Finding his forte

Story by Katie Hoffman

Flashback to spring 2010. The men’s basketball team is mid-game in Zorn Arena, and it’s a close one. The Blugolds stay within two to five points of their opponent the entire game.

Matt Winarski sits in the bleachers with the rest of the Blugold Athletic Band.

“I just remember thinking, ‘They need us right now, they’re so close,’” he said. “We kept our minds focused in the game, yelling, cheering, playing our songs and then we pulled off a win by like two points in the last seconds.”

Winarski said he found out the next day that the men’s basketball team was expected to lose that game to their ranked opponent by a landslide.

“Ever since that game, my mentality has always been, ‘We’ve got to put everything we have into it, because it does have an effect. We may not be shooting points, but it must feel good for the team.”

Winarski, a senior sociology and music education double major, has been involved in music for 13 years. He is now the director of the Blugold Athletic Band, a music ensemble he started at UW-Eau Claire in 2008 that plays at both men’s and women’s
basketball games.

 

Musical influences

Winarski said sixth grade band students at his Memphis, Tenn., middle school were required to pick an instrument. Although he wanted to play percussion at first, Winarski said he picked the French horn, “just to pick one,” and it remains his primary instrument today.

“I never got away from it,” Winarski said, “just because it’s a valuable instrument in that not many people really play it.”

Winarski said his parents were really supportive in his decision to join band, but because he was really involved in scouting, too, they made him choose between that and the French horn.

“I was like, ‘Well, let’s go with band.’ So, knowing that I really wanted to do something, they’ve always been pretty behind me with that,” Winarski said.

During high school, Winarski said, was when he honed his skills as a horn player.

“The director was really strict, but he cared a lot about us and pushed us to be better musicians,” he said. “Both my starting band directors were huge inspirations.”

Playing music in college was something Winarski said he always planned on doing. After graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of Memphis (Tenn.) and joined the band.

 

Calling Eau Claire home

While at the University of Memphis, Winarski decided to spend the fall semester of 2007 participating in National Student Exchange, a program allowing students to experience a different academic environment while still enrolled in their home university.

Winarski came to Eau Claire through NSE because he said he wanted the “Wisconsin education” his parents always talked about having during their undergraduate time at UW-Whitewater.

“I figured I’d go up north for a little while, see another culture, because the south is very different from the north,” Winarski said. “This was my opportunity to see what it was like.”

Eau Claire has the largest Div. III marching band in the country, and Winarski said that was also a driving factor in choosing a school for NSE.

After attending Eau Claire during the fall of 2008, Winarski went back to the University of Memphis to re-join the Memphis Marching Band and cheer on
the Tigers in spring of 2009.

However, Winarski returned to Eau Claire in the fall of 2009 through NSE once again, and officially became a permanent Blugold in the spring of 2009. The final push to transfer came from Winarski’s dream to pursue music full-time and his love for the area.

“I came up here (during NSE), joined marching band instantly, and I just fell in love with this place,” Winarski said. “Whenever I say I’m going home, it’s wherever I’m living in Eau Claire. That’s home.”

Dr. Randy Dickerson, the director of the Blugold Marching Band, said he knew Winarski from the time he was an exchange student and got to know him well after he transferred.

“The first year he was just a student in the band. He had good experience from Memphis. Marching bands in the South are known for being excellent,”
Dickerson said.

 

Blugold Athletic Band

As Winarski continued to excel in the BMB, earning leadership roles and learning new music, he said he felt like something was missing from the experience.

“At the University of Memphis, pep band was a huge deal, being a Div. I school,” Winarski said. “I wanted to bring that excitement to Eau Claire, pump up the teams; that was my goal.”

Winarski said he got together with a group of other BMB members, who decided to start their own pep band for the Blugold basketball teams.

“We just went to the band and said we’d start playing at games,” he said. “We got music from Dr. Dickerson, set up rehearsals and said anyone interested
could come.”

Eau Claire started a pep band years before Winarski, Dickerson said, but it fell apart after a student took over and couldn’t handle the time commitment. Winarski said he struggled figuring out who to talk to from the university, as well as minor tasks like copying music for members.

“I was lost, easily,” Winarski said. “I leaned a lot on my band director now, Dr. Dickerson, for advice, guidance. It was a lot of bouncing around and talking to people.”

Dickerson said it is Winarski’s goal of making a difference and motivation to improve things that makes him stand out as a leader.

“His interest level and willingness to take charge and do things,” Dickerson said. “His initiative is higher than most people’s. His biggest contribution is in the basketball pep band.”

Over the last two seasons the Blugold Athletic Band hired arrangers, allowing the band to play new music never heard before, music tailored specifically to them.

Currently, Winarski said the membership is around the 120 person mark. Half are from the marching band, some from university band, and others who don’t want to commit to marching band but just want to play their instrument.

“We’ve been able to really grow and extend our membership and schedule,” Winarski said. “It’s been a great experience, a whole lot of fun. We’re making music, having fun and cheering on the basketball team.”

Rembering not to do everything himself is something Winarski admits he still struggles with. He credits his executive board with keeping his stress levels down and being “super helpful.”

 

Moving on

After college, Winarski plans on earning his doctorate degree and teaching at the high school level, keeping in mind the original goal of becoming a college band director.

Dickerson said he is confident in Winarski’s future and hopes to stay in contact as a mentor, even though he’s unsure of where he’ll end up.

“I tend to maintain ties with the primary leaders that leave here,” Dickerson said. “Matt is one of those top 1 or 2 percent of students that come through here very rarely.”

Currently in his last season as the director of the Blugold Athletic Band, Winarski’s hope for the group is that it remain visible to students and the public. He said he saves every email and every note in order to make the band’s transition to a future director seamless.

“I want to come back to Zorn Arena, and not hear myself think because the band is playing so loud for the team,” Winarski said. “That’s the atmosphere I just want to come back to. Its just so cool.”