As the lights dim in the Kohl Center, an excited crowd rushes to their seats, anxiously awaiting the show to come. Within moments they are on their feet, cheering as the Badgers take the court to fireworks, confetti and a booming bassline.
While this sounds like an ordinary night for the basketball or hockey teams, this spectacle is a performance of a different sort — one the Kohl Center hasn’t seen in over two years.
This is the spring Varsity Band concert, which for many University of Wisconsin students and alumni represents so much of what makes UW special. From its uniquely exciting energy to its over-the-top school spirit and showmanship, the Varsity Concert is the UW Marching Band in a nutshell.
After nearly two years off, the UW Marching Band’s famous end-of-year show will return to the Kohl Center once again this April as the organization looks to write a new chapter in its long and storied history.
The iconic performance will be the first for Director Corey Pompey, who took over the band in 2019. Pompey succeeded legendary former director Michael Leckrone, who left the post after half a century at its helm. Leckrone’s final class of freshmen, now in their senior year, will also be leaving the organization following this concert — marking a significant period of transition for the band.
Though Pompey expects future changes to be subtle, the band has many transitions on the horizon with pending alterations to their budget, concert performances and an ever-evolving musical repertoire. With the first big concert of Pompey’s UW career approaching, the band looks to continue to make the music fans know and love as a new era of the UW Marching Band begins.
“Thanks, Mike!”: The Leckrone Years
While other college marching bands rely heavily on traditional aspects of the marching performance such as the roll step and military-style uniforms, Wisconsin has built its band program from an entirely different set of ideas.
From their energetic high step to the controlled chaos of their Fifth Quarter performances, the UW band has made it a point to show audiences they are anything but another status quo marching band. Combined with the band’s infectious energy and spirited instrument playing, the Wisconsin band is far and away one of the most unique and storied collegiate ensembles in the country.
Many of the core aspects that set the UW band apart can be contributed to one man — Michael Leckrone.
From the moment he arrived on campus as director in 1969, Leckrone set into motion a number of changes that would remain sacred time-honored traditions throughout his 50-year tenure with the band.
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The first of these was a new approach to the band’s marching step. While most Big Ten bands use a specific variation of the high step, known as the “chair step,” in which the knee is raised to a 45 or 90-degree angle, Leckrone thought an added burst of speed and a sharp snap in the motion would convey an exciting energy to the audience.
Though much more physically demanding on the marcher, Leckrone remained adamant that his new step would wow crowds. With this, the “stop at the top” marching step was born — a move that has since become the band’s signature step and a fan favorite.
Leckrone also oversaw a number of other changes to the organization, such as the addition of the Fifth Quarter in response to a struggling football team, the creation of the athletic performance Varsity Band and the introduction of Reg Week, the band’s physically grueling week-long audition process.
Arguably his greatest legacy at Wisconsin was the Varsity Band Spring Concert, a tradition as unique to Wisconsin as the band itself.
Since its beginning, the Varsity Band concert was held continuously for 45 straight years, a streak that had only broken recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The final concert is a reward Leckrone believes students in the band are owed for their hard work throughout the year.
“I so admire the people who have been in the band these last couple of years because it had to be very very difficult,” Leckrone said. “For those two years that the students got kind of cheated out of the band experience, I have nothing but the greatest empathy for all those people … I’m not sure I could have done it, I’d have been too impatient I think.”
The concert began in 1975 as a purely social event for band members to close out their season but quickly grew in popularity as word of the event spread. This popularity forced the band to relocate the concert first to the Fieldhouse and then to the Kohl Center to accommodate their growing fan base according to the Band’s 100th anniversary yearbook.
The performance has historically been so well received that it typically sells out its 9,500 ticket capacity within minutes of sales going live — a testament to the years of pageantry and tradition that Wisconsin fans have come to expect.
“You played the last game and it was sort of anti-climactic, no kind of special event,” Leckrone said. “The whole idea of the concert then got started because some of the students thought that we ought to have some celebration at the end of the year.”
