Wisconsin Public Television announces:
I wonder if I will make an appearance, given my previous appearances.
Tag: UW Band
One day after the birthday of retired UW Marching/Varsity Band director Mike Leckrone, we have some literary news via Facebook, which is, yes, part of “the damn Internet”:
Mike signs this week with University of Wisconsin Press. Look for his autobiography in September 2021. We might even have a special edition for bandos!
(Recruiting poster from 1970, his second year at the UW.)
With Mike Leckrone’s final UW Band concert(s) on Wisconsin Public Television Saturday at 7 p.m., we combine a UW–Madison College of Letters and Science interview and Madison.com photos plus several YouTube videos and occasionally snarky commentary by myself:
My approach to teaching has always been that is it has to be fun. But at the same time, I have a reputation for being demanding, because I try to get students to constantly elevate their own standards. My approach has always been, “You’ll have a lot more fun if you get really good at what you’re doing.”
Music is one of those disciplines where you only get better if you do the repetitions. Anybody who has played an instrument knows that it’s the practice and the repetition that get the fingers working the way that they need to work. But we live in an era now where it looks so easy, and people forget the groundwork that has to be laid. We lose sight of that sometimes when we look at the finished product.
I had an arranging professor many, many years ago who said you have to get the paper dirty. And what he meant was, if you’re writing an arrangement, the first thing you do is put something down on paper. And then analyze.
We interrupt this photo essay to bring you …
If you study things like the notebooks of Beethoven, you see how many versions he had of the Fifth Symphony or the Ninth Symphony that never came to light. And I’ve been listening to some Elvis radio, for the outtakes, the things he didn’t use and how many he would do until he got that feeling that was right. I think with any artist you’d find those trials and errors.
Sorry to interrupt again, but …
One of the things that I talk about constantly with students is that your worst enemy is complacency. I get my own motivation partly from trying to motivate students. When I see that they will respond to the demands that are made on them, that more or less increases what I want to demand from them. So it becomes a circle.
I talk a lot about the moments that you pull upon when other moments don’t go well. I like to call them moments of happiness. To be successful, you can’t dwell on the non-successes, on the frustrations and the bad things that are inevitably going to happen. I think if you can learn to set aside the bad and dwell on the good things, you’re going to succeed. That may sound a little Pollyanna-ish, but I firmly believe it and that’s basically the way I approach everything.
It’s hard for me to process what’s next because I’ve been so active my entire life. I don’t want to sit and just meditate. I’m not planning an around-the-world trip. I’m not planning to go to Florida and play golf. But I like all kinds of music and I do miss the opportunity to just listen. I will probably do a lot more of that when I have the time.
You have read here about Leckrone’s phrase, “moments of happiness.” In November he told the Wisconsin State Journal, “I realize what I do is not the most important thing in the world. I haven’t contributed to any great discoveries. I’ve brought a few smiles to people’s faces.”
Is that not one of those “moments of happiness” for someone else, though? Imagine (if you weren’t there) the ecstasy of the Fifth Quarter in Pasadena in 1994, or the basketball regional final win over Arizona to go to the Final Four in 2014, or beating undefeated Kentucky in the 2015 Final Four, or any one of the six hockey national championships. (I was in Detroit in 1990.) And if you were in the band, you contributed to someone else’s moments of happiness too.
If you look toward the lower right of the screen you will see more evidence that I did actually play:
Another band alum posted about the first time he met Mike Leckrone. Since my parents are football season-ticket-holders of long standing, and I generally got to go to one game a year, I saw the band starting in the early 1970s, and went to two concerts in the late 1970s. (A Madison TV station had a preview of the concert that night including video of practice with Leckrone not too happy with the band. That’s what we call foreshadowing.) The first time I saw him close enough to be recognizable was at a high school marching band practice, in which Leckrone exhorted us to march with a sense of confidence and pride and we’re-the-best-there-is. I didn’t get that until three years later when I made the band.
(About which: I survived 1983 Registration Week practices, thinking I was going to die 15 minutes into the first practice. The following Monday the list of those who made it and those who didn’t was posted. I went over, looked at the you’re-in list, and then found the trumpets, and there I was. I stared at it for a few minutes not believing my eyes. Then I called my parents and, after a pause for dramatic tension, told them that now they had a reason to go to the games.)
The funniest thing about Wednesday’s practice — other than Leckrone’s telling his band they weren’t going to practice more than twice so we wouldn’t get tired out — was that he indicated his displeasure with his band using the exact words he could have used on us 35 years ago, beginning with the band director chestnut, “Why are you talking?” after they stopped playing. (That might be a reality of even military bands.) That was followed by a criticism for lack of spacing while playing and a general observation that “you play like you practice.”
The UW Band Alumni Association Facebook page has a huge list of people’s favorite shows or music (in my case, the James Bond Medley from freshman year, Too Old for MTV sophomore year, West Side Story and the international On Wisconsin show from junior year, and Jesus Christ Superstar from first senior year), and people writing about the impact Leckrone and the band had on their lives.
All of the lasts of Leckrone’s final season …
The four days with the band were better than I thought possible. There were two marchers from Leckrone’s first band, in 1969. The most numerous marchers seemed to be from the group that started in 1979, which got not just bowl games …
… but NCAA hockey championships to go to and play.
There were a lot of tears Saturday night. I wasn’t one of them because I’m not built like that. (Recall the Dr. Seuss phrase, “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”) Perhaps it’s because, like my last year in the band, all my lasts didn’t hit me as lasts until the following August when I wasn’t about to start Reg Week rehearsals.
(I am virtually certain I am somewhere in that video.?)
The Peace Corps calls itself “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” The term “love” is grossly overused today, but I loved being in the band. What did the band mean to me? Take your pick.
