The University of California Marching Band, commonly known as Cal Band, is one of the oldest marching bands on the West Coast and one of the few remaining student-run bands in the country. From Big Game to treasured university traditions, Cal Band upholds UC Berkeley spirit through their commitment to spreading Cal pride. The Cal Band Alumni Association (CBAA), Cal Band’s Alumni Chapter, upholds that same commitment, fostering a community for Band alums.
The Cal Alumni Association sat down with Ashley Whittaker, current president of the Cal Band Alumni Association and Cal Alumni Association board member, to discuss her experience in Cal Band and the connection to the university that Cal Band alumni maintain.
Cal Alumni Association (CAA): Thank you for meeting with us today. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Ashley Whittaker (AW): I graduated from Cal in 2013. During my time, I was in the Cal Band for four years, and it was an influential experience. It was a big part of my life. Most of my friends after college were in the Cal Band as well. It kind of takes over your whole social life.
The Cal Band teaches you a lot about leadership and also followership—how to be led by your peers—which is a really important skill. After graduating, I stayed in the Bay Area, and I’ve remained involved and gone to Cal Band performances. In 2016, I joined the Cal Band Alumni Association council. Since then, I’ve taken on various leadership positions. I was treasurer, then vice president, and now president. So, I’ve always been involved in just taking on what I feel I can do on behalf of the organization.
CAA: What are your roles and responsibilities as the president of CBAA?
AW: I govern the organization. We have a council of thirty members. I also lead our executive committee, which has six members. We have quarterly council meetings, so I oversee those and develop the agenda. I also supervise the budget that the treasurer puts together, so I make sure that we’re on track there. I help run some events. I’m also kind of the face of the organization, so I liaise a lot with Cal Band student leadership and Matt Sadowski, the director of the Cal Band.
CAA: What perspective do you have as an alum who is staying so connected to current students?
AW: It’s great. What I love is seeing not only the things that are the same but also the things that are evolving and different. I think tradition is important and I also know that we are evolving as people, students, and a university. Coming back, we get to see how the Cal Band is still doing some of the same things that we did and also how they’re doing these cool new things that we wish we could’ve done when we were in the band. That’s super fun.
CAA: You’ve been on the field during some incredible moments. What’s that like?
AW: It can be a little overwhelming being on the field and having everyone cheering, but I think it helps that you’re with your people. You are one of many and the many have become one cohesive unit. It’s nice to know that you’re not alone and everyone’s having this shared experience.
CAA: Do you have a favorite memory from your undergraduate years?
AW: There are so many to try to piece out. One of our traditions is at the beginning of the school year, we march up to the Big C. That’s a bonding experience. It’s a trek to get up the hill and everyone’s panting, but once you’re up there, it’s definitely worth it. There have also been a lot of good Cal games, like when I was a freshman and we won against Stanford at home. That was a pretty exciting time.
CAA: What’s it like returning to these events as an alum?
AW: There’s a lot that’s still the same. I feel really lucky to still be involved and go on the field and play with the current band, who are so welcoming to us alumni. We value that relationship with the current band, and I also love how independent they are from us. There are times when we come together to collaborate, such as at Alumni Band Day, but in general, we’re pretty hands-off. They’ve got their thing, and we’re not trying to step on anyone’s toes. We are just happy to be there and happy to be involved.
CAA: How do you think Cal Band embodies Cal spirit?
AW: We’re so rooted in tradition and there are a lot of pieces of Cal in everything that we do, from our fight songs to the locations that we practice. Even just going into the band room and seeing all of the historical photos and old uniforms, I think that is part of the Cal spirit. Also, we are very tight-knit with the sports teams. They all like us to be there, same with the Rally Committee and Dance Team. We all have a shared mission of embodying the spirit.
CAA: A shared mission is such a good way to put it. Because you are such separate and different entities, but you are also cohesive when it comes time.
AW: It’s really fun to bring in non-Cal folks sometimes because when they see a lot of the cheers, the chants, and other stuff, they’re like, “Is this a cult? What’s going on?” It’s great that we all have a shared language, too.
CAA: Sometimes it’s a little weird but in the best way possible.
AW: Totally. That’s one of the things I love about Cal, it’s just a huge organization. There are so many alumni, and you run into alumni everywhere.
CAA: How does the Cal Band Alumni Association foster that community for Golden Bears post-graduation?
AW: We have a good amount of performances and events. We have our yearly Alumni Band Day, and every other year we have a reunion on the Friday before Big Game when it’s at home. That’s a great event where we honor the Tony Martinez Memorial Service Award winner as someone who embodies the Cal spirit and has done a lot for both the Cal Band Alumni Association and the Cal Band.
Each summer we perform at the 4th of July parade in Sausalito and the AIDS walk in San Francisco alongside members of the Cal Band. During the winter, we’re often invited to perform with the Cal Band at basketball games to help fill in for the students who are away for the holidays.
We also have ad hoc performances throughout the year. People will ask CBAA to perform at various events, such as weddings, birthday parties, or memorial services, to list a few. I think those are cherished memories because we’re making their day.
We communicate with our members throughout the United States, but most of our events are in person because they tend to be performance-related. Our council meetings go back and forth between being remote and hybrid, so anyone’s welcome to join and hear about what’s going on with our organization.
CAA: Anything else you’d like to share?
AW: I’ve found my volunteerism with CBAA so rewarding that I wanted to take that further, which led me to join the CAA board in June. Now I’m on the CAA board, which is awesome, it’s interesting to be able to see what all the other chapters do and see what CAA does. It’s been really rewarding.
For CBAA, we’re hoping to continue what we’re doing. We had our biggest Alumni Band Day yet, so hopefully next year will be even bigger.
Learn more about Cal Band.
Learn more about the Cal Band Alumni Association.