Due to its popularity, the concert quickly became a Wisconsin staple and grew to become arguably one of the most exciting events on campus during the football offseason.
This effect is not lost on former Assistant Director Darin Olson, who said the concert is a major factor in defining the unique identity of Wisconsin’s band program.
“It’s a real special event because not many programs actually have something like that in the spring,” Olson said. “There are several programs that have an indoor marching band concert, but definitely the size and scale of [the spring concert] is rather unique. The idea of having a concert that focuses on the students in the band program, not associated with an athletic event, is a real special thing. It has an identity of its own.”
While important to fans, members of the band share their own connection to the spring concert.
“I think [the concert] has grown to be something very important as far as the relationship with the students,” Leckrone said. “Each time I’ve seen the concert in the past I know there have been tears from people who are seniors who are leaving. It’s a very emotional time and, I think, a very meaningful time for what it had meant for the whole year.”
Perhaps the most noticeable change to this year’s concert will be Leckrone’s absence. Over his 50-year career with the band, Leckrone’s presence was one that imbued the concert with the characteristic over-the-top energy that audiences have come to expect over the years. From his flashy outfits to his signature aerial antics in which he would take to the stage in a different “flying” vehicle each show, Leckrone was showmanship personified.
But there will be no flying this year. Pompey has maintained that he will not fly in from the rafters as Leckrone had in years past, and the stage will be located in a new section of the Kohl Center. Despite these tweaks to a show full of tradition, Pompey said the alterations keep the same spirit of the performance in mind.
“[My hope is] that the identity of the band is the identity of the band, regardless of who’s in charge of it, whether that’s Mike or that’s me,” Pompey said.
Fanfare and Funk: Enter Pompey
When Leckrone announced his retirement, a nationwide search began seeking a new director to fill his shoes. While many applicants applied for the position, one clear choice rose above the competition as Corey Pompey was named the band’s new director.
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Pompey came to Wisconsin after directing bands at the University of Nevada Reno and serving as assistant director at Penn State University. During his undergrad at the University of Alabama, Pompey marched in the Million Dollar Marching Band as a saxophone and served as a drum major for two years.
Though he had been a part of many different collegiate bands, Pompey’s experience was with much more traditional ensembles compared to Wisconsin. For many, the first questions they had for Pompey when he arrived in Wisconsin were about the future of the marching band and the changes the organization would undergo.
Pompey’s answers to these questions remain the same as they have from day one — his intention is to preserve the rich history and tradition of the band while adding some of his own stylistic flair in the process.
“Any changes that occur, I hope will be organic and will add to what we do, not take away from what we do,” Pompey said.
Though his hope was for alterations to the ensemble to be minimal, Pompey acknowledged that some change was inevitable during the transition in leadership over the past three years due to musical and leadership differences he shared with Leckrone.
“If we took the UW band and just played Varsity and had six different people conduct Varsity, a tune that we all know and love, it’s going to sound six different ways,” Pompey said. “It’s still going to be Varsity, it’s still going to be played well, but there are going to be these unique aspects of each and every one because the individuals are different.”
Another change for the band came in the form of their musical repertoire, which has evolved significantly under Pompey to include contemporary pieces such as The Friends Theme, Wagon Wheel and Havana Like That. The reason for this change, according to Pompey, is an inherent difference in tastes between directors.
Looking ahead, Pompey highlighted a number of major improvements, such as repairs and upgrades to the band’s lakeshore astroturf practice field, watchtower and uniforms. These replacements, he said, will require a significant amount of funds to execute.
While the Wisconsin Band currently has enough funding at its disposal to comfortably continue its operations well into the future, one change that could be in store for the organization is examining new ways to finance other upcoming endeavors to become competitive with budgets boasted by other Big Ten bands, Pompey said.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we believe we have the same level of resources as the University of Michigan, as Ohio State University,” Pompey said. “We are talking about some band programs that leave us in the dust in terms of the resources that are available to them.”
