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Friday, April 19, 2024
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Harmonizing community: How students are finding the sounds of connection

Faced with a loneliness epidemic, students are striking chords of connection through music.

It’s DJay Mando’s job to elevate music from background noise to the heartbeat of the night. With each beat he spins, Mando ensures people facilitate connections through music that are both harmonious and profoundly transformative.

“It's surreal in the moment,” said the Madison-based disc jockey. “You underestimate the impact you're having on people sometimes until you see them in person.”

For many students, music provides the cacophony to a traditional night out. Whether it’s blasting through cheap speakers in a crowded fraternity basement, playing through the loudspeaker between possessions at a Wisconsin Badgers game or echoing across the walls of the Sylvee, music is everywhere.

“It is woven into the fabric of this institution,” said Elizabeth Snodgrass, Wisconsin Union Theater director. “A song, a musical, a play or a dance often says something more powerful than a conversation.”

Amid the hum of a rising loneliness epidemic, students are grasping for connections. Americans' evaluations of their mental well-being hit a record low during the winter of 2022, and 39% of college students said they “endured loneliness” the previous day, according to a Gallup poll.

Through musical student organizations — like the Marching Band, acapella groups, The Studio and the Wisconsin Union Directorate Music Committee — students are combatting this rise in loneliness head-on, building upon musical tradition as a form of connection at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

How are students finding the sound of connection?

Mando, who got his start by playing in Madison’s Liquid nightclub during his time as a UW-Madison student, has served as the stadium DJ for the Badgers since 2019.

“I make a point to make it more than just playing music, we want to make it an experience so that every time you hear that song after one of our shows, you go back to that moment,” Mando said.

It’s Mando’s job to play “Jump Around” during Badgers football games, a 25-year-old Wisconsin tradition that ESPN labeled as “the best tradition in college football.”

“You can't beat that,” he said. “We're causing earthquakes [in] the city.”

But Mando isn’t the only one tasked with upholding the university’s musical traditions.

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During over 100 Badgers games per academic year, the UW Marching Band fills arenas and stadiums with energetic tunes and iconic songs like “Varsity” and “You’ve Said It All.”

Led by Director Corey Pompey and Assistant Director Alexander Gonzalez, the band performs at six Badgers sporting events — football, men's and women's hockey, men's and women's basketball as well as women's volleyball events.

For the Marching Band, which was formed in 1885, tradition is the name of the game. Before modern technology, Gonzalez said, marching bands were the main aspect that brought excitement to football games.

”That's the soundtrack to their college experience,” Gonzalez said.

Michael Leckrone took over as director of bands in 1969, and he brought a jolt of energy through his retirement in 2019. The gameday experience has evolved since then with the help of DJay Mando and modern enhancements, like video boards and loud speakers. 

But the marching band has remained constant.

“There's not a lot of things that look the same as they did in 1972,” Gonzalez said. “That [tradition] ties people to their memories of when they last saw the marching bands.”

Band members arrive in Madison four weeks before classes begin to prepare for the season and find themselves with “300 friends that they can all look toward,” Gonzalez said.

“We put hundreds of individuals together to accomplish one singular thing: sound the same,” Gonzalez said. “Their hearts are connecting on levels that non-musicians don't get to experience. There's a double metaphor to the word harmony.”

The band performs during halftime at home football games, along with a performance after the game entitled “Fifth Quarter.”

And as the final notes of the Fifth Quarter show echo through the stadium, the marching band takes a bow, serving as a beacon of camaraderie. But beyond the grandeur of the football game lies a quieter force that cultivates connections amidst a rising loneliness epidemic: The Studio.

Why are students so lonely?

In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared loneliness a public health crisis. As students drift further apart, music becomes the bridge that brings them together, creating a harmonious bond in an increasingly lonely world.

That disconnect is where The Studio comes in. 

The Studio is UW-Madison’s residential learning community that focuses on the arts. It’s currently home to 68 first- and second-year students, according to program manager Ammo Eisu.