Ask me about the ’80s, and I’ll show you what I was doing:
Madison.com on the big event tonight through Saturday night:
He has thought long and hard about what to say to the thousands attending the UW Varsity Band spring concerts this week at the Kohl Center.
Spectators want more than a show. They want to witness UW Bands director Mike Leckrone’s last “last”: the sold-out concert series — slated for Thursday, Friday and Saturday — that will cap an end to a storied 50-year career before he retires this academic year.
“This is the moment everybody is sort of looking for to represent the curtain coming down in a lot of ways,” Leckrone said. “Is that too dramatic?”
Leckrone’s speech at the end of the show, he’s decided, will be one of reassurance.
“This is the thought that everyone seems to be bringing to me now is, what’s going to happen next?” he said. “Where is the band going to go? What I want to do is assure people that there is a tradition. There are certain things the band has done over the years that I don’t see evaporating. There will be changes, yes, but there’s not going to be a complete change in the traditions.”
He paused, as if editing the speech inside his head.
“That’s kind of the gist of it,” he said. “I will hopefully say it much better than that.”
This entire year has been a last year since Leckrone’s announcement last August …
In March 1975, just five years into his career, Leckrone, then 37, decided an end-of-the-year gathering for his Marching and Varsity bands would be nice.
“Let’s have a party,” the kids said.
“Let’s have one last performance,” Leckrone replied.
Leckrone met the students half an hour before the concert began in Room 1341 of the Humanities building. On the blackboard, he scribbled down the songs students would play later that night in Mills Hall.
They had debated earlier whether to charge a dollar to attend.
“Nobody will pay a buck,” someone said.
About 450 people did.
He sweated through his red blazer by intermission. On went a gaudy blue and red splotched shirt he had brought to wear to the after-party as a joke.
The next year, he wore a red sequined vest, and his attire kept escalating in ostentatiousness from there.
The single-day show has morphed into massive, multi-day blowouts led by ringmaster Leckrone.
Saturday’s show sold out Jan. 14, the first day tickets became available. Friday’s show sold out the next day. Thursday’s show sold out three weeks later.
Those who can’t get tickets can still see the show when it airs at 7 p.m. Saturday on Wisconsin Public Television at go.madison.com/leckrone-concert.
Leckrone has few concrete plans to share when people ask him about his retirement plans.
“I haven’t had time to think about it,” he said. “It’s been a nonstop pace practically since I announced (my retirement).”
He gave up golf long ago. He doesn’t like to fish or hunt. He even considers eating a waste of time.
“I can absolutely guarantee I’m not going to pack up, sell my house and move to Florida or Arizona,” he said.
UW-Madison granted Leckrone, who never took a sabbatical in his 50 years working for the university, a paid leave next academic year.
He plans to spend part of it archiving some of his work with Mills Music Library. He looks forward to composing and arranging more music. He will also host a Wisconsin Alumni Association tour traveling through Europe next fall.
While Leckrone may be on campus from time to time, the sabbatical doesn’t change the sentimentality of his last year.
“I’m not going to have that day-to-day contact with the students,” he said. “That’s the finality of it.”
Leckrone has received between 400 and 500 letters from students and former students this year thanking him for the influence he had on their lives. Over his 50-year career, he’s accumulated file drawers’ worth of notes.
For a man who says he has never seen a perfect performance — the tubas came in too early in one song, or students sprung from their seats too quickly or the flugelhorns lacked fervor — these concerts are Leckrone’s grand finale.
The first meeting for this week’s shows took place in July.
His concerts have featured fireworks, blimps, confetti, strobe lights and a Fifth Quarter chicken dance, among other special effects. One year, sparklers attached to his hands accidentally misfired, burning a few strands of his hair. Another time a boxing championship banner caught fire.
Leckrone directs 280 students, along with scores of stagehands, electricians, sound technicians, pyrotechnicians and others. He says everyone knows what his or her job is but jokes that the only person who knows everyone else’s job is himself.
Leckrone’s entrances have become legendary. He has swung from a trapeze, soared over the stage on a motorcycle and ridden a bicycle across the Fieldhouse on a wire.
In 2017, he took it easy following double-bypass heart surgery. He characterized his 2018 entrances as “modest.”
His grand entrance this year?
“Oh that, I’m not telling!” he said. “But we’re going to blow the whole thing here.”
After the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, whose opening ceremony included someone flying into the L.A. Coliseum on a jet pack, Leckrone considered that for the band’s 1986 100th-anniversary concert in Camp Randall Stadium, but decided he didn’t have enough time to be properly trained on it.
Doug Moe adds:
Ask Mike Leckrone to sort through a half century of Badgers memories for a favorite and he’ll give you the 1994 Rose Bowl, Wisconsin’s first appearance in the modern era.
“It was so over the top,” says the longtime band director, who is in his final weeks as conductor. “We played every possible venue. We were on the Queen Mary, at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Then we won the game!”
Over the top? Leckrone conjures another indelible memory: the 1973 NCAA hockey championship at fabled Boston Garden. It was the first national title for the Badgers hockey team. The Wisconsin fans nearly stole the show, and not for the last time. Coach Bob Johnson — whose exuberance matched Leckrone’s — knew the fans’ value and would occasionally shout from the bench to his friend, “Get the crowd going, Leckrone!”
Perhaps nothing says over the top quite so much as the three-night extravaganza known as the University of Wisconsin–Madison Varsity Band Concert. Slated for April 11-13, this sold-out edition is the 45th, and Leckrone’s last. He directed the first one in March 1975 — six years after arriving on campus — and helped turn it from an impromptu gathering at Mills Hall into a pyrotechnic, multimedia spectacular at the Kohl Center.
