A Really Big Band: Blugold Marching Band is the biggest in the Midwest at 400 strong

Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth

400 ON THE FIELD. The Blugold Marching Band debuted its largest roster yet during the Sept. 8 UW-Eau Claire football game against St. Norbert College. It’s the largest marching band in the Midwest – there are no alternates.
400 ON THE FIELD. The Blugold Marching Band debuted its largest roster yet during the Sept. 8 UW-Eau Claire football game against St. Norbert College. It’s the largest marching band in the Midwest – there are no alternates.

In 2017, Randy Dickerson, director of the Blugold Marching Band, said 350 members was enough. That was more than he had dreamed of recruiting when he began directing in the fall of 2000, when the band was only 60 members.The marchers were running out of room on the field with 350 members. Management was a herculean task and the group was operating on a shoestring budget. So when people asked him whether he would take on more recruits, Dickerson gave them a firm “no.”

"We’re out there in other places promoting this community and this university. A lot of people really don’t know this university until they see us out." – Randy Dickerson, Blugold Marching Band director

But when record numbers of applicants and returning musicians applied to march with the Blugolds for the 2018-19 school year, that “no” turned into a “yes,” and he accepted 50 new members. On Saturday, Sept. 8, 400 Blugolds took the field at halftime of UW-Eau Claire’s football game against St. Norbert College. They stretched nearly from end zone to end zone, front to back, and let loose for their first performance of the season.

The Blugold Marching Band is now officially the largest marching band in the Midwest, even when compared to Big Ten schools such as the University of Minnesota and the University of Maryland. Dickerson notes that while a few might come close in total, other universities include alternates, who aren’t part of the performance, in their total count. The Blugolds, on the other hand, don’t have any alternates.

“We’re walking the tightrope without a net,” Dickerson said. “But that’s OK, because we don’t have no-shows.” By that he means that for the last six years, no members have failed to show up to the week-long prep camp at the beginning of the school year to learn the season’s program.

Following the Sept. 8 performance, UWEC Chancellor James Schmidt complimented the Blugold Marching Band as the 12th man on the field, Dickerson shared. The band, which sits behind the visiting team, cheered and roared loud enough to drown out instructions and cause false starts, helping the home team through two overtime periods to the win.

But Dickerson is writing drills for the bigger picture. The band travels and performs across the nation and around the world, entertaining thousands and representing UWEC with enthusiastic excellence.

“We’re out there in other places promoting this community and this university,” he said. “A lot of people really don’t know this university until they see us.”

The people who do see the Blugolds march are in large part high school band members. The Blugolds perform at conferences such as Bands of America in St. Louis and Youth in Music, a Minneapolis competition. Dickerson chooses the music for each year’s program with the help of roughly 30 students, with the goal of engaging those young audiences and drawing them to UWEC. This year’s program is a medley of Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, and One Direction.

More than 200 incoming freshmen applied to march with the Blugolds this year – students from as far as Iowa and Florida, many of whom chose Eau Claire for the band.

That was the case for uniform manager and drum major Matt Hicks, and for trombone rank lieutenant Mary Mason. Both saw the Blugolds perform for the first time during tours at their high schools.

“I saw them my freshman year of high school, performing Michael Jackson and Beyonce, and I said ‘I’m going to go to that school,’ ” Mason said. “ ‘That’s going to be me.’ And four years later it was.” Mason, who attended high school in Illinois, was thrilled when she watched a Blugold drum major jump to the front of the show and begin dancing to Michael Jackson hits. Three people from her school joined up upon graduation. “My whole high school still talks about those two shows,” she said.

“BMB is the reason why I came to UWEC,” Hicks said. A Chippewa Falls graduate, he had been looking at bigger schools, but after seeing the Blugolds, he decided UWEC was his top – and only – choice.

The marching band provided both with a welcoming community upon coming to UW-Eau Claire. Incoming freshmen are thrown into the fray during the 12-hour practice sessions at camp and assigned to more experienced band members to learn the ropes. By the time the academic year begins, students have become acquainted with campus and made lifelong friends.

Hicks, who is engaged to be married, met three of his groomsmen in the band. Some Blugolds even find life partners on the march; Dickerson is scheduled to perform his first wedding ceremony this month for two former members who met during their time in the band.

When he decided to take on 400 students this year, Dickerson did the arithmetic. When the Blugolds travel, he can fit 392 people on seven charter busses, take another small group in his personal vehicle, and plan to leave a few behind due to illness. He totals it at 400 – even if he could fit more on the field, he can’t fit more on the tour.

If the applications keep coming in, he will have to be more selective. But If he can’t grow the band, he plans to grow the university by continuing to wow the Midwest with big sound from his big band.

Learn more about the band and view its performance calendar at blugoldmarchingband.com.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.