While The Studio is a community focused on multiple mediums of art, Eisu said 44 out of 68 residents indicated that they were “into” music as an art form at the beginning of the year. Headquartered in Ogg Hall, students have access to four creative spaces, including a full recording studio.

The Studio is home to multiple Madison bands. Indie rock groups Boxing Day and East of Vilas both got their start in the residential community.

“If you care about your art, and if it's authentic to you, then it's worthy of being perceived,” Eisu said. “Bands [form] when lots of disparate cultures and perspectives come together and form a new voice.”

It's through these connections that a true sense of community emerges — a collection of relationships that sustain students through their residential journey, he said.

“When you have this campus of thousands and you create a microcosm… that is super helpful,” Eisu said. “Community is just simply a collection of relationships.”

This sense of community extends beyond the recording studio into curricular programming. Each semester, Faculty Director Professor Helen Lee offers a seminar class where students learn about art by exploring various venues and engaging with visiting artists and local experts.

“It's this buffet of the arts,” Eisu said. “We're trying to show the students what arts are available on campus and in the Madison community at large.”

The Studio offers four opportunities for students to show off their art through what they call “showcases.” The first two are closed to Studio members only, but the other two are open to the public, and students have the opportunity to show off their art in a community that Eisu said “encourag[es] each other by supporting each other.”

But The Studio isn’t the only musical space designed for connection through musical creativity.

When students harmonize

Enter a cappella.

The MadHatters, UW-Madison's first established acapella group, formed in 1997. Within a cappella subculture, students find a unique sense of community reminiscent of the Barden Bellas of “Pitch Perfect,” albeit with a touch of real-life camaraderie.

“It’s a place to escape and be with my friends and sing and do something that makes me happy for a couple hours a week,” said Sloan Greenfield, co-music director of UW-Madison’s mixed-voice Redefined A Cappella group. 

Within the 18-member group, members have what Greenfield said is a great opportunity to “make the school smaller.” Founded in 2001, Redefined writes musical arrangements used for three semesters. They don’t buy any music from outside sources, and all their arrangements are created by current and former group members. 

“Alumni will come [back] for concerts or gigs,” she said. “One of our alumni works for the White Sox and was like, ‘Do you guys want to come sing the National Anthem?’ So we're gonna sing the National Anthem next semester at the White Sox game.”

Redefined hosts retreats and social events with other a cappella groups to learn the music and strengthen their camaraderie.

“I found such a community in acapella. Being able to create music and share that with other people is another level in terms of community,” Greenfield said “It’s something that makes you smile.”

Bringing people together through live music

While a cappella groups bring musical camaraderie to the big stage, it's the WUD Music Committee that takes charge of booking it.

With the help of advisor Sean Michael Dargan, the approximately 80-student committee books five shows per week. 

“[Students] come together as part of the WUD music committee and make these decisions, develop these incredible events and meet people from across the university,” said Madeleine Carr, the committee’s communication coordinator. “Friends that they would never have had elsewise, because of the shared love of music.”

This friendship among the committee is similar to what WUD Music hopes to inspire in its event goers. That mission continues even after students move out for the summer, when WUD Music focuses on the greater Madison community.

“Alumni that remember their time on the terrace so fondly come back," Dargan said. “There will always be a great view, there will always be a beautiful seat, there will always be something delicious to drink and eat and there will always be great music.”

Engaging in music with others increases happiness, according to a study published in Psychology of Music. As WUD Music Committee members, students play a crucial role booking live music in a world emerging from a lockdown that exacerbated social isolation.

“I just love going to the shows. You watch the weight leave [people’s] shoulders, smiles on faces,” Carr said. “[We’re] creating connections to know that your emotions are being heard on a wider scale.”

Music is everywhere. From the pulsating beats of DJay Mando to the harmonious melodies of acapella groups like Redefined, UW-Madison's campus is alive with the sound of music.

“There is community in identifying with an artist, performance or type of musical genre,” Snodgrass said. “And, often, music and other performing arts can convey a message when words are insufficient.”

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Jasper Bernstein

Jasper Bernstein is the Associate News Editor for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @jasperberns.


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