Winders: Let’s change our tune about the Marching Band

Paul Mayne // Western News

After spending most of his journalism career in The States, most recently as executive editor of the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald, Winders joined Western’s Masters in Environment and Sustainability program in 2009, and then the Western News as its editor in 2010.

I wasn’t talented enough to be a ‘band geek’ – but I am not tone deaf to the historic and continued importance of the Western Mustang Band to this university.

Members of the Western Mustang Band, the oldest marching-style group in Canada, go to competitions, tour and travel – a lot. They perform at athletic events (from Mustangs football games to the Grey Cup), charity events, parades and campus events. They’ve been featured in music videos, and even performed at the Much Music Video Awards.

But despite that resume, the group hasn’t always been appreciated.

For years, the marching band had been, out of necessity, a self-sustaining body. It is a club. The band has no formal rehearsal space and, instead, practices in the foyer of Alumni Hall. Members cover their own equipment and uniform costs, travel costs and gym space. The band performs pro bono at athletic events, too.

The pressure mounted a few years ago when the University Students’ Council (USC) stopped having accredited groups, thus denying the band even a small consistent revenue beyond their own membership fees.

Certainly, they haven’t been totally ignored.

Earlier this year, the Alumni Association’s Legacy Committee recommended, and the Alumni Association Board approved, a $26,000 donation to help purchase new uniforms, instrument cases and replacement plumes on headgear. In addition, the student body approved a USC referendum calling for the band to receive 50 cents of student fees for every undergraduate student.

Of course, that latter funding came with a catch. As the student Gazette pointed out this week, the band has previously received $12,000-$13,000 annually from the USC grant pool to sustain operations. With the new student fee funding, the band no longer applies for such grants. Sure, they have a couple thousand dollars more to work with, and a lot more year-to-year stability in that funding, but band members still struggle financially.

And that is too bad for such an important body on this campus.

The Marching Band traces its history back to 1927, when Bruce Wiley, Meds’28, the first bandmaster, led a group of performers out at football games. In 1928, ‘UWO Band’ first appeared on the group’s breast pocket. In 1929, they performed at the J.W. Little Memorial Stadium opening. And in 1937, the Mustang Band debuted in purple and white with Don Wright as bandmaster.

Consider yourself challenged to find a more under-appreciated group on campus proudly carrying the Western flag. I guarantee for every unoriginal ‘one time at band camp’ joke they have heard, these kids have given five hours of their personal time and $10 out of their pocket to promote this university. If anyone can be ‘purple and proud,’ as the slogan goes, it has been these folks for nearly a century.

With Jana Luker shaping the newly created role of Associate Vice-President (Student Experience), perhaps we can now look at bringing the band under the official umbrella of the university. I would love to see this group brought under Mustang Athletics – they are fundamentally as important, or even, dare I say, more important, to this university’s athletic and spirit tradition than many sports. I know they don’t generate revenue – but most sports don’t either.

We make commitments of time, staff and money to sport because we believe in its value to creating well-rounded individuals and feed, as an institution, off the pride and spirit these student-athletes generate. I argue the Western Mustang Band is no different.

Being Western, I suspect we have a historic list of reasons why this won’t work. But, in era of ‘student experience’ mantras on this campus, the students with the most experience in that area are due some assistance.