It won’t be the true swan song for Leckrone, 82, who last August announced he’d retire at the end of this school year. The band will play at commencement in May. But the three nights of spring concerts figure to be particularly memorable. Leckrone said 150 or so alumni band members might return for a riff on “The Music Man” he has planned.
Mike Leckrone has taken an over-the-top approach almost from the beginning. When he was a kid, Leckrone and his dad had a comedic musical act that wowed service clubs in rural Indiana. Leckrone blew some specialty notes on trumpet and his dad played intricate piano pieces with mittens on.
“It looks harder than it is,” Leckrone says.
Leckrone explored other avenues — chemical engineering and coaching — but music kept its grip on him. He earned a music degree at Butler University and later became the school’s band director.
That’s where UW–Madison found him when Ray Dvorak retired after leading the UW bands for 34 years. At the time Leckrone thought, “How could anyone do 34 years?”
While Leckrone was considering the Madison job, he and his wife, Phyllis, got a tour of the campus. It was the Vietnam era and there were protest signs and broken windows in sight.
When Leckrone announced he was taking the UW–Madison job, his wife burst into tears. “She was an Indiana farm girl and didn’t know what she was getting into.” Phyllis warmed to her new home and became known as the “Badger band mom.” Her death in August 2017, after 62 years of marriage, was a crushing blow.
When they arrived in Madison in 1969, Leckrone himself took some time to acclimate. His duties expanded beyond marching band. He began teaching. Early on, Leckrone was asked to assemble a pep band to appear at indoor sporting events. That led to the season-ending varsity band concerts.
Every year — for 50 years now — 100 to 150 new students have attended tryouts for the celebrated UW band. Do the math: Leckrone has met and mentored more than 5,000 young men and women.
Dr. Frank Byrne, retired president of St. Mary’s Hospital and a member of the UW alumni band (although he went to Notre Dame; it’s a long story), is a friend and fan of Leckrone.
“What you learn in marching band is accountability and teamwork,” Byrne says. “You’re accountable to each other.” Leckrone held them accountable — but he always had their backs.
“He’s entertained millions,” Byrne continues. “But he’s changed the trajectory of thousands of lives by giving them the opportunity to get engaged with music.” …
Prominent in Leckrone’s memory bank is directing the varsity band concert just weeks after his double bypass heart surgery in January 2017. “I’ll never forget the day I walked back into rehearsal,” he says.
Leckrone had prepared everyone for his not being there. That’s what he’s doing now, preparing people — himself especially— for his retirement. He’s been too busy to really think it through. Leckrone will be on a Wisconsin Alumni Association cruise down the Danube River in Eastern Europe in September. After that, only one thing is certain. “It will have something to do with music.”
I’ve been thinking about that this week. There were football halftimes — turning boos into a standing ovation from 100,000 fans at Michigan; what I considered to be a perfect (at least error-free) performance at Illinois, the one bowl game I got to march in. There were also football games — beating Ohio State twice — and other games — a triple-overtime game against Indiana in 1987, beating Iowa in 1985 (preceded and followed by an amusing five seconds with a group of Hawkeye fans), and UW’s going 9–0 in overtime hockey games the five years I was at UW.
I can’t remember all the shows I marched, but I remember a number of them. The 1984 rock show, which included “Sh-Boom” and “Tequila,” got performed four times — at Michigan, at Illinois, at Homecoming against Minnesota and at the bowl game. (All UW losses.) I marched “West Side Story” in high school (since our director was a field assistant) and at UW. The next year, we did “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
There were other moments. A 1987 Marching Band practice was interrupted for about 10 seconds by a tornado warning — five seconds of Leckrone’s announcing the tornado warning, followed by five seconds of tuba players’ yelling “Auntie Em! Auntie Em! It’s a twister!” There was the day coming back from a concert in Merrill where we had to push our bus through an intersection in Madison to get to the hockey game we were playing in that night. There was the brief drag race between Leckrone and myself on South Park Street going from the Fieldhouse to the Dane County Coliseum from the former’s basketball game to the latter’s hockey game. There was the night after an exhibition basketball game against an Eastern Bloc national team where a group of us tried to find the team at a series of Madison hotels, but failed. There was having an entire hotel in Indianapolis to ourselves coming back from the 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl, where the bowl game was replayed in the halls at 2:30 a.m., and the right team won.
There is another reason to bring this up. Leckrone’s final three concerts will include a contingent of alumni playing part of “The Music Man.” I will be one of those alumni band players, so if you are at one of the concerts, or you watch on Wisconsin Public Television taped or WPT.org live, you may see me playing. That is a bit ironic since I’ve only played a couple of alumni events since I graduated, but on the other hand I enjoyed playing in the concerts more than watching them, I get my chance tonight through Saturday night.
I’ve written here before that 30 years after I graduated I still have dreams about getting thrown into either football games or UW band concerts, lacking most of what I need for the performance. It turns out the dreams (nightmares?) came true.
On Wisconsin magazine, which we UW alumni get:
As he had done at the end of countless UW Marching Band practices, director Mike Leckrone stood on top of a ladder on a hot, sunny August afternoon. The band’s veterans, along with rookies who had just won a coveted spot, crowded around to listen.
It had been a year since Leckrone had lost his wife of 62 years, Phyllis. Seven months before that, he had undergone heart surgery. Today, he would tell the band of the decision he had shared with only a few senior university officials: he was ending his remarkable half-century reign. He would lead them through one more football season, followed by hockey and basketball and the spring concert.
In this moment, Leckrone told his musicians what he expected of them.
“You must maintain the traditions, the intensity, the desire, and everything that everybody for the last 50 years has brought to this group,” he said. “I would be sorely disappointed if I see that doesn’t happen, because it’s in your hands to do that.”
