When it comes to size, Blugold Marching Band drum major Nathan Czech tries to remain objective. 

Even objectively, though, it didn’t take him long to notice how big of a difference 50 more people can make in UW-Eau Claire’s marching band this year, his third with the group. 

“I can tell the band is better, definitely, and I can tell there is more sound,” Czech said Tuesday, barely two days in to their full band camp practices. “That could be due to a lot of things, but you can tell it’s bigger than last year. There is not a spot on the field where there isn’t a band member.”

His fellow drum major Megan Hutera, a junior who is also in her third year with the band, added a visual: “On the field when we’re learning drill, we are end zone to end zone at this point, and front to back.” 

BMB began full-day practices Monday with a record 400 members, up 50 from last year’s group and including 150 first-time BMB marchers. Band director Randal Dickerson said he tried to increase the numbers “just a little bit more where I could” each year, but this year they had record applications. 

Wide talent pool

Dickerson said more than 200 incoming students applied for the group in February. He couldn’t take everyone, but it quickly became apparent they were going to have to expand. Instead of auditions, Dickerson said he uses applications to determine not only if the students enjoy band, but also how committed they have been to previous engagements. 

More than commitment, he said these students had a lot of talent, on and off the field. He said the average GPA of new applicants was around 3.55, and this year’s freshmen BMB class includes 12 valedictorians from their high schools. The applications also spanned geographically, from the Chicago-area to Iowa and one student from Florida. 

“They’re coming from all over now and they’re coming for BMB,” Dickerson said.”We just knew we needed to expand in order to take those students. I’m not going to turn them down when they’re qualified.” 

By his estimates, Dickerson said they are the largest college marching band in the Midwest, including Big Ten universities. To compare, the Leader-Telegram reached out to marching band staff from some of the major bands around the region to see what numbers they were looking at for the 2018-19 year. And Dickerson isn’t wrong.

UW-Madison’s Badger Band came in at 309; University of Michigan Marching Band has 390; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Marching Illini is set at 375 members (though they had approximately 600 students audition this year, according to the group’s director); Notre Dame’s Band of the Fighting Irish has 377; Ohio State University’s Marching Band also has a set instrumentation of 228 brass and percussion members; the Spartan Marching Band sits at 310; Purdue University’s marching band at 384; and the University of Minnesota Marching Band at 329. 

But UW-Eau Claire’s BMB is also different in that they have no alternates. When Dickerson writes out his drill pages — what becomes the final performance — he is writing for those 400 members, around nine of which are staff students who do management work.

“I don’t take alternates,” Dickerson said. “I set up a goal for how many I want in each section. Every student has a spot on the field.” 

Risky, if someone decides not to show up to a performance. But Dickerson said that’s why it is so ingrained in his students they must be committed, and he and his management staff call and verify every student is coming before the July 19 university housing’s early housing deadline.

“We don’t have no-shows,” he said. 

After he writes the drill and hits the deadlines, the music begins. 

‘Live While We’re Young’

This year’s BMB features around 120 members in the brass section, 120 woodwinds, plus members of a drum line, the color guard, a dance team and three drum majors, as well as the nine student staff members, Dickerson said. 

Wanting a show that is upbeat and also relevant to younger audiences, Dickerson chose “Live While We’re Young,” a song by the boy band One Direction, as this year’s theme. The 12-minute show opens with a collection of One Direction tunes, then a Beyonce medley and closes with a medley of Justin Timberlake songs. 

Like many of the bands’ members, BMB is the reason senior Matt Hicks chose UW-Eau Claire four years ago. And just two days into his fourth year of BMB, he’s not disappointed. He’s found the bigger group to be a new and interesting challenge.

“It presents us with more of an awareness of how we’re using our time and keeping on track to really get everything done,” Hicks said. “You can tell everyone is focused and driven, and it’s helped us to have an amazing start so far.” 

Larger numbers means an even better sense of organization, and Dickerson said he can’t do it alone. He’s created a tiered management system, which is part of the reason he thinks the big group isn’t so intimidating. 

From the top, BMB has three drum majors, who relay information to the 22 section leaders (two for each section), who in turn relay that information to each section’s four rank lieutenants, Dickerson said. New students also are paired with a “big,” someone who has experience in the band and, preferably, shares their major. 

“It’s a pretty sizable staff,” he said. “It has to be for 400 students.” 

Plus, he’s got members like Hicks, Hutera and Czech, who are committed to helping the band succeed. 

As a high school student, Czech recalled seeing BMB perform at competitions, and that is what inspired him to join. Now, he’s looking to be that inspiration for others.

“My goal as I’m taking on more responsibility is not only to help improve the organization for now, but also to lay a foundation for those who are coming after us,” Czech said. “So what they saw at the high school expos or competitions is what they see when they join the group — something that’s well-oiled and focused, something even better than what they saw.” 

An exciting future

The band performs four home games throughout its marching season, which ends Nov. 1. BMB also performs at festivals and events in Eau Claire. After Nov. 1, a smaller group that Dickerson started last year — BMB’s varsity band — travels to area high schools and competitions to perform. 

Unlike many marching bands that do a variety of small, 6-minute shows on the field, Dickerson said BMB members are learning one 12-minute show for the whole season. 

This enables them not only to learn the music well, but also to incorporate dance moves and really make it a show rather than a concert.

“Our style is so different from other bands around here,” Dickerson said. “These students don’t mind dancing, doing a lot of body choreography. They aren’t embarrassed about having fun.” 

That energy is part of the reason Dickerson still enjoys the group. When he started his career with UW-Eau Claire’s music department 18 years ago, BMB’s goal was to get to around 100 to 150 members. 

“My goal was to get it to a respectable size, something the university could be proud of at Blugold games,” he said. “But when we started being successful after 3 or 4 years, and started seeing the type of students being recruited by marching band ... we knew we could do more.” 

He’s looking forward to seeing what this year brings. In addition to a variety of performances, BMB also will do its first indoor show since 2007 during the grand opening of downtown Eau Claire’s Pablo Center at the Confluence, which opens Sept. 22. 

Because of the group’s large size, Dickerson said, “We haven’t had a venue we can perform in. With the opening of the Pablo we can do that again, so we’re excited about that.”

Though the band can’t grow much more — there physically wouldn’t be space for them to move and dance on the field — he’s looking forward to finding new ways to challenge himself and the group. 

“We’ve already so far passed what we thought was possible,” Dickerson said. “Now it’s just fun to see how far we can go with this because there’s nothing else like this in Midwest.” 

Contact reporter: 715-833-9214, katy.macek@ecpc.com, @KatherineMacek on Twitter