A UC Irvine band member performs before the second half...

A UC Irvine band member performs before the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament between Kansas State and UC Irvine on March 22, 2019, in San Jose, California. Credit: AP/Chris Carlson


Playing in March Madness is a great honor and large responsibility. As Iona’s Matt Bissonnette explained at the first-round game Friday night, “This is the biggest stage in basketball. We’ve got to play the best we can play. We’ve got to bring it.”

Sure there’s pressure. That’s because every little mistake is magnified, said Bissonnette, who plays the clarinet.

Yes, we are talking pep bands, which are as essential to the NCAA Tournament as the basketballs (and are far more popular than the referees). What would a Big Dance be without music?

You could say bands provide the soundtrack for the tournament, but that would not capture the flavor. Better we should call them the heartbeat of March Madness, enlivening the whole experience and making it thoroughly more pleasurable than the over-pumped, over-amped, canned noise at professional sporting events. A pro game now is an assault on the senses. A college game is a visit home, with an occasional sense of humor.

“Absolutely. We add that environment that you can’t necessarily duplicate at an NFL game or an NBA game,” said Mike Stewart, in his 12th year as band director at Tennessee after holding a similar position at Ohio State. “We add that live music, that energy. When you have a large fan base like Tennessee has, that means a lot to people.”

Getting a band to a regional is the musical equivalent of breaking an intense full-court press. Right after Selection Sunday, every school has to pick which band members will make the trip — the NCAA allots precisely 29 seats to each band, ensuring that the big schools don’t blow away the Cinderellas.

“There are a lot of instruments that we have to take care of. Especially with the drum set and bass, there are a lot of moving parts,” said JT Womack, a doctoral student in music conducting at Iowa who is in his first year as the university’s pep band leader. “You have to do a lot of planning ahead of time and make sure everybody is there early. That’s the key.”

Suffice it to say a tuba will not fit in the overhead compartment. A truck or bus carries the equipment, sometimes all the way to a tarmac, then another vehicle meets the plane and brings it all to the arena.

During games, the protocol is tightly choreographed by tournament officials. Someone with a headset is with each team’s band, telling the group when it is its turn to play and how many seconds it has to finish the number.

Playlists are pretty standard. There is a lot of “Sweet Caroline,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Hey Baby.” But the nuances are great. During the First Four game against St. John’s on Wednesday, Arizona State’s band (in conjunction with the dance team) played a jazzy “Boogie Shoes.”

Most important is each band’s signature. It adds a homey touch to the big stage. When Stony Brook finally reached March Madness in 2016, playing big, bad Kentucky in Des Moines, it was cool to hear the same fight song that bounced off the walls of tiny Pritchard Gymnasium. Iowa’s go-to tune is “Back in Black,” Womack said. Stewart said that at Tennessee, “When in doubt, play ‘Rocky Top.’ ”

Band members can be outstanding rooters, too, yelling as loudly as anyone. For good or bad, depending on your view of sportsmanship, they have a sharp needle. When Cincinnati’s Justin Jenifer shot a jumper that missed everything, Iowa’s band taunted him with a chorus of “air ball!” Then, after an offensive rebound, he got the ball back and swished a three-pointer. He immediately turned to the band, hands outstretched, and flashed a derisive smile that said, “What do you have to say now?”

Hey, sometimes you’ve got to take as well as you give.

Anyway, bands do their best talking through their instruments. The NCAA Tournament is their Carnegie Hall. “It’s amazing to get down this close to the court. No one ever gets this close during an NBA game or something like that,” said Abigail Rapillo, a four-year starter at flute for Iona. “We’re right here, we get to be part of the action. It’s even better that we know the players. We’ve been watching them all season in person. There’s not really another experience like it.”

That’s March Madness, where the musicians, like the guards and forwards and big men, play their hearts out.

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