Engineering students find harmony
between music and math
At every home football game, the UW-Madison marching band is an essential part of the scene. With its energetic halftime shows, periodic song bursts throughout the game, and famous “5th Quarter” post-game performances, the marching band is the sound of Badger football.
You might think most of these students are music majors. In fact, engineers constitute nearly one-fifth of the 330-member band, and the skills they display on the field carry over to the engineering campus, just beyond the stadium.
There is at least one engineer in every instrument section. “The engineers I work with are always very bright, and they are often very athletic,” says Band Director Michael Leckrone. “These kids have a great work ethic, and they want what they do for recreation to be something meaningful.”
Additionally, Leckrone says there is a certain amount of math involved in the band. “Music is based on an overtone system. Sound is based on physics, which appeals to people with those interests,” he says.
He also writes music; like the logic in a math problem, the structure of music becomes a foundation for his creativity. “There’s a base to writing music. You have to have a key and know the notes, and the notes don’t lie,” says Hart. “If the note is wrong, it sounds wrong. It’s like when the number is wrong in an engineering problem—it’s just wrong.”
Leckrone also draws on mathematical building blocks to stimulate his musical creativity. “It’s been a long time since I took a math class, but I still use those concepts to divide music up,” he says. “Those who sight-read well often have math skills because they can automatically divide the music into measures. There’s an unconscious relationship.”
Though the connection between engineering and music is intuitive, balancing school and band responsibilities takes a conscious commitment. Practice runs four days a week, from 3:45 to 5:30 p.m.; on game days, students spend most of the day with the band.
For home games, band members practice for an hour or two, beginning at 7 a.m. An hour before kickoff, they reassemble and stay in uniform through the game, 5th Quarter, and the march back to “headquarters”—the Humanities Building. For away games, members spend the entire weekend with the band.
In total, band members spend approximately 16 hours practicing or performing during a typical week of the football season. (The commitment is slightly less during the basketball and hockey seasons because only a portion of the band plays at those games.)
The sheer volume of hours spent together would be reason enough for the band to develop a close community, but the intensity of the experience creates a group of students that truly understands what band is all about. “Band is a way to gain 300 instant friends,” Hart says. “You bond with them because only those 300 people know how hard it is. It’s something to share with those people.”
Band practices put everyone on the same level, says Endres, a mechanical engineering junior. “Some of our best practices are when it’s really muddy, and people are full of mud from head to toe. That’s usually when we’re all working together the best,” he says.
This shared experience is the basis of the band community, says Alstad, a mechanical engineering junior who grew up watching the marching band play at football games. “These people see you at your absolute worst, when you’re dirty and sweaty and disgusting and you’re breathing hard,” she says. “But when you look next to you, you see everyone going through the exact same thing. We’re able to be so close and be so supportive because you have to be supportive of each other.”
Outsiders may not fully comprehend why rigorous practices and a demanding schedule add up to a good time; however, what is apparent is that the skills students need to succeed in band are the same skills they need to succeed in engineering.
One of those skills is time management. “Being so busy with band and engineering helps you put everything in your life in perspective,” Alstad says. “You have your fun in band; you work hard in engineering. And you know what’s important.”
Endres sees the tight schedule positively. “I find the more free time I have, the more time I waste,” he says. “Band keeps me focused because the less time I have, the more I think, ‘Wow—I really should get this done now because if I waste this time, I’m in trouble.’”
Another vital skill is team problem-solving. “In engineering, you get a group of people together to figure out the best way to get the end product,” Endres says. “That’s like the entire band trying their hardest to accomplish the common goal, and if one person slacks off, it makes that end product look not as good as it could have.”
With teamwork also comes disagreement and compromise, says Alstad. “Band really is learning how to get through conflicts with people who have different views, different thoughts from your own,” she says.
When lines aren’t straight or someone isn’t playing correctly, band members must work through disagreements logically. “You have to say, ‘No, this isn’t going to work; here’s why and here’s how we’re going fix this,’” she says.
The final product of the band’s teamwork is the performance, and it takes leadership to consistently deliver a solid show. Hart is the only junior who is a band rank leader, meaning he has to make sure his group of 11 trumpets has the right songs, charts and details for upcoming shows. He also has a role in forming his rank’s community by organizing social dinners.
Leadership qualities don’t develop solely in the rank leaders. Alstad says the band has taught her to be a responsible representative of a larger group. “When you’re in the band, you’re not just yourself. You’re representing the band as a whole, and it’s so important to focus on image,” she says.
Anytime Alstad wears a band shirt, she says she is aware of her public behavior. This conscientiousness also is important for engineering. “When you’re working for a company, you know that you always have to be representing them. You’re not always just representing yourself, and you have to be aware of that,” she says.
The engineering students know their experience in band is unique. “Once you graduate from college, you’re never going to be in a marching band again,” Alstad says. “Every day when I’m at practice, I just take advantage of it. Even when it’s hard, I love it.”
And how does it feel on the field? “The sound of 80,000 people cheering for you never gets old,” says Endres.