One organization Pompey hopes to more resemble in the future is the University of Texas Longhorn Band. As members of this organization, each student is guaranteed a $1,000 scholarship while leaders in the organization can earn even more. His hope for the future is a similar scholarship program at Wisconsin.
“There are institutions, marching programs, that have robust scholarship programs to the point where most students can have some assistance,” Pompey said. “That’s something that I think our students deserve and should have. That’s something that I’d like to see.”
Given the contributions the band makes on campus, Pompey sees these expectations as reasonable.
“We are making a great contribution to the university, the culture of the university and the community. Given all that, I don’t think these dreams are unreasonable.”
“We never say goodbye…”: The Band Returns
Being sidelined for the past two years was hard on members of the band on all levels.
In 2021, members missed out on a full season of athletic performances. The band did not perform at any home football games, the first occasion since their one-game suspension in 2008. They also missed the opportunity to travel with the football team to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, the only instance of the entire ensemble missing a bowl performance in its history.
“The band is a big part of football games, it was really tough having [to rehearse] without performances,” said junior trombone player Ballard Huey.
In both 2020 and 2021, the band did not perform its spring concert over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robbed of the grand sendoff they deserved due to the consecutively-canceled spring concerts, two classes of seniors missed out on one of the band’s greatest rites of passage, and underclassmen went without the chance to wish graduates farewell.
Pompey said he is thankful to have the chance to finally perform the spring concert in his third year with the ensemble.
“I’m grateful that the students in the band are going to get the chance to have this experience,” Pompey said. “That’s the most important thing to me. This concert has been around a long time and it would be a travesty for students to not get to experience it.”
For members of the band who witnessed their seniors pass through the program during the off-seasons brought on by COVID-19, the effect was heart-wrenching. Though they will be honored during the 2022 concert, nothing can replace the experience of performing for a sold-out Kohl Center.
“I just had an immense amount of sorrow when we found out the spring concert wasn’t going to happen,” senior trombone player Sydney Sherry said. “There were so many people who didn’t get to have that classic senior experience of having a concert in the Kohl Center that just focused on the band and on them. That was just extremely sad.”
Seniors from the class of 2022, who will be graduating after this season, said the opportunity to go out on a high note with the spring concert again is something they won’t take for granted.
“I’m glad I get to be a part of the new band under Corey’s direction,” senior trombonist Jake Ramos said. “I get to see what it’s going to be like moving forward and just being able to compare the two is what I’m pretty grateful for.”
The time off also had an effect on audiences, too. As Pompey explained, the pandemic continues to pose a threat to audience members who may remain hesitant to attend such a sizable gathering.
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“We haven’t done [the concert] in two years,” Pompey said. “We had COVID, we’ve been getting through COVID. Is the audience going to come back? I certainly hope that they would, but I also don’t want to be presumptuous either. That’s a little bit of a concern as well.”
In the COVID-19 era, the band graduated two whole classes of spring concert veterans, leaving only this year’s seniors who have memories of performing for Leckrone’s last ever concert during their first year in the organization. Due to this experience gap, three whole classes of band members will be performing the show for the first time as opposed to a typical year where only the freshman class needed to learn the performance.
While a lack of knowledge is a substantial factor in the altered presentation of this year’s performance, Olson said the band retains an identity of its own no matter who the members on stage are or what their level of experience with the show is.
“That’s marching band anyways, right? It’s new individuals that go into [the group], students [graduate] and staffing changes and things like that happen, but it’s still the band,” Olson said.
Sarah Marty, stage manager and production manager for the spring concert, said no matter the obstacles in their way, the moment that the band returns to the stage will be a special one.
“[T]here’s this electricity that comes through the audience in that shared music-making,” Marty said. “I think that this year, the first year being back after so many years gone, that’s going to have an extra layer of meaning and emotion for everybody in the band and in the audience.”
“There will be tears, I’m sure,” Marty added.
Editor’s note: Jackson Walker is a junior trombone player in the UW Marching Band.