Later that day as the news quickly spread, alumni band members began posting decades-old photos of themselves in their band uniforms on Facebook with the hashtag #IMarchedforMike. In September, the annual alumni band day — when former members march during the football pregame and halftime shows — drew record numbers. So many people wanted to play under Leckrone’s direction for one last time that organizers had difficulty creating a routine that would fit more than 500 people on the field, all wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with his name.
“Any one of us whose paths have crossed Mike’s feel that … he deeply touched us and continues to do so,” Sarah Halstead ’87, a cymbal player who spent four years in the band, said shortly before the alumni band took the field. “We’re here to honor him and, in some way, say, ‘Thank you.’ We’ve heard so many times from him — ‘Just one more time.’ And this really is the last time.”
It may seem strange to think now, but Leckrone could have spent decades performing the University of Minnesota fight song.
Every Badger fan who has attended a home basketball, football, or hockey game since 1969 knows the man wielding the baton — a beloved, charismatic musical leader who exhorts crowds to shout, “When you say Wis-con-sin, you’ve said it all!” So it’s hard to picture Leckrone leading a stadium full of Gopher fans through their signature chant of “M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A.”
But in 1968, seeking a step up from his job as marching band director at Butler University, Leckrone looked to the Big Ten and applied for openings at Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both schools turned him down.
A year later, the UW called and asked if he was still interested. Leckrone said yes, even though it did not have the makings of a dream gig. At that point, the band had cycled through three different directors in as many years. And in the last 20 games, the football team had logged 19 losses and one tie (see page 13). The band’s ranks had dwindled — from around 130 participants to just 96 — and they frequently played to partially empty stands. It was also the height of the antiwar protest era on campus.
“It wasn’t really politically correct to put on a uniform and march around campus in those days,” says Leckrone, 82, an Indiana native and the son of a marching band director.
Unimpressed with the band’s lack of energy, Leckrone changed its marching style. He made the switch to a high step, which requires a musician’s knee to hesitate while lifted at 90 degrees, which he calls “stop at the top.” Leckrone stressed pride in the band and worked on small details like the snap of the “horns up” movement. Gradually, more students joined and, by his third year, the band began to transform into a cohesive unit.
Initially there was some resistance, recalls Ray Luick ’73, the band’s drum major when Leckrone took over. Luick played tuba his freshman year in 1968 before serving as drum major for the next three seasons.
“He had such a clear idea of what he wanted to do and we didn’t have a clue. Here’s a guy whose lifelong ambition was to be a Big Ten band director, and we were just part of the group he inherited,” says Luick, who returns each year with his drum major baton to lead the alumni band.
Fifty years after watching Leckrone take over the band, Luick is not surprised to see the director in charge this long.
“He has never lost the enthusiasm or the realization that this is just a lot of fun for a lot of people,” Luick says. “I think that recognition of how all these insane pieces fit together is very important to him and allowed him not to see this as 50 years of work but a continuation of something he enjoys doing.”
When he was hired, Leckrone figured he would transition to an administrative role in the School of Music within 10 years. But he enjoyed the marching band so much that, within a few years, he put aside thoughts of taking off the black uniform he wore for football games.
He says he’s lucky Minnesota turned him down. With a smile, Leckrone explains that Wisconsin has a much better fight song.
“Part of that is the cleverness [songwriter William] Purdy used in the song. That first four-note interchange — da, da, da, dum — you can turn it into all sorts of musical ideas. It doesn’t sound forced. It has a flow to it,” he says.
It has been decades since Leckrone struggled to find enough players to fill the band’s ranks. About 300 students make up the current band; 230 march at halftime. Others, usually freshmen, serve as alternates ready to step in for an injured player.
When you say Wisconsin …
The UW band first played its rendition of one of its signature songs more than four decades ago, when rowdy Badger hockey fans wanted to hear a polka.
Leckrone instructed the band to play the Budweiser jingle, but switch up the drum beat to make it sound more like a polka. At the next hockey game, fans chanted, “We want a polka!” The band responded by playing “You’ve Said It All,” also known as “The Bud Song.” Soon, Wisconsin replaced Budweiser in the lyrics, a substitution Leckrone suggested for fear “the crowd would get the wrong idea of the drinking habits of the band or the audience.”
Fans demanded the song throughout the season as the men’s hockey team played its way to the 1973 NCAA championship. Gradually the band began playing it at other events, including football games. But worried fans, who did not like the way people jumping and dancing to the song made Camp Randall’s upper deck sway, complained to Athletic Director Elroy Hirsch x’45, who asked Leckrone to stop playing it.
Leckrone had another idea.
“Wouldn’t it be fun if you make a production of it, and announce the band will not play the song right after the game, but give five minutes for those of you who are faint of heart [to leave the upper deck],” Leckrone says. “Elroy thought it was fun. So we did it, and it just blossomed from there.”
And so, “You’ve Said It All” became the cornerstone of the Fifth Quarter.
To his musicians, Leckrone is more than a band director — he’s a mentor and coach who instills the necessity of hard work and having fun. And as the fortunes of Badger sports teams have soared and sunk over the years, there’s always been one constant: the appeal of the band.
“Mike is without question one of the most beloved figures in the history of UW–Madison. He has made a significant impact on campus, in Madison, throughout the state, and beyond,” says UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez. “When we speak with officials from bowl games each year, I tell them that Wisconsin will bring the whole package — team, fans, and band. Mike’s leadership of the band has certainly been an important part of that package for our school for many, many years.”
Although it might look seamless to fans at Camp Randall, each band performance at home games represents much thought, planning, and practice. Leckrone is one of the few — if not the only — college marching band director to continue to arrange all the band’s music as well as write charts for the pregame and halftime shows.
