One last cymbal crash

“Pick up your heels! Turn your corners square! And drive, drive, drive!” This preperformance battle cry, screamed in proud unison by the entirety of the 200-plus member Cal Band in the north tunnel of Memorial Stadium, routinely marks the beginning of our pregame show. With that last scream of “drive,” everyone takes a deep breath, hopes for the best and begins stampeding out of the tunnel and onto the field. But before our last home game of this past season, this pregame yell no longer marked a beginning for me.

As I stood in the tunnel, looking around at my fellow seniors, I realized that this would be our last time screaming those words together. We would never feel this pregame excitement again, and we would never march again. Looking straight ahead with intense focus, I screamed as loud as I could and marched as hard as I could. By the end of the performance, I realized that I had been smiling — tears in my eyes — throughout the entire performance. Saying goodbye is not easy. Cal Band has been my home on campus, and the friendships I have made in this community have truly defined my Berkeley experience.

Last season, I served as executive secretary (ExecSec, as lovingly abbreviated by band members). Some of my duties included taking attendance at rehearsals, managing the band’s overall enrollment, overseeing academic advising resources and responding to medical emergencies. During the fall semester, I often worked more than 20 hours per week. This position did not, however, take away from my love of the band; rather, it strengthened my love.

The Cal Band, being one of the only entirely student-run marching bands in the nation, asks a lot of its members. Working upwards of 20 hours per week is not unique to my position. In fact, everything the Cal Band does — whether it be a straw hat band performance at an alumni event, a creative marching formation during a halftime show or a new take on your favorite rock song — is organized and created entirely by hard-working students. With a strong alumni network and a history of traditions that goes back all the way to 1891, we have long represented the spirit of California, and that spirit — despite our less-than-stellar football performance — is not fading.

I reluctantly joined the Cal Band, having zero marching band experience, at the beginning of my sophomore year. After a year of watching a lackluster football team from the student section, I decided to try something new. After all, it always seemed like the Cal Band was having the most fun of anyone in Memorial Stadium. There was just one problem: The only instrument I could play was the piano. Not exactly a band-friendly instrument! I was directed by my recruiter to the cymbal line in the percussion section. Having never touched a cymbal nor marched in my life, I worked hard but struggled throughout the audition process. After auditions, when I received notice that I would be granted a position in the band, I was in shock. I made it a priority to practice feverishly all season, and the next year I was section leader for the cymbal line. Learning cymbals so quickly was one of the hardest things I had ever done. (Cymbals are tougher than they look!)

I have experienced so much thanks to the Cal Band. I have traveled across the country with my friends and family — my younger sister is a freshman on the Cal Dance Team — supporting our Golden Bears, I have enjoyed drinks with the Ohio State University Marching Band drumline, and I have been on ESPN more times than should be allowed. (My mom still texts me every time she sees me on TV.) I have also learned a great deal thanks to the Cal Band. Namely, I have learned that there is strength in numbers. Being a member of such a close-knit community on campus has been a huge asset these past three years. At a university with such a large student body, it can be easy to feel lost among a sea of busy and stressed students. The Cal Band, however, acts as a giant support system that always has your back.

During rehearsals, the stresses of college disappear. Everyone comes together and works together for one purpose: to put on the best show possible and to represent this great university. Every rehearsal is a reminder of the teamwork and cooperative spirit that define our student body, and every rehearsal is a reminder of what a privilege it is to attend UC Berkeley. With graduation right around the corner, I plan to carry that Cal Band spirit with me — cymbals included — into the next chapter of my life.

Kevin Russell was the executive secretary of the Cal Band for the 2013 season. He is graduating with bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and German.