with a $650,000 annual budget, the band receives its funding from a variety of sources. Thirty-four percent comes from student service fees and other campus support and 3 percent from Cal Athletics; most of the balance is generated by fundraising and performance income. Additional overall support is provided by the band’s parent department, Cal Performances.

Students continue applying to the band in record numbers. This past fall, for the first time in years, it had to turn 22 students away.

Tradition and innovation

Not only the band, but its decades-old traditions endure. “Some of us — me, or Bob — will tell students, “We don’t have to do things the same way every single year, we can do something new or in a new way,’” says Brad Brennan, director of Student Musical Activities. “But they always say, ‘No, we want to do what’s been done in the past.”

The “Bomb,” a pyrotechnic device set off during every football pregame show is one ritual. Others include the North Tunnel Yell — “Pick up your heels! Turn your corners square! And drive, drive, drive!”, the band’s high-step march and the Silent Walk, a formal initiation ceremony for new members along a string of campus landmarks.

Kat Pittman, the band’s newly-elected student director who oversees the band’s non-marching performances, says she’s proud to be “stepping into years of Cal Band history and taking on what that means. It’s daunting to be part of it.”

But the band, recipient in 1991 of the coveted Berkeley Citation, also prides itself on innovation. Over time, students have added new songs and steps to shows, eliminated the epaulets on their uniforms, adopted technology to chart formations and developed Internet crowdfunding campaigns.

Apfel says other university marching band members are surprised to learn that students in the Cal Band get to choose the tunes they play. “Very few get a say in what they’re playing,” he says. “The director says, ‘These are the halftime shows, here’s what you’re playing.’”

At Berkeley, anyone in the band “can come up with five songs that go together and can submit up to two options,” says Apfel. “Sometimes there are 50 to 60 suggestions. Then, there are three rounds of voting to get to the top 10, and then we explore any copyright issues.”

Some of the students’ ideas for the band “are hit or miss. Those are the pros and cons of being a student-run band,” says alumna Proudfoot. “The new director must have zero ego to work with the students and give them a lot of leeway, knowing that mistakes will be made.”

“A lot of this is a learning experience,” admits Apfel, “so it’s been great to have Bob there to support us, to be our liaison with the university. And because we have a say in what we do, we care more.”

The band’s tradition of student governance — despite tweaks over the years to its constitution, first written in 1925 — undoubtedly remains its most sacred.

“Frankly, if everything was done for them,” says Brennan, “it wouldn’t be the same band. It’s in the doing and the planning that they make it their own.”

Adds Calonico, “These students are smart, hardworking and fun. They love Cal’s traditions and are sincere in their desire to do their best. The next band director is going to be lucky to work with them.”

NOTE: “The Pride of California,” a book published by the Cal Band Alumni Association for the band’s centennial in 1991, was a source for this story.

This story originally appeared in Berkeley News.