A little over an hour before kickoff, at the tailgate in front of McDonough Arena, the Georgetown Pep Band plays the fight song for the first time of the day. After the fight song, the band starts on some cheers, short riffs they have memorized and can play at the drop of a hat. Then they pick up “Eye of the Tiger” at the instruction of Student Conductor Ben Ulrich (SFS ’20), who selects the music and leads the band as they play.
Catholic University’s team bus rolls up. As players file off and make their way to the locker rooms, more than one can be seen getting down to the band’s tunes. Today they would tell you they hate Georgetown, but their dancing speaks volumes. They dig the pep band.
The band started tuning here at the tailgate, even though call time was half an hour ago in New North’s Studio A, where new members got their blue and gray rugby shirts, the band’s signature uniform when coupled with blue jeans. But it’s shaping up to be a warm September day, so the band is wearing the new short sleeve shirts they got at the beginning of last year instead. Eventually, Pep Band President Elise Dumont (COL ’20) shouted out “One, two, three!” to which everyone else responded “Four!” and hiked down to the bus turnaround for the tailgate.
After playing for about 15 minutes, and with an hour to kickoff, the band plays a third round of the fight song, this time with the cheerleading team. At the end of the song, the band calls out “Hoya,” and the cheerleaders reply with “Saxa.”
When it’s time to pack up, they cut back through the Thompson Center, past the trophy cases, mannequins sporting team uniforms, the large statue of the building’s namesake, and the stained glass windows depicting Georgetown athletes. It feels like the sanctuary of a church built to honor John Thompson Jr., patron saint of Georgetown basketball and white sweat towels, but it seems too sterile to be a real house of worship. Outside, they cross the street near the yet-to-be-completed stands on the West Road side of the field and claim their reserved section near the south end zone.
Ulrich pulls a walkie-talkie out of his fanny pack to listen to an incoming message. The radio lets him speak with staffers in the press box controlling the sound system, so he can make sure the band’s music won’t end up competing with the speakers. Ulrich returns the radio to his pack and relays to the band that they won’t be playing the fight song immediately following touchdowns. This is highly unusual, as every band everywhere plays their fight song right after the score, but the press box has plans to blast their own music through the audio system after the team scores.
Normally the pep band will pause in the middle of the song for the extra point and pick up again at the “Rah Rah Rah Hurrah for Georgetown” line. Ulrich tells the band they will just pick up in the regular spot after the kick.
He is wearing what he describes as a “convertible cowboy bucket hat” with snaps that can attach the wide brim to the sides. He likes the sun protection it provides, and as he lauds the hat’s utility, members of the band are getting sunscreened before kickoff.
Ulrich said that he ended up here with the band because he played the trumpet in high school and was looking to continue with music at college. “When I was touring Georgetown, it was one of the first clubs I heard about, and it was the very first thing I signed up for,” he said.
As the Hoyas on the field warm up, and “Seven Nation Army” plays, Ulrich checks the radio once more and gets the band ready to play. Every song in the pep band’s song book has a corresponding number so the next tune in the queue can be easily communicated with hand signals. Calls go out to get number 47 ready, and as the White Stripes fade out, the band starts the theme song from Hawaii Five-O.
Soon, planes about to land at National Airport provide a flyover during the “Star Spangled Banner,” sung a capella. Then, Georgetown won the coin toss, deferred, and Catholic elected to receive. The percussion section played an erratic drum roll, as they do on every kickoff, and cut out with a cymbal crash when the ball gets booted down field. The game is underway.
The band plays when Georgetown is on defense, adding a bit of razzle dazzle by swinging their instruments as they play. Mostly it’s cheers between downs, originating from the trumpet of Sam Dorsey (COL ’22). He says they are called trumpet cheers, though the whole band plays them, because the trumpets are the ones to kick them off.
“Usually you have one person who’s kind of in charge of cheers for that game. Sometimes we rotate, often times it’s one of your more senior players,” Dorsey said. The conductors have different hand signals for different cheers, and Dorsey plays a riff before the rest of the band joins in. Cheers also get the cheerleading team involved, as they have dances to go with each one.
Ulrich is the most senior trumpet player and still plays on occasions when the band is short on instruments. Now, however, he is busy conducting. He joked that sometimes he likes being in charge, but he ran for the student conductor position for another reason. “Primarily I wanted to be able to give back to the band and to be a leader, and it’s a fun position because you get a different perspective. It’s a lot more engaged with what’s going on with the game.”
When their instruments are down, the band continues to cheer, usually with chants and songs originating in the saxophone section. During the game this spans singing the theme songs from Spongebob Squarepants and Little Einsteins, to “Baby Shark,” to the alphabet song, but only repeating letters A through D,over and over.
After a three-and-out on the first drive of the game, they start reciting the alphabet in full as Catholic lines up for a punt. On “G,” the Hoyas get through the line and block the punt. The band cheers like they did it themselves.
Not long after, the Hoyas seemingly got the ball into the end zone, but the play was put under review, and the band started singing the theme from Jeopardy. The call was overturned, but before long, the Hoyas hit paydirt. After the extra point, with 12:09 left in the first quarter, the band ripped into the fight song for the fourth time today.
