It’s about an hour before basketball tip-off, and Duke Pep Band musicians are clutching instruments, climbing and descending musical scales, and getting warmed up in the Cameron Indoor Stadium stands.Courtside, a drum major writes upcoming songs on a whiteboard: “Everytime We Touch” by Cascada, “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift and Duke’s “Blue and White” fight song. Another climbs the platform and starts a song with a rigid swoop of her arms. A third drum major wears a headset, keeping in contact with cheerleaders and sports media announcers to figure out song timing.Meanwhile, Jeff Au, director of the Duke marching and pep bands, watches as players for the Clemson and Duke men’s basketball teams filter onto Coach K court for warm-ups. Au turns his attention back to his musicians and picks up a trumpet to play alongside them.
“It makes you feel like you’re part of something much bigger than you are,” Au said. “It’s such a rare opportunity for people to be in Cameron, let alone courtside, and part of the show.”For the Duke Pep Band, basketball season means playing at nearly 20 home games, from the Oct. 25 “Countdown to Craziness” intra-squad scrimmage to the March 4 matchup against Wake Forest, and keeping a fresh repertoire of about 40 songs.The Duke Pep Band first made its debut in striped jackets and straw hats during Duke’s 1963 Final Four season, according to The Encyclopedia of Duke Basketball. The basketball coach at the time, Vic Bubas, charged marching band director Jim Henry with creating a group that would add energy to home basketball games. Media called them the “Straw Hat Pep Band.”Today, about 70 members of the Duke University Marching Band are chosen to play in the Pep Band for each home basketball game; those who perform at ACC and NCAA tournaments are picked based on seniority, attendance, instrumentation and band service.During songs that need more brass, band director Au will pick up a trumpet and situate himself in the middle of the band pack. He is only one of two Duke employees who play in the band; Steve Nowicki, Duke’s dean of undergraduate education, joined the band in 2004 and plays trombone and sousaphone.“It’s a privilege to be in the band, but it’s a really different, great, unusual way to get to know students,” Nowicki said. “It has influenced me, who I am, to the extent that I want to be a good administrator.”Some students in the band such as senior and drum major Stephanie Egeler keep musicians focused and the song lineup intact. But during a game, she’ll also jump and cheer with band mates. “It’s electric,” Egeler said. “The best thing about Cameron is you feel like you’re a part of the team and you feel as though you’re a part of the action. Being a member of the band has defined me as a person, so within that, it’s defined me as a Duke student.”