In addition to leading the marching and pep bands at sports events, Leckrone also teaches classes and conducts the symphonic band. A fan of big band music, his jazz and pop music courses are popular because of his encyclopedic knowledge and his infectious excitement for the tunes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and other early jazz legends. During a lecture on his favorite jazz artist — trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke — Leckrone has been known to dramatically rip open his overshirt to reveal a “Bix Lives!” T-shirt.
“It’s pretty amazing to keep up with his schedule. He’s a very energetic guy. I hope I have at least a quarter of his energy when I’m his age,” says assistant director of bands Darin Olson, who’s some 50 years Leckrone’s junior.
Leckrone knows the students who crowded around his ladder in August are the last group of young adults he’ll lead at the UW. They are the ones who will play his last football games at Camp Randall. They will tell the musicians who join the band next year and the year after that, what it was like to play for a legend.
He reminded them to keep up the intensity — but, most of all, to have fun.
“You have provided me with so many moments of happiness,” an emotional Leckrone said during his August address. “I can’t even begin to thank you. I will tell you those moments of happiness have gotten me through difficult times. I hope they can do that for you. Live for those moments of happiness.”
Then Leckrone climbed down and sang “Varsity” with his band.
I have heard this phrase “moments of happiness” numerous times this fall. I honestly do not remember him ever saying that in the five years I was in the band. (Which, let us remember, are part of the first half of Leckrone’s epoch at UW.) There was another phrase I do remember, one we came up with — don’t do what he says; do what he means.
It’s not yet 7 a.m. and students gather at UW-Madison’s practice field, shivering in the dark.
Without a word from their leader, and while most of their classmates are still asleep, the 260-some members of the UW Marching Band come to attention, ready to rehearse.
“Gooooood morning, Elm Drive!” band director Michael Leckrone’s voice booms, his headset carrying his game-day greeting to the street just east of the field.
The students start doing jumping jacks to get their blood pumping. A thermometer reads 37 degrees.
The band runs through its halftime show, a routine that changes every home game. For this particular game, the Nov. 3 contest against Rutgers, Leckrone came up with “Jersey Boys,” an arrangement filled with plenty of the high kicks and hip-popping that’s made the Badger Band so distinctive.
The sun rises and Leckrone moves to the tower positioned on the sidelines at the 50-yard line. From his perch, he picks at every imperfection.
“I sure see a lot of mistakes,” he says with a shake of his head. “Tubas, do it again.”
He corrects their spacing, fixes the way a particular note is played, reminds them that the balls of their feet, not the center, should hit the lines on the field. He does not praise them.
“That was better,” he says of their final run-through. “You’re going to get one more chance at 12:30 today.”
It’s a variation of a common refrain he tells his kids: You only get one chance to get it right.
And on Saturday, they’ll only get one more chance at Camp Randall under Leckrone, who will direct his last home football game after a 50-year career leading UW-Madison’s marching band.
A Wisconsin institution
Nostalgia has laced much of Leckrone’s last football season: In the back of his mind and in his assistants’ and students’ minds is a ticking clock, counting down the days, the rehearsals, the games he has left.
“Every event, someone will say, ‘This is the last time you’re going to do that,’” Leckrone said. “You’re only going to come on the field three more times. Two more times. Four more times. It’s a constant reminder. As we get closer to ‘the final curtain,’ as Frank Sinatra used to say, I think it’ll be more on my mind than ever.”
Since his first day — Sept. 1, 1969 — six chancellors and two acting chancellors have come and gone. He’s on his ninth football coach and directed halftime shows for 50 of Camp Randall’s 101 years.
“He represents the spirit of the university,” said Janice Stone, a former UW band member who has volunteered as one of Leckrone’s field assistants for 27 years. “When I think of the faces of the university, it’s the chancellor and Barry Alvarez and Mike.”
He’s also a rarity in the college band world: He is the marching band director but he is also the director of bands at UW-Madison, which means he is in charge of instruments, budgets and other administrative work. He also teaches.
Leckrone considered staying on as a music professor next year — he teaches one music course in the fall and two in the spring — but decided to retire fully at the end of this academic year.
His wife’s death in August 2017 — the love of his life, whom he met in seventh grade, married at 19 and spent 62 years with — factored into his decision. Since her passing, tucked into his black band jacket on game days is a photo of the two of them, surrounded by palm trees in Pasadena on their first trip to the Rose Bowl.
Leckrone’s health played a role as well. He had double bypass surgery in January 2017.
He also didn’t want to hear whispers that his time had passed, like a TV series that should have ended three seasons ago. He wants to end strongly, on a high note, like Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
“I wanted to not do it as a last gasp,” he said.
On Aug. 25, Leckrone told his students that this year would be his last. And he requested that this season be “business as usual.”
Students wiped away tears as Leckrone took long pauses and announced he would relinquish not only his baton, but an identity that has defined him.
Not a ‘sweetheart’
What the Camp Randall crowds see is a nice man who always sports a smile, still does the chicken dance at age 82 and looks as fondly at his students as at his six grandchildren.
What isn’t seen in the stadium is the hours of nitpicking on the practice field.
They don’t hear him screeching into his mic, “Hands! Watch the hand positions!”
They don’t see him throwing his clipboard from the tower only to ask a student to retrieve it after a two-minute diatribe about the trumpet players’ failure to “put some fight into it.”
They don’t catch that his request to play it “one more time” really means five more.
They don’t know how much he enjoys blowing his 35-year-old whistle, once, twice, three times in a row, however many times it takes for the students to stop playing so he can tell them what’s preventing them from achieving perfection.
“I don’t particularly have a reputation for being a sweetheart,” he allowed.
Unlike the football games that sandwich the halftime shows, Leckrone has no final score on which to judge his success.
