Barbecues light up a Pasadena golf course, blue and gold banners line the street and fans file into the Rose Bowl for UCLA’s first football game of the season.
But among the people eager to witness the official start of Chip Kelly’s Bruin coaching career and the football stars hungry for a winning season, there is another group of fans longing to showcase its spirit: the marching band.
Nearly 300 members of the UCLA marching band take the field prior to kickoff, lining up along the scripted “UCLA” letters painted on the 50-yard line.
Rising fourth-year drum major and bioengineering student Jacob Hambalek remembers his first time entering the historic stadium, paving the way for the athletes to soon take the field.
“It’s super loud and the sounds are all bouncing off the tunnel,” Hambalek said. “You enter the stadium and it’s just electric – everyone is ready for us.”
Hambalek is one of four selected drum majors that conduct the whole band. The drum majors orchestrate the field shows and have walkie-talkies and headsets that connect them to professionals on the field and in press boxes.
The band consists of multiple sections made up of instruments such as the flute, trombone and snare drum.
Rising fourth-year flute section leader and human biology and society student Tracy Lahey said members participate in band camp, a weeklong training at the beginning of the football season. The members endure 12 hours of rehearsal each day on UCLA’s intramural fields where they learn formations, participate in sectionals and perfect stand tunes.
Other UCLA students can often hear the sounds of band camp from their dorms on the Hill. But off the field, band members also enjoy bonding activities with their sections – such as going on Diddy Riese runs.
Lahey credits band camp as the reason why she stuck with marching band after her first year.
“It’s sweaty and exhausting and everything in that realm,” Lahey said. “But it was also one of the best things I did, because I got an introduction to school spirit … in a community of people working toward a common goal.”
The band also added a feature twirler two years ago who also takes part in band camp. Rising third-year bioengineering student Jade McVay made up her own section as the sole feature twirler, so she primarily practiced with the color guard during camp. The band will be adding another twirler in the upcoming year.
McVay said her work involves choreographing her own routines, practicing tricks, writing her own drills and refining the intricate shapes that accompany the band’s music.
“My role is to essentially figure out where I should go so I don’t hit a trombone or tuba player,” McVay said.
It’s one thing to be a spectator of a fourth-down conversion or a blocked field goal. But it’s another to be providing that celebratory atmosphere.
“It just adds a lot of excitement. Having a musical soundtrack for that experience is something that fans really appreciate,” McVay said.
From marching into the Rose Bowl to witnessing the moment zero seconds are left on the clock, the band builds energy in the crowd and onto the field.
Lahey said the fans are easily engaged when they hear tunes such as the timeless UCLA fight song after every touchdown or a variety of chart-topping classics during timeouts.
“Music brings energy and vibrancy to the game,” Lahey said. “When we play a song – whether it’s Bruno Mars’ new hit and it’s getting the student section fired up, or a Bon Jovi song and it’s getting my parents fired up – I feel like we’re always reaching different groups of people.”
More so than getting spectators excited, band members said they take pride in showing their enthusiasm to fans and fellow students – a level of energy that does not go unnoticed.
“I was at one game … and at one point, a huge portion of the stands started chanting my name like ‘Jade, Jade,’” McVay said. “That experience was really cool because for the past two years I’ve been literally cheering on my Bruins. And in that moment, they were cheering for me.”
The musicians are fans of the game too – and, win or lose, they’re the last to exit the stadium. In fact, the band members are the last fans at all sporting events, performing the final harmonies of “Hail to the Hills of Westwood” – UCLA’s alma mater.
UCLA Athletics is often able to bring the marching band with it on the road, with privileged musicians earning travel opportunities.
Hambalek, Lahey and McVay, however, still describe home football games as their favorites.
Every cadence is felt. The entire Rose Bowl can hear the chromatic scale of the fight song crescendo, then decrescendo.
The eight-clap fills the air.
“That first game – because I had never seen anything like that before – was so magical,” Hambalek said. “And really, I feel a little of that every time we march in. But there’s nothing like the first time.”