Four hundred and seventy-five members of UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Marching Band made history Saturday when they stepped onto the Carson Park field to perform at the university’s season-opening football game.

It’s the largest BMB group ever, up 75 students from last year’s band of 400, said Randal Dickerson, longtime BMB director. Three hundred and eighty students are in the horn line, 47 in the drum line, 32 are color guard members and dancers, three are drum majors and the rest are band managers and staff.

Coincidentally, the special show the band is performing at its appearances this year honors the 20-year anniversary of the band’s rebirth in fall 2000.

“We needed to make this the greatest show ever,” Dickerson said. “That’s what we’re calling the show ‘The Greatest Show.’”

Some shows have a theme, like 2018’s medley of boy band One Direction, Beyonce and Justin Timberlake tunes. But this year’s set is simply music Dickerson has always wanted the band to perform, including a song from from the 2017 musical “The Greatest Showman,” a medley from Australian singer Sia and the 1980s classic “It’s Raining Men.”

“This is going to be a great show, and if it fits a theme, OK. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too,” Dickerson said, laughing.

The 2019 show is a “step in a good direction” for the band, said drum major Nathan Czech, who’s been with the band for four years.

“It’s still staying true to the kind of shows we do,” Czech said. “It’ll be great fun for the audience.”

With more students, rehearsing becomes more complex, said Michael St. Ores, another of the band’s three drum majors.

“Rehearsals have needed to become quieter and more focused as we’ve gotten bigger,” St. Ores said. “Making a group of people that big do anything is difficult, unless you have everybody focused on what you need to do.”

Taking root

Twenty years ago, the BMB was student-run and had 60 members. Fifty-nine were music majors, Dickerson said.

“It was a tough go that year,” Dickerson said. “They were music education majors who were there only to fulfill the requirement.”

In the first several years, Dickerson even had to recruit Memorial and North high school students to fill out the field.

By 2001 the band started growing, but by 2002 enrollment took off. In 2003 Dickerson started to limit the number of students allowed in, and in 2004 the band topped 100 students.

“That’s all I thought we’d ever get,” Dickerson said. “Maybe 150, I thought. That was my goal.”

Since then, it’s become one of the largest college marching bands in the country, and the largest in the Midwest, Dickerson said. About 70% of band members aren’t music majors.

Dickerson usually opens enrollment in mid-March, and within five or six days some sections are already full, he said.

For the 2019 season, so many band members wanted to return Dickerson wouldn’t be able to accept many freshmen — including several high school valedictorians and students coming from across the U.S. to march in the BMB.

“Their average GPA is 3.6,” Dickerson said. “The university wanted me to accept them, and I said, ‘That’s not going to be a band of 400 anymore.’”

With plenty of applicants, funding is the BMB’s struggle to expand. The band receives some money from UW-Eau Claire student government, and the UW-Eau Claire Foundation fundraises for the group, but band members cover much of their own regional travel expenses and 100% of their international travel costs, Dickerson said.

The BMB’s size, for a National College Athletic Association Division III school, lets the band spend more time traveling.

Although the band loves performing at football games, “if we were a Big Ten band, we would be really tied to our football program, to the extent that every weekend would be football games,” Dickerson said.

The BMB’s travel also serves to recruit future UW-Eau Claire students. Czech, originally from River Falls, saw the band perform while in high school, and it was a part of his decision to attend college in Eau Claire.

“I just thought to myself, this is something I gotta do,” Czech said.

One part of traveling: the BMB’s international pedigree. Since its first international tour in 2008, the BMB has performed internationally every other year, including in Italy, France, Greece and Singapore. This January’s destination is Australia and New Zealand, where 430 BMB members are slated to perform at the Sydney Opera House and on a Royal Caribbean Cruise.

Beginning the season

Dickerson usually starts writing the show’s music in March, then the drills: “Those have to be written almost around the clock, starting in July.”

The BMB’s drills have to be precise: The band doesn’t use alternates, unlike most other college marching bands, Dickerson said.

“If they have 250 people in the band, they only march 230 of them just in case,” Dickerson said. “That’s a safe way to do it, but it also means you have 20 to 30 people that never get into a show … we want to march every person we’ve got.”

The approach has largely worked for the BMB. In the past seven years, the band has only had one no-show from a band member, Dickerson said.

“They make a commitment and they stick to it,” Dickerson said.

While some music majors are required to participate, non-music majors participate out of personal interest.

“They don’t get anything from it except the joy,” Dickerson said.

The band’s openness to students in other majors is one of its strengths, Czech said.

“There’s people from so many different backgrounds, and not everyone’s just thinking about the music. Some people are there specifically just because it’s fun,” Czech said.

Dickerson doesn’t anticipate the band growing significantly in future years, given that it’s one of the nation’s largest and is already repurposing uniforms.

“But of course I’ve said this every year, and when we got to 350 I said, it’s big enough,” Dickerson said, laughing.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sxseifert on Twitter