SLU pep band director resigns due to ‘heavy strain,’ points to decline of music department


(Photo courtesy of Anna Rogers)

Tonight, the Saint Louis University pep band starts small. Micro crescendos dot their pieces, lifting the audience up and setting them back down in anticipation of something big. Then the real rise comes with the baritones setting a steady foundation, leading into the saxophones, trumpets and electric basses, each building the classic rock and pop tunes to a pinnacle moment. Silence reigns and the audience is left swaying at the top. The only sound comes from the thump of the basketball across the court. The ball rolls around the hoop, and just as it falls into the net, the horns and trumpets cut through the tension with their final note. The crowd roars as SLU wins the game.

The pep band at SLU is an ever-entertaining group, always providing upbeat energy to elicit cheers and inspire the crowd.  However, there seems to be a cord of tension surrounding the pep band students recently. On Dec. 31, 2022, Austin Turner, the director of SLU’s pep band for the last eight years, resigned in protest of “heavy strain” placed on the group. 

In his resignation letter, Turner provided context about the relationship between the Athletics Department and pep band over the past several years. He spoke directly to the current students and alumni in pep band, apologizing for the burden placed on them. Turner could not be reached for further comment.

“Over the past several years the relationship between Athletics and the Band has been tenuous at best and communication has been poorer than usual this season,” he wrote in the letter.

Specifically, Turner said there have been increased demands for the pep band to perform at pep rallies, parades, volleyball games and more with little time to prepare the students and alumni for the spontaneous events.Amy Mosmon, a SLU alumni who has been playing with the pep band since 2008, said there had been no major issues until the last few years. Originally, she said pep band was a mental health reprieve for students to play their beloved instrument while getting advice from other students and alumni. But with stricter schedules, pep band was given less playing times and the Athletics Department increasingly dictated what they could and could not play, Mosmon said. 

“In fact, if the Athletics Department did not like what we were playing, they would play prerecorded music over us. Sometimes, they would not even mic us,” Mosmon said.  

Mosmon claims that in the event of a poor basketball game, the Athletics Department would seek someone to hold accountable, often directing the blame towards them, citing that they failed to make the game enjoyable enough. This accusation, as per Mosmon, was also leveled at Cheer and Dance, although their directors were unavailable for comment. 

Mosmon said she has always “bled blue.” Unfortunately, the workload of pep band is just too much, she said. 

“It takes a lot of sacrifice to be part of pep band now. Especially with work and family, and then to be asked to just stand there…it is not worth the effort and I do not trust how long current changes will last,” Mosmon said. 

In an email chain to the Athletics Department following Turner’s resignation, other alumni expressed sentiments similar to Mosmon’s. One such alumnus listed several grievances against the Athletics Department such as budget cuts, short notices and lack of respect, before saying they could no longer volunteer with a department that “willfully disregards the mental well-being of students.” 

The University News spoke with students in the pep band who confirmed the changes that the Athletics Department was pushing the former director, Turner, to make. Stephen Lum, a junior three-semester pep band member, said the band directors are perpetually under a lot of stress since there is a lack of advertising. Compared to cheer and dance, pep band’s social media accounts have a much smaller reach. Moreover, it is not mandatory for students to go to basketball games and attendance is often small. This made getting together a group of students to play for spontaneous requests even harder, Lum said.  

 “The pep band director got a lot of last minute requests within 48 hours. This was just not possible as students have exams. The requests were too short notice,” Lum said. 

Another alumnus, who did not wish to speak with The University News, wrote in the email thread that they quit volunteering with the pep band and questioned the Athletics Department’s judgements and lack of effort in fostering a secure and constructive environment for the students of pep band.  Janet Oberle, Deputy Director of SLU Athletics, said there are mental health resources given to pep band students through Athletics.

“There is someone from the University Counseling Center who physically has hours in Chaifetz twice a week. This is UCC’s way of helping athletes specifically,” Oberle said.

Oberle declined to comment on the other concerns or resignations.

The Athletic Department’s unresponsive behavior and attitude may have contributed to the strain that resulted in a wave of resignations.However, it might also be a symptom of an underlying issue – a lack of funding, faculty and overall interest in Saint Louis University’s music department. 

Margaret Cotner, a junior who has been playing with the pep band since her freshman year, spoke about her experience coming from a high school where over a third of the graduating class was involved in some kind of music group to a college where there is only one band with less than 40 people.

“My high school had a lot of funding and support for music. Everyone knew everyone in music. In fact, if you were not part of a musical group, it was like what are you doing? How are you enriching yourself if not with music and arts?” Cotner states.

Today, the pep band has approximately 40 members made up of alumni and students, with some sections having no instruments.

“There is one trumpet, one french horn…something is missing here. These are fairly common instruments and we are begging students who play them to join,” Cotner said.

There is something amiss about the music department’s low audition turnout for certain instruments typically played in pep bands. The heart of the issue comes down to the fact that there is no incentive for students to join the pep band, and since most students in the band are pre-med or pre-health, they are not likely to adjust their schedules without one.

In December 2022, SLU revoked the MUSC-3470 Pep Band course. In other words, the pep band exists outside of Athletics, but students cannot enroll in the course for the Fine Art credit requirement. Seemingly, the only incentive students now have to join pep band is their own love for music, Cotner said. Yet, for the majority of the student body who are at SLU to enrich their professional background, they will devote their time to clubs and classes that fill that role.

Revoking course credit is not the first time incentives to the band have been stripped. There used to be a $250 dollar scholarship that Athletics gave each pep band student. 

“I mean it’s not even that much but Athletics has been very stubborn to reinstate it,” Cotner states.

$250 is little compared to other college’s pep and marching bands. In 2019, through private funding, every member of the Ohio State marching band received at least a $3,000 scholarship. The scant funding Athletics has given to the band combined with a zero-credit class speaks to SLU’s underappreciation of music and arts enrichment, Cotner said. 

“It makes me want to pull my hair out that there is no advertising, no push, no scholarship to get students to join pep band. All these schools have advertising because it is healthy for students to do music. But SLU is giving money to other departments and letting the music department slip away,” Cotner states.

It appears that the decline of the pep band is indicative of SLU’s apathy toward their music and arts programs. 

The pep band is supposed to provide a sense of community and inclusivity, Mosmon said. Previously, it served as a safe haven for students who may have previously felt like outsiders and allowed them to embrace their love for music. In other words, it lets students be “fun nerds.” However, with fewer members it becomes difficult to maintain this environment and meet these expectations, Mosmon said. 

According to Cotner, under the new interim pep band director, Sarah Silverberg, pep band students have been given a new sense of hope after a tumultuous winter. She said Silverberg has spent the beginning of the spring semester attempting to make connections between Athletics and students so they can be better supported. 

Additionally, Cotner said, Silverberg has been able to initiate talks with Athletics to address if the band can update equipment, merchandise and music. 

Mosmon stated that Sarah is a lively and enthusiastic person. However, Mosmon expresses concerns that the Athletics Department may cause her some stress.

“I hope that the Athletics Department does not burn her out,” Mosmon said.

The University News reached out to Silverberg but she did not wish to comment. 

It is clear, however, that new jackets, set music and easier accessibility to counselors will not solve the pep bands problems that are indicative of a larger issue at hand. According to Cotner, SLU’s music program is crumbling and the only way to address the concern is to incentivize students to not only join pep band, but also enroll in other music classes. Musical enrichment is key to alleviating students’ mental health stress and emphasis desperately needs to be placed on it, said Cotner.

Perhaps by doing so, the pep band can once again become a sanctuary for students.