Arts & Entertainment, Behind the Bench, Martlets, Men's Varsity, Music, Sports

Playing out of pride: The story of the McGill Fight Band

On a late night in 2006, Ted Smith and a few of his friends went out for drinks. The night led them to Bar des Pins, where they entered as buddies and emerged as a band—more specifically, the Fight Band—McGill Athletics’ leading pep squad.

The Fight Band is a staple at McGill sporting events, using crowd-pleasing songs, and organized rowdiness to pump up the crowd and get inside the heads of its opponents. Fast approaching its 10th anniversary, the band exists as a perfect balance of rabid sports fanaticism, and musical talent.

“I think a lot of people when they come to Fight Band, expect it to be a concert band like the one they were a part of in high school,” James “Hutch” Harris, trombonist and former brigade leader said. “They actually see what we’re about, and what we’re actually allowed to get away with at games, like the cheers we have and the rowdiness we bring.”

As brigade leader,  rowdiness was central to Harris’ role. Though the brigade leader isn’t the leader of the troop—that role would fall to President Cameron MacPherson, saxophonist—Harris is, in essence, the face of the institution. The Fight Band controls the chants, pumps up the crowd, and pays attention to the game play too, making sure not only to loudly support their team, but to also to get in the heads of the opposing team.

“Being a brigade leader, you definitely learn how to get under a player’s skin, without using any vulgar language,” Harris explained. “Although the gratitude from the home team is always the best part [of being on the Fight Band…] when the visiting team reacts—if I can just get under their skin a little bit—that’s a great feeling.”

Only rarely does the band perform at away games, generally staying in the safety of their own court or field, where they can easily transport their instruments. That’s something that the athletes likely appreciate, the lack of fans at McGill games in comparison to other universities. 

“I think when there’s no one in the stands we play even more for the athletes because we can be heard more and we are their only crowd a lot of the time,” MacPherson said, “I feel like that’s my main motivation for going to games, to make sure [the athletes] feel supported.”

That support doesn’t stop at the court. The band heavily emphasizes the social side of the group, and the friendship that holds it together.

“I came to the [McGill School of Continuing Studies] to take language courses,” explained Stefan Kammerlander, a tenor saxophonist from Germany. “I really didn’t speak English at all, but everyone was so nice to me, they helped me translate stuff. I think it’s a really really nice group [….] Most people stick around for the people here.”

 The family aspect of the group isn’t a new thing either. In a 2010 interview with the McGill Tribune, Taylor Stocks, who then served as the band’s premier, also emphasized the tight-knit community that is Fight Band.

“We’re a nice family,” she said. “They’re a group of people you can always count on for stuff, the right combination of nerd and love.”

The “nerd” aspect of the family also comes up a lot, given the background of most of the players. Think high school band geeks plus some accomplished musicians who didn’t want to go into the Faculty of Music, but still really wanted to perform.

“I was in serious concert bands, and I didn’t think I was good enough for the serious McGill stuff,” cornetist James Beecroft explained. “I saw this, and I thought ‘perfect I can keep it up,’ […] you play twice a week and you’re fine.”

The band is made up of students from multiple faculties, and while there are currently only undergraduates on the band, graduate students and professors are all welcome to join.

“As a call to Education students who want to conduct, we essentially act like a high school band,” French horn player Kaitlin Sundew Winter said. “I think [conducting us would be] good practice for them.”

While having some music experience is helpful for members to get started, there are no auditions to join Fight Band, and anyone is welcome.

“We play music of all levels, we only ask [that you] can play the instrument, not that you have mastered it,” Harris said.

“We’ll give you a cowbell if nothing else,” MacPherson added. “One of the founders didn’t play an instrument.”

The band’s original founder, Smith, is still spoken about with reverence and adoration. Smith, the “illustrious founder,” was an avid sports fan, who joined with a friend who played in his high school marching band.

“Ted was just really into supporting sports teams,” LeeAnn Ramsay, piccolo player, said. “I think they were just trying to recreate some of that excitement that you get in a football game in the United States.”

Inspired constantly by Smith, and driven by an urge to be a loud and proud support system within the McGill community, the band has begun moving beyond the scope of varsity performances. They’ve played for Management Undergraduate Society events, were featured at Open-Air Pub this past fall, have made appearances at Bar des Arts, Blues Pub, and Gert’s, and were featured on the Rick Mercer Report on CBC. This year, they’re working to get the McGill community more interested in coming to games through their new Song Contest, where students can suggest a song for the band to perform.

“The Song Contest is our way of trying to connect more with McGill’s sports fans and the athletes,” MacPherson explained. “We’re always trying to come up with new ways to support the teams, and if playing their requests in the stands helps us win, then we’re doing our job.”

At the end of the day, it all comes down to enjoying the music, and supporting the athletes.

“I think we’re always trying to improve our musical abilities, so it’s not strictly about the sports,” MacPherson said. “But, it’s not strictly about the music either, we’re really out there to support the athletes. That’s the fun part.”

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