The Manhattan College Pep Band: the Musical Soul of the College

Located in a leaky Thomas 517 is a practice space used by many performing arts groups on campus. Students can hear music floating out of the windows nearly every single night, filling the Quad up with sounds of drums or bagpipes or trumpets. Or while people meet up for dinner in Locke’s Loft, vibrations from a bass guitar can be felt. Quite possibly, you could also get a private concert walking past the mural to Lee or Horan Hall. No matter which of these locations you’re at, on Monday nights you’ll start hearing a familiar song played by the loudest and proudest spirit squad on campus: The Manhattan College Pep Band.

You think you might know the band that takes up real estate in the 6th Borough, but there is an immense amount of work that goes into making an ensemble that is considered one of the best in the MAAC Conference. Much like the basketball team practicing months before their season starts, the Pep Band does the same. They recruit their new members during orientation information sessions, hold auditions and put together a team that works well together.

Members of the band all have a goal similar to that of the basketball team- they want to win the MAAC. The musicians say their objective of the season is to “win the MAAC,” not in the sense that the band wants to win a competition. But they are very big supporters of our basketball teams and want nothing more for the sport teams to bring back trophies.

Of course, the coolest aspect of having a successful Division I team is the traveling. In the past, the band has traveled to Albany for the MAAC Tournament to perform in front of hundreds of fans. The group considers themselves one of the best bands there and many fans agree.

On the morning of the first games, the band participates in “Band Jam,” a battle of the bands competition against the other college’s bands. Judging by the crowd’s response, MC’s Pep Band clearly gets fan favorite. The band brings a spin on popular songs and old hits that make college basketball games – already an entertaining sport – more energetic simply by their presence.

“It’s cool to work with an organized and fun ensemble with my peers… I build the bridge with the director to the ensemble and to Student Engagement on the ensemble’s behalf,” Christopher Urban Klein, Pep Band’s president, said. “This year, our goal is we want to win the MAAC; not like a competition, but the actual MAAC basketball tournament. We consider ourselves part of the basketball team.”

But before fans and students file into Draddy Gymnasium, before glow sticks get thrown around during Manhattan Madness, before the first National Anthem is played—the band gets together to plan for the upcoming year. Although many of the returning members don’t need to look at any sheet music (the band memorizes each and every single song), newer members begin to pick up some of the band’s classics like “Uptown Funk,” “Every Time We Touch” and a popular Fall Out Boy medley.

This year’s executive board is also in charge of arranging brand new songs that they will premiere at games in the upcoming months.

The e-board meets before the practice and begins to talk about ideas in the office of Andrew Bauer, head of the Performing Arts department. Urban-Klein, along with Aaron Beinstein (VP of Repertoire), Rob Anzilotti (VP of Social Media) and Allison Terranova (VP of Personnel), oversee the club along with brand new Pep Band director, Jake Robinson.

Their practices just began a few weeks prior and they are still in the early stages of setting a playlist for the season. The group talks about new songs they’ve heard that would make for good band arrangements. Beinstein has a long list of songs that have sparked his interest. A member mentions how many great songs there have been lately that exhibit synthesizers or great drums.

The most important condition is an upbeat tune, since the other spirit squads, the Jasper Dancers and Manhattan College Cheerleaders, have their own dances during their songs. All of these features and more are the criteria for the perfect song Beinstein looks to arrange. He’s working on a new song that he’s been keeping under wraps but asks Robinson to look at as a possibility for that night’s practice.

“Over the summer we look at songs that are top of the charts or upbeat, basically cool to play. Once the school year starts, we try to write them up during the months before the season starts,” Beinstein said. “We keep some of our old songs here or there, like the ‘shorties’ we play during quick timeouts, but we like to play around with newer songs.”

As the members speak about music, the rest of the band starts trickling in in the practice room. There is a cacophony of music stands moving and instruments being unpacked right outside the door. As the e-board heads out to unpack their own instruments, Beinstein makes copies of the new song he’s working on and passes them out to the musicians scattered around the room. They all skirt around the giant hole in the ceiling of the room that has been leaking for a few weeks. It’s difficult to navigate tubas and drum kits around the buckets and trashcans catching the dripping water, but the band makes it work.

