It’s Friday night and freshman Craig Friedman sits deep inside enemy territory in Philadelphia’s Corestates Spectrum. The GW men’s basketball team is closing in on an Atlantic 10 semifinals victory over Temple. The crowd growls, loud and rowdy.
A fat, middle-aged, drunk man spots Friedman and yells, “Hey drummer, do you get laid a lot because you’re in the band?”
According to Friedman, a drummer in the GW pep band, raucous comments are just part of the fun of being in the band.
When the men’s basketball team takes to the parquet in next week’s NCAA Tournament, it can rest assured its loudest fans – those with trumpets, tubas, saxes and trombones – will be behind them, grooving to the likes of “Jungle Boogie,” “Iron Man” and “Sweet Child of Mine.”
“I love the energy of our band,” Professor Ben Fritz, conductor, said. “As far as playing goes, it would be hard to say that we’re the best band – look at the Big 10, for instance – but I know no one has ever out-cheered us,” Fritz said.
The pep band, officially named “Colonial Brass,” is comprised of about 50 students. Of these, only 30 play at the tournaments.
Colonial Brass has a classical music facet, and selects its players from the University’s wind ensemble and symphonic band.
The symphonic band meets twice a week as a class, and gives a performance each semester. Most members started playing in high school, and have about eight years of musical experience.
The pep band meets for at least three hours a week, and students are expected to put in two hours of individual practice during the week. Practices begin the second week of school, and the schedule runs through next week’s NCAA Tournament. The players put in 40 hours of work at last week’s A-10 Tournament, bussing between D.C. and Philadelphia each day.
The students receive a $1,000 dollar scholarship in exchange for work in the band, which breaks down to about $4 an hour.
The band has about 80-100 pieces in its tune book, and could theoretically play two games without repeating a song. That will never happen, though, band members are quick to point out – not a game goes by without the Fight Song.
Behind every great band is a great conductor. The man behind Colonial Brass is the bearded and jovial Fritz. Fritz has been kicking around college bands since his own undergraduate days at Michigan State University.
When he inherited GW’s band program in 1990, it boasted only a fraction of its present strength. Just 10 years ago, the entire band program was comprised of about 15 students. Since then it has swelled to include 140 students who are involved in the symphonic band, the wind ensemble and Colonial Brass.
“I’m very proud of the kids. They’re smart and hard working, and they’ve come a long way,” Fritz said. “We’re finally at the point where we can stand toe-to-toe with the Atlantic Coast Conference schools. It’s apparent when we go to the MCI Center and we’re playing across from Maryland.”
From 1991 to 1994, the band sat behind the basket on the Smith Center’s mezzanine level.
“Throughout our history, we’ve been able to distract the other team without using foul language,” Fritz boasted. “Statistically, we used to affect the other team’s free-throw shooting percentage when we were in the end zone.”
Fritz said the band gets a mixed message from fans.
“I don’t think they’re very discerning whether we play especially well or poorly,” he shrugged. “I don’t think they always realize good playing.”
But according to Fritz, the women’s basketball team is especially appreciative. The band and the team bonded and partied on the road at last year’s NCAA Tournament in Columbia, South Carolina, he recalled.
Colonial Brass is the first band in the A-10 to cover all the women’s home games with the full band. Often, Fritz said, the band and cheerleaders are among the only fans at women’s games.
Fritz said he believes his program is about 60 percent developed. Ten years from now, he expects a 90-member basketball band with a regular performance core of about 60 students.
Michelle Lennihan, a 1996 graduate and one-time band president, drew a parallel between the band’s development and improved school spirit and quality. The band program, she insisted, puts GW on par with “big schools.
“I think the basketball program – the band and cheerleading squad included – are a microcosm of the University as a whole,” Lennihan said. “The teams and the band keep getting better, and even though we graduate outstanding seniors each year, the program has been able to re-tool itself.”
During her days in the band, Lennihan traveled to both the men’s and the women’s NCAA Tournaments.
“We’ve gone to other people’s courts and taken over, giving the team home court advantage,” Lennihan said. “Sometimes when you’re walking around on GW’s campus, you don’t really have a sense of school spirit and camaraderie. When you’re at every basketball game playing your heart out in the band as an ambassador to the school, it’s completely different.”
Freshman trumpet player Dave Greenberg said he laughs with fans who don’t give the band proper respect.
“We work hard for the fans,” he pointed out, noting that he had been hit in the back of the head with a trombone slide on more than one occasion.
Marc Kaplan, a sophomore who plays the mellophone, said he couldn’t care less what people say about the band.
“Typically you say you’re in the band and you get a chuckle because it’s not the lacrosse team,” Kaplan said. “But at the same time, I don’t care. This is what we’re good at and we like it.”
“Picture a movie without the sound,” Greenberg interjected. He enjoys the rush of having a whole crowd listening to him play, he explained.
“It’s a sweet ride,” Greenberg said.
As in much of life, success in the band depends on pushing the right buttons.
“We know just what to play and yell to make those UMass players flip us off,” Fritz chuckled.