Cymbals clanging, drums beating, the Badger Band marches up and down the field as it’s done since 1885.
Leckrone’s assessment of the Nov. 3 show: “Pretty good,” but he says he likes to withhold judgment until he gets his hands on the film the following Monday.
Leckrone is always among the last to file off the field. He pats nearly every student’s shoulder or brushes their hand, dishing out a “good job” to those who look like they need it.
The students’ faces are red and their lungs out of breath after the 10-minute show, but they look pleased with themselves and the crowd’s reaction.
As Leckrone turns to head back to the end zone, one of his longtime assistants leans in and says to him what Leckrone has tried to forget all season: “Well, one more.”
‘Nobody like Mike’
Leckrone has the longest tenure of any marching band director, past or present, in the history of the Big 10, according to a survey submitted to each institution’s marching band director.
Mark Spede, president-elect of the College Band Directors National Association, pointed to just one current director with a tenure nearly as long as Leckrone’s. Arthur Bartner started at the University of Southern California in 1970, one year after Leckrone.
Leckrone was the clear frontrunner at UW-Madison, said H. Robert Reynolds, who led the university’s hiring search for the marching band director in the late 1960s.
Reynolds drove down to Butler University where Leckrone had worked his way up to band director just a few years after earning his music degree there. It was clear Leckrone had high energy and a special rapport with students.
Born and raised in Indiana, Leckrone would have been happy staying at Butler for his entire career.
“But you get ambitious,” he said.
Reynolds never expected Leckrone to stay so long. Directing marching bands is “a young man’s game” that people usually trade in for teaching or concert band positions.
Leckrone also didn’t expect to spend 50 years directing. Like many in higher education, he figured the next step in the career ladder was administration.
He tried it out, about 20 years ago, when he served as assistant director of the School of Music before quickly realizing it wouldn’t work. He missed making music.
Leckrone specifically requested not to serve on the search committee for his successor. Having the next director looking over his shoulder at the last one wouldn’t work, he said.
“I think Wisconsin’s been very lucky to have had him for 50 years,” Reynolds said. “And I think this transition is going to be difficult to satisfy the students, the alumni, the crowd at the games. They’re going to expect a Mike Leckrone band. Don’t get me wrong, there’s good marching band directors out there. But there’s nobody like Mike.”
At 82, Leckrone still works full time, spending a few hours working from his Middleton home in the morning before driving his Ford Escape to campus between 9 and 10 a.m. Among his pre-set Sirius XM radio channels is Frank Sinatra.
He holds rehearsals from 3:45 to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays and handles administrative and teaching duties before practice.
Leckrone gets home at about 6 p.m. and works until 11 p.m. on whatever needs to get done.
“There’s always the next show, always the next performance you have to get ready for,” he said.
He has ideas in his head for next year that will go unfulfilled.
Many Badgers fans come for the football and stay for the band.
It wasn’t always that way.
Leckrone took over the band at a “low ebb” in its 133-year history. The football team hadn’t won in 24 consecutive games. With the Vietnam War at its peak, the idea of putting on a uniform and marching around wasn’t popular, and Leckrone fielded fewer than 100 students in his first year.
Whereas others saw setbacks, Leckrone saw an untapped opportunity, a “sleeping giant.”
His 50-year career was not without some bad headlines: hazing, lewdness by band members, and an assistant director who resigned after reported inappropriate sexual behavior.
Leckrone suspended the band from a single home game in 2008, an action he said was wrong in hindsight because it punished all of the students instead of solely the offenders.
As the Badgers football team’s success grew and universities recognized how much money could be made in college athletics, the unbridled band faced new restrictions.
“There are times when I would love to play ‘On Wisconsin’ because I think the crowd needs it and the team needs it, but the script says it’s time to show the whirling hamburgers or whatever,” he said, referring to the advertisements shown on the Jumbotron.
Leckrone is most in his element during the Fifth Quarter, the 15-minute post-game show born in the early 1970s out of Leckrone’s own boredom at playing the same old songs.
“I realize what I do is not the most important thing in the world,” Leckrone said of his legacy. “I haven’t contributed to any great discoveries. I’ve brought a few smiles to people’s faces.”
Moments of happiness
On game days, Leckrone insists on walking from his office to the stadium and back, about two miles round-trip.
He rests occasionally on a stool in the band’s section, particularly in the second half, but is ready to hop on his ladder and strike up the band whenever the Badgers score.
Each year’s group of students has its own personality. Some are a little flaky. Some are tricksters, pulling pranks on Leckrone during practice. This year’s bunch, because of the circumstances, is more serious.
Leckrone has a theory he shares with all of his students about “moments of happiness.”
“Your mind lives on the moments of happiness,” he says. “They sometimes don’t last long and aren’t as big as we think they are, but if you can find a lot of them, you can live on them.”
With 1:06 on the clock and the Badgers ahead 31-17, restlessness sets in among the thousands at Camp Randall on Nov. 3.
Some of the spectators start filtering out of the stadium, hoping to beat the rush in the parking lots. Bucky Badger continues to work the crowd.
The showman stops watching the game, slowly turning himself around, capturing views of Camp Randall from every angle of his perch at the end zone, taking it all in — a moment of happiness.
After the game, band members gather in the courtyard of the Humanities building, looking up at their leader on the second-floor balcony. At least a hundred others — some parents of the students, others longtime band supporters — squeeze in to listen.
Gone is the voice that boomed over the stereo waking up Elm Drive, replaced with one speaking so softly that the crowd leans in, straining to hear his second-to-last dismissal speech.
The next couple of weeks will go by fast, Leckrone tells them, and himself, as he blinks back tears. He repeats one phrase four times: “Don’t take it for granted.”