Robinson sits at the front of the room, watching the musicians warm up. He’s attentive to every member who asks questions and needs help tuning their instruments. Urban-Klein answers his questions in return about songs and practicing. Although Robinson had his first practice with the band a few weeks prior, he is getting into the swing of things. Robinson claps the room to attention as the Drum Corp section of the Pep Band leaves to go practice elsewhere.

Practice is about to begin.

“It’s a really fun musical endeavor. The band is a lot of fun and the music is really good,” Robinson said. “For anyone who’s a sports fan, getting to be the Pep Band at games is the absolute best. I get to lead the band, but then I get to watch the game with everyone.”

As snippets of the song Beinstein arranged and riffs of some old favorites die out, Robinson begins tuning each instrument around the room. The keyboard player presses one key and the woodwind section tunes their instruments: flutes, clarinets and a piccolo. Then the brass begins: trumpets, trombones and a tuba. The saxophones (around 10 in total) tune as well. The ensemble has many instruments including a guitar, bass guitar, a drum kit, synthesizer and keyboards, along with the separate Drum Corp. They’ll join back in later, but for now they are practicing wherever they can find space around campus. They have their own separate things to practice such as the drum line during player introductions.

The room is full of boys and girls in every single year. Pep Band welcomed around seven new freshmen this year, but they are still pretty senior-heavy. But no matter what year you are or instrument you play, the entire group is very welcoming. Friends make jokes across the room to each other or fellow musicians help new members with the songs. It’s a friendly bunch, which helps when it is time to come together to play their songs. If one member is missing, a key piece to the melody or harmony is also missing.

They start out with the Star-Spangled Banner after tuning. For many members, it is second nature. Some look around the room as they play the notes they are completely familiar with. It’s clear this is the case, as it sounds like the most memorized song (not in a bad way). Then, Robinson has them do it again after he makes the band turn their music stands around so they aren’t even tempted to look at their sheet music.

He has them do the same for the Jasper March, the rally song they play at halftime and the end of the game, win or lose. This is where Robinson’s expertise comes in- he takes notes throughout the performance so he can come back to them after the run through to address certain things. He points out he enjoys the ending line the bassist plays and the bassist admits he’s been improvising it and everyone laughs. Robinson thinks this is fantastic and encourages the band for the next run through to play quieter to listen to the bass line. Once they ran through it a few more times, they moved onto their favorite songs, starting with a rendition of Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance.”

“It’s great to play some popular, recent hits in order to psych up the fans and it helps that the band is already so good,” Robinson said.

Pep Band has choreography of their own during some of the catchy songs. Robinson makes everyone stand up and instead of conducting the music, he directs their movements. This continues throughout the songs, since the band stands up during breaks and timeouts to play. It helps to have the visual movements because it draws your eye over to the 6th Borough.

Urban-Klein helps Robinson with some of the things they’ve done in the past, such as the choreography, but the director also adds new features here and there. In “Shut Up and Dance” he adds a cool crescendo that makes the chorus come in stronger. In “I Want You Back,” a great example of Pep Band taking a classic song and hyping it up, Robinson grabs a tambourine and plays that in. Even with such a small instrument, it changes the sound in a new way.

He goes around the room to each instrument playing the melodies and harmonies with the added instrument. There is also a muddled spot in one of the sections that they run through a few more times. In a performance, it would go past in a few quick seconds. But this is how focused they are to the details- every song has to sound fantastic in order to hype up Draddy Gymnasium. Pep Band always delivers.

Returning to outside as the practice continues on, “Mr. Brightside” can be heard out on the Quad. Students walking by sing a bit of The Killers song, asking their friends “Where is that music coming from?” The elusive Drum Corp ended up playing on the Mini Quad that night and their drum beats echo off of Miguel and De La Salle.

It’s symbolic for Pep Band: the group has a presence on campus unlike any other. You can hear their music as they practice in Thomas and there is no missing them at the basketball games. It’s a common feature on college campuses to have a student band playing at sporting events, but there is magic from MC’s Pep Band. Whether their members know it or not, they bring something important to the performing arts that we would not have if they weren’t playing some of our favorite songs with all of their hearts.

In Locke’s, a student whistles the melody of the new song Beinstein was working on and smiles. It’s the clear impact Pep Band has on all of us as a student body.