Stepping it up with the Cal Band

Marching band isn’t for the weak-willed or unprepared. It takes stamina, coordination and practice, practice, practice. And UC Berkeley’s Cal Band, which just kicked off its 2015 season, is no exception.

“If we didn’t know the music like the back of our hand,” says Ross Greer, the band’s senior student director, “by the time we’re doing a show, there’s no way we could keep up with trying to march, trying to play.”

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Practice has already begun for the group, with nearly 100 new recruits joining for a total of some 230 band members. Their first performance is right around the corner — Sept. 5 is Cal’s first football game of the season against Grambling State — and the band plans to come out with a bang with a show called “Guardians of the Calaxy,” featuring favorites from the better-known movie’s soundtrack, like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Hooked on a Feeling.”

New band members have a lot to learn in the coming weeks, from a slate of traditional Cal songs to the 28 different steps the Cal Band uses. The band’s primary step — one that few others use — is the high step, a snappy move where the foot lifts about 10 inches off the ground with the toe pointing down without any lag time between steps.

“It’s something we’re very proud of,” says Greer. “It’s why we spend so much time learning it, so we all look our best.”

Greer is part of a five-person executive committee of students that manages the band, along with director Bob Calonico, who was also a student director for the Cal Band in the 1970s. “I felt so empowered that we had a voice,” he says of his time in the band, which has been managed by students since the 1950s.

The committee — made up of Greer, senior manager Alex Dominitz, drum major Sam Cappoli, executive secretary Delia Peterson and public relations director Gabrielle Calderon — works together to keep things running smoothly, doing everything from leading practices to recruiting new members to handling travel logistics.

“The more you take part in this type of leadership,” says Greer, “the more you figure out what other students are doing to make this whole operation run. It’s really incredible that it’s a student-run group.”

This year, the band has a special trip planned. In May, students will pack up their gear and head to Asia for a tour of China and Japan. “It’s been on my bucket list a long time,” says Calonico. In 2003, the band had to cancel a trip to Asia in the midst of the SARS epidemic.

The group will leave right after finals and perform its first show at the Great Wall of China — a mix of Cal songs and pop tunes — which will be livestreamed for those who want to watch the epic event. They’ll go on to perform in Beijing and in Berkeley’s sister city Sakai, then Osaka and finish off the trip with a performance at the University of Tokyo.

In the meantime, the band will continue to wow the crowds every Saturday at football games and other sports events. To learn more about the Cal Band or to request a special performance, visit the band’s website.