The Cal Band marches on with virtual performances, cardboard cutouts

When Mary Mijares was elected last December to be the drum major of the student-run Cal Marching Band, she was prepared to lead the band through a season of halftime performances at UC Berkeley’s sports events like all drum majors who had come before her.

a tryptic of Mary Mijares marching in her drum major uniform

When Mary Mijares was elected as the Cal Band’s drum major last December, she didn’t know that she would be leading the band in a season of all-virtual performances. (Photos by Anthony Mercado)

The alto saxophone player, now a senior double majoring in business administration and global studies, had been in the Cal Band since she was a first-year student, so she’d had three years to see how other students had led the band — teaching the new recruits a slate of traditional Cal songs and the 28 different steps the Cal Band uses, as well as assisting during daily rehearsals in preparation for its halftime shows.

But in March, the coronavirus pandemic forced the campus to shelter in place, like the rest of the Bay Area. And as the months went on, it became clear to Mijares that the Cal Band, now in its 129th year, had to come up with a new plan for the fall.

“Every single year, things get passed down to us — schedules, practices, traditions,” said Mijares. “This year, we had to build a new way of doing things from the ground up. We had to start from scratch and think, ‘How can we do this better, in a virtual format?’ I think sometimes letting go of those traditions, while it can be really hard, is an opportunity to find new, better ways of doing things. Even if you’re apart, as long as you work together, you’re going to find innovative solutions.”

more than 100 students on a zoom screen during a cal band fall training program

The Cal Band, which has 195 members this year, conducted fall training sessions on Zoom.

In April, instead of recruiting new students at Cal Day, like they usually do, the Cal Band’s recruiting coordinators sent messages via social media to incoming students who played instruments, telling them about the band through virtual info-sessions and inviting them to audition — a method that Mijares thinks the band will continue to use for a long time.

For the band’s halftime performances, band leaders created three videos with different themes — “Nickelodeon Nostalgia,” “Party of the Decade” and “Elements” — with the musicians playing their own instruments and marching to the same music. In teaching marching techniques, Cal Band teaching assistants collaborated with each other, with one showing band members the steps and another providing feedback to students at the same time.

Instead of performing in person at UC Berkeley’s sports events this year, the Cal Band produced three virtual performances, each with a different theme. “The Party of the Decade” show was played on the Jumbotron at Big Game in November. (Video by the Cal Band; artwork by Juliana Flute)

Mijares said it was important to her and the rest of the executive committee that they were sensitive to the unique situation of each student, as some didn’t have a space to practice or even an instrument to play, instead using different household objects, such as water bottles or pencil cases, as fill-ins for their instruments.

cardboard cutouts of each band member in the stands at a football game

Although Cal Band members couldn’t perform in person at Big Game this year, they were there in spirit with their cardboard cutouts in the stands. (Photo courtesy of the Cal Bears Facebook page)

“I think the most important thing for us was to be flexible and understanding,” said Mijares. “We decided to focus solely on the form itself, making sure they understood the very simple mechanics of marching and playing together.”

In November, at Big Game — the annual face-off between the Golden Bears and rival the Stanford Cardinal — the Cal Band’s pre-recorded halftime performance, the “Party of the Decade” show, was displayed on the Jumbotron at California Memorial Stadium with a cardboard cutout in the stands of each of the 195 band members.

Although Mijares is soon retiring — a new Cal Band executive committee was elected last week, to begin in January 2021 — she knows that the band will continue to find creative ways to come together in any situation it finds itself in.

Learn more about the Cal Band’s virtual performances and watch all three videos on the Cal Band’s website.

Listen to the first episode of the Cal Band’s podcast Beyond the Uniform. Find all episodes of Beyond the Uniform here.