Linking arms, the band sings “Varsity,” the tune that caps the end of every dismissal.
Leckrone says he can’t imagine life beyond this academic year. What will happen when there are no more arrangements to dream up in his head? Where will he watch next season’s football games? What will he do every Tuesday through Friday from 3:45 to 5:30?
He still has his last home football game on Saturday. There will be hockey games and basketball games and concert requests around the state. And in the spring, he will direct his final concert.
After dismissal, fans flood Leckrone for hugs and thank him for his service. Young children come up to him for photos or autographs. Much of this season has already felt like the last game, just an extended version of it.
Leckrone finally returns to his office, Room 4557, where dozens of framed photos and plaques adorn the walls. Two more frames lean against his desk, waiting to be hung.
“I’m running out of space,” he said. “But I’m running out of time, too.”
The Badger Herald (for which I wrote a bit while in college):
“Right, left, pivot.” 83 year-old band director Professor Michael Leckrone hollered at the University of Wisconsin Marching Band as they rehearsed for their Sept. 30 performance at Lambeau Field.
The band followed Leckrone’s directions, and their shoes made a “slosh” sound against the wet turf as they stepped into their next position. There was a deluge of rain, but Leckrone and the band continued to strive for crisp, accented moves.
The band played the song “Sing, sing, sing” as they trudged through the rain to perform their newest halftime show. Leckrone stayed on the field with them although he was drenched in rain.
Because the show was new to the band, many band members struggled to perform the moves exactly as Leckrone had envisioned. The driving rain blurred out most things in sight, but Leckrone managed to find imperfections in the band’s formation with ease.
A month earlier, at a practice like today’s but much drier, Leckrone announced to the “Badger Band” that this season, his 50th at UW, would be his last.
“I insisted to the university that you’d be the first ones to know. I wanted you to be the first ones because you’re special,” Leckrone told the band members. “I don’t care whether it’s because you’re in the band for the first time or have never been in the band until you walked on this field last week, but it’s special. This band is special.”
Leckrone’s office offered a stark contrast from the bleak reality of the Humanities Building. Warm wood paneling replaced harsh grey cement walls; knick knacks and plaques lined Leckrone’s desk and walls, each with a story begging to be told.
Leckrone and I shared a few laughs over an invoice from Tresona, a music licensing company that recently made the licensing process for educational bands and choirs more expensive and complicated. He notes that while some aspects of the job have become simpler and more efficient with time, such as his flying rigs for the annual Varsity Band Show, others have become more complicated.
One thing, though, has remained simple and pure: Leckrone’s love and passion for music.
While Leckrone has inspired many UW students throughout his career, Leckrone himself was heavily influenced by his father’s love of music.
“I grew up knowing nothing else than music,” Leckrone said. “I don’t have any memory of life without music being there.”
His father was the local high school band director. He kept a large record collection which Leckrone inherited. Leckrone still owns every record by Bix Beiderbecke, a jazz trumpeter who he remembers listening to with particular fondness.
Leckrone and his father would often put on shows in the local community. There, Leckrone experimented with instruments like the trombone and the clarinet. While Leckrone considers himself primarily a trumpet player, he learned he could trick audiences into believing he had mastered all instruments by learning to play simple tunes on each one.
The thrill of performing, Leckrone said, drove him to pursue music.
“I don’t know that I set out to direct marching bands; I set out to be in music,” Leckrone said. “I think what made me decide was that nothing else had the appeal. It came down to the fact that [music is] what I felt happiest doing.”
Rising through the ranks
Tucked away behind his computer and multiple stacks of papers, a mug from Leckrone’s alma mater Butler University stands out among a room full of red and white.
While at Butler, Leckrone continued his streak as a “jack of all trades” when he received the unusual opportunity to play simultaneously in their classical, jazz and marching bands — musicians normally have to pick a genre to focus on at this time in their career.
Butler’s band director retired just as Leckrone finished his training. Inspired by his director’s mentorship, Leckrone started directing the Butler marching band program the fall of 1966. For three years, he directed not only the band but also other musical projects, including the men’s glee club for a period of time.
The UW band director position opened up in 1969, when the UW band was lost in a transitional period. UW’s football program was not performing well, so the band did not have an active performance schedule. Leckrone, however, saw a program with immense potential waiting to be unlocked.
“What I saw in Wisconsin was a band that had a great tradition and a great history,” Leckrone said. “ I saw it as a sleeping giant. It was something that had great potential but it hadn’t really been realized because no one more or less said, ‘Well, we’re going to try this.’”
When Leckrone first took charge of the Badger Band in the fall of 1969, he sought to change the band’s character and bolster its confidence by asking its members to perfect drills and performance practices.
While he knew it was impossible to perfect a band overnight, he was determined to train the corps to have the most attentive ready-to-play position — “horns up,” in band speak — in the nation. This helped instill a greater sense of pride in the band members.
Leckrone also invented Wisconsin’s signature “stop at the top” style of marching, which was modified based on the standard “chair step” style adopted by most Big Ten bands at the time he became UW’s director.
“I wanted to keep that [higher] step, but as I saw the band in the stadium I wanted more energy.” Leckrone noted. “You have to march with that sense of energy, that sense of dedication. I wasn’t seeing it. I felt that if you put a little hesitation as one brings the foot up before they bring it down, it will appear to the eye that the step has more energy. People noticed it.”
These two improvements together brought attention to the band. Soon, interest to join the band increased. Leckrone, too, sought to turn the marching band from a seasonal activity to a year-long involvement.
The show sold out its first venue, Mills Hall, in 1976. The show then moved to bigger venues to accommodate its growing audience, eventually finding its home at the Kohl Center.