“I’ve heard many rumors that our football team isn’t great, but I’ve had a lot of fun watching them so far and they’re doing great this season, I’m impressed,” Jaron Berman (COL ’23) said. Berman plays the sousaphone, and his favorite stand tune is “You Can Call Me Al” because it has “a rockin’ bass line.”
Before Berman could explain why he picked up such a large instrument, he was interrupted by a Georgetown field goal and the sixth fight song of the day.
When the last bar ended, Berman explained that he had played low brass instruments in high school and the band needed sousaphones, so he said “why not?” Like many of his peers, his experience with band in high school led him to want to join the group, seeking to continue playing music and snagging a front row seat at all the games.
Robbie Arwood (MSB ’21), a trombonist whose favorite stand tune is “Hey Baby,” said that the games were a big draw for him, too. “I love it. I like basketball games better personally, but that’s because my mom played on the women’s team back twenty something years ago,” Arwood said. “I’ve been raised my whole life to love Georgetown basketball.”
That isn’t always the case though, and someone says you don’t need to like sports to love pep band. Ask any of them, and they would tell you all you need is a desire to come out and play music.
As the Hoyas’ return man beats the punter and scores yet another touchdown, the band goes nuts. With 31 seconds left in the first half, they play the fight song for the eleventh time, the Hoyas leading 53-0. A call comes down from the back row asking for number 25 in the song book. Before the kickoff, they play what turns out to be “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled. It’s been that kind of game.
Instead of a show out on the field, halftime for the pep band means pizza, courtesy of the athletic department. Arwood explained that there’s two sides to not having a halftime show.
“I don’t miss all the hours it took coordinating, being on the field, practicing that, going through drills, memorizing, learning everything,” Arwood said. “But I definitely miss going through that experience with a bunch of friends, getting close to a bunch of people, it was a great bonding experience.” Today, the only one marching was the new Jack the Bulldog.
The band plays at every home game for football and men’s and women’s basketball. The pizza delivery every halftime is a sign of the athletic department’s appreciation. “As long as athletics continues to invite us to things, as long we continue to doour job and be a good pep band, I think that’s what we really need,” Dumont said.
As the end of halftime nears, Nia Jordan (COL ’21), the assistant student conductor, takes a turn at the front of the band. She calls for number 45, and the band plays “Sweet Caroline.” Her personal favorites are “Karn Evil 9,” “Runaway Baby,” and “Hawaii Five-O.” Jordan normally plays the quad drums, and she never got to conduct in high school, despite always wanting to try it. It’s unusual for percussionists to conduct because of their vital musical role, but this fall’s recruiting season has made Jordan comfortable with setting down her drumsticks. “Especially since now we have a new quad player, I’m less worried about just leaving the drum line,” Jordan said.
Fight song number 12 came just under four minutes into the second half after a Georgetown field goal. While most high school bands would get the third quarter off after doing their drill at halftime, the pep band plays through. But with these being the only points of the third quarter, they had it a lot easier than the first half. At the end of the quarter the band plays “Pretty Fly” as t-shirts get tossed into the crowd only to be cut off by play starting again, so they forget the instruments and sing the rest of the song.
After a touch-down with just over six minutes left in the game, the band plays the whole fight song for the first time all game, playing after the touchdown, pausing for the point after, and picking right back up on “Rah Rah Rah Hurrah for Georgetown.” The score is now 69-0. They have played the fight song 14 times. The saxophone section starts a tongue in cheek “we want ‘Bama” chant, joking that FCS-level Georgetown football, which has had two winning seasons in the last 20 years, is ready to face the six-time national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
It is clear the band is having a good time despite the long day. They are playing for themselves as much as for the team on the field. Dumont thinks that while it is nice if the fans or the teams appreciate the pep band, that’s not what it is about. “I don’t think we need it,”she said.
This feeling is what drew a lot of them there in the first place. “It’s a place where you can continue to play an instrument but in a way where it’s more about the fun than the musicality of it,” Dumont said.
Dorsey, who started playing the trumpet in the fifth grade, wanted to keep playing for that same reason. “Pep band offered a great opportunity to continue playing with the freedom that it’s as much of a commitment as you want it to be,” he said. He added something that all band members interviewed mentioned: The pep band is just full of lovely people that he loves spending time with.
Ulrich thinks that the band brings loyalty and fandom to the games because they go to every game, no matter how well the team is doing. “Even if there’s no other fans there, we’re there, we’re cheering, we’re hollering,” Ulrich said. “It’s nice to have not just fair weather fans, we’re there no matter what.”
He also echoed what Dorsey said about the band, and what it means to him. “I just love the energy and it’s just such a great group of people.” Ulrich said. “It feels like a home.”
With the backups in and both teams milking the clock, the game was rapidly nearing its end. The band cheered as the Hoyas lined up in victory formation and took a knee. With the clock at all zeros and the handshake line done, with fans streaming out of the stands in front of them, the team walks over to face the stands for one last rendition of the fight song. While Ulrich conducts the band, a player conducts his teammates on the field. It is 2:30 p.m., a little over five hours after their call time in Studio A. While the band and the cheerleaders keep their respective “Hoya” and “Saxa” yells, the team gets in on both.