If you want to be a Badger
At the heart of the band’s growing success was Leckrone and the band’s dedication to preserving its spirit and integrity — their ability to “eat a rock.”
“When you go out tomorrow to do the show, you’ve got to be a lot tougher. You’ve got to be tough enough to chew nails,” Leckrone recalled saying in an after-rehearsal speech. “No, you got to be tough enough to eat a rock.”
As soon as the words came out of Leckrone’s mouth, the band started chanting “eat a rock.” Bands throughout the years have understood the meaning of this phrase.
The same pride and dedication underscoring the phrase “eat a rock” also carried through Leckrone and his band until they finally came across the chance to perform at the Rose Bowl in 1994, halfway through Leckrone’s tenure.
“It took me 25 years, that’s a career in itself. I thought it was never going to happen.” Leckrone reminisced. A picture of the band on the field at the first Rose Bowl hung on the wall behind him. “I felt like I had trained the band to believe that they were worthy of that performance. Then suddenly it did, almost without warning. Everybody jumped in as they never did before and frankly haven’t done since … It was so special.”
Though he has since been able to conduct at five more Rose Bowls, he said none of them matched his first outing.
While the band’s Rose Bowl performances are Leckrone’s proudest professional accomplishments, Leckrone himself is perhaps best known for reinventing the repertoire of the UW marching band.
Among his legacies is the shortened version of the song “On Wisconsin,” which he created by removing earlier verses to lead the band directly into the iconic “On Wisconsin” chorus that fans continue to sing along with every touchdown.
Leckrone wanted to program tunes that everyone would know and enjoy, so he incorporated rock-and-roll style beats into classic songs to appeal to both the older and younger crowds.
“Each act has to have its own identity, [but] I think it’s also important that you have segments of shows that can appeal to a lot of people,” Leckrone said. “I’ve said many times to people, ‘If you don’t like what we’re playing right now wait a minute, because we’ll be playing something completely different.’”
The band today has a diverse repertoire. While “All Night Long” by Lionel Richie may not be a traditional choice for a marching band set, the UW marching band plays it alongside other classics such as George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Songs from broadway shows Jesus Christ Superstar and The Music Man are also featured in the current season.
A different love
Broadway holds a particularly dear place in Leckrone’s heart. He fondly remembers watching different shows at the Great White Way in New York City with his late wife, Phyllis.
Tate Warren, a recent UW graduate and Badger Band alumnus, witnessed this love firsthand when a Nor’easter storm grounded a portion of the band in New York City this past spring. Warren was one of many band members who won tickets to see the Spongebob Squarepants musical on the trip. Whereas most lottery winners in the band invited their friends to the show, Warren invited Leckrone.
“Before the show started he explained to me that he used to go to Broadway every year with his wife before she passed away, and that it brought back a lot of memories for him to be there,” Warren said. “It made me reflect on how many different performances Mike has seen and conducted and that I was lucky to be able to sit next to him to watch one.”
Professional accomplishments aside, Leckrone insisted his proudest personal accomplishments stem from the love of his life, his late wife Phyllis. The pair began dating in the seventh grade and were married for 62 years until her passing last August. Leckrone said she has always assured him that he could pursue his passions with the band, even if that meant he couldn’t be at home as much as some husbands could.
When Phyllis passed, Leckrone’s children gave him a ring with her fingerprint engraved on it, which he wears on his right ring finger. On his left ring finger is his wedding band.
Hitting the right notes
Unlike his memory for Phyllis, Leckrone believes people’s memory of him will pass quickly because he typically is involved in only four years of people’s lives.
But freshman Kristen Schill said she decided to keep marching in college only after hearing about Leckrone’s leadership from her high school band director, Kurt Dobbeck, a Badger Band alumnus who attended UW in the early 80s upon Leckrone’s encouragement.
“The thing I remember most is that he pushed us to do excellent work all the time,” Dobbeck said. “One day in particular, we were at practice, and he ran out and came right in front of me. I knew all he wanted me to do was work as hard as I possibly could. From then on, I did it.”
Throughout his career, Leckrone’s work ethic has been guided by excellence. Although humble about his legacy, Leckrone hopes that the band will carry on his relentless pursuit of perfection.
“I try to avoid using the word perfection because I don’t think perfection is obtainable. I’ve seen many different types of performances, from marching band shows to Broadway, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen perfection,” Leckrone said. “I hope my passion of searching for that perfection gets passed down.”
For Leckrone, the key to perfection lies perhaps in the band’s confidence and dedication.
But for UW senior CJ Zabat, the band’s drum major, this perfection comes in the form of “moments of happiness” Leckrone has inspired Zabat to pursue on and off the field.
“Mike can’t promise you complete happiness, but he wants to promise you moments of happiness,” Zabat said. “Those are those moments where something is so awesome you feel so happy that you have to hold on to those moments throughout the bad moments … As I got further and further along [in college], I had to find the things that gave me those ‘moments of happiness’ and made me want to work hard.”
The beat goes on
Back on the field, the skies began to clear up. The back of the band began to perform to Leckrone’s choreography, which few marching band directors today can say they create by themselves.
After running the routine again, Leckrone determined the band was in good shape and dismissed them to hear drum major Zabat’s final message for the day.
After practice, members went up to Leckrone to ask questions about spacing in the formation. Another went up to return a bracelet Leckrone had lost on the field. A friend had given the bracelet to Leckrone to help reduce his arthritis. And although Leckrone believes the healing power of the bracelet to be purely psychological, he cherishes it for its sentimental value.
The drumline stayed behind to conduct a sectional practice after an already grueling two hours of rehearsal. Their beats can be heard from the bus stop a quarter mile away.
Even with Leckrone off the field, his music keeps marching on.
Tonight through Saturday night at the UW–Madison Kohl Center: