The Beat Goes On
Jason Missal, director of UL Lafayette’s marching band, manages to leave his mark while honoring tradition
It’s Saturday — a football Saturday — in Acadiana, a region like many in the South where the sport is equal parts game and gospel.
Kickoff is just a few hours away, meaning there’s even less time than that until The Pride of Acadiana — UL Lafayette’s famed marching band — takes to the plastic grass of Cajun Field. Jason Missal, the fresh-faced director of this complicated musical maneuvering, isn’t nervous, though. Excited, yes. Nervous, never.
By now, he reasons, the work has been put in, the sacrifices made, the necessary adjustments … um, adjusted. There’s nothing left to do but play.
Missal can’t promise victory.
But he sure as heck guarantees harmony.
“Going to a school like UL, it’s a whole new ballgame,” says Missal, who previously directed the band at Abilene Christian University in Texas. “It’s Division I football. The atmosphere is totally different … and the band is a big part of that. It’s part of the heartbeat. You’re aware of that as the director, trying to keep that energy up. Fans take pride in the team and its traditions and the band and its traditions, as well. It just goes into that total game-day atmosphere.”
The realization that Missal ended up here, should be no surprise. Well, here as in Lafayette, maybe. But here as in a marching band director almost seemed preordained. Missal grew up in a “House of Music.” As he says, “My father was a band director and his father was a band director.”
As an instrumental music education major at Oklahoma State University, Missal was a section leader within the Cowboy Marching Band as a sophomore and junior, and the drum major as a senior.
So when it comes to leading student musicians, Missal has literally marched in their shoes.
“Always as a teacher and a director, you have to consider the welfare of the band and the betterment of the individual student,” Missal says. “So when it comes to musical decisions, logistical decisions, time commitments, I’m making all of those from their perspective. This is a lot of time to devote to an activity, but it’s our hope that the experience they have in rehearsal and on game day and the social, family atmosphere we’re promoting, makes all of it worthwhile.”
More delegator than dictator as a band leader, Missal began to put his own thumbprint on The Pride of Acadiana when he took over for Eric Melley prior to the 2017 football season. First, he bestowed a lot of responsibility upon fellow music faculty member Brett Landry, who was placed in charge of the band’s percussion section and collaborated with Missal in all things Pride of Acadiana: formations, music selection and so on.
Additionally, Missal placed greater responsibility upon the actual band members, granting them a sense of ownership, and in turn, greater stakes in the on-the-field/in-the-stands product on Saturdays. Doing so enabled Missal to focus his attention and energy on a list of year-one goals, including raising the playing standard of the band, raising the marching standard of the band, and giving it a well-defined sense of structure.
“We’re dealing with, in my first year here at UL, a band of nearly 300,” Missal says. “So not only do you have to be proficient in all the things that make a good band — logistics, music, formation and movement, cohesion — but you have to be part psychologist, too. You have to be aware of the collective morale, as well as the individual morale of individuals and sections of the band. So you have to wear a lot of hats.
“But showing you care about the students as people, showing you value them more than an entity is the best way to get them to buy-in to the goals of the band.”
Understanding the attachment fans, alumni and students have with the school’s marching band, Missal didn’t make sweeping changes in 2017. Most in attendance at Cajun Field might not have even noticed them. Missal’s version of The Pride of Acadiana played in the stands while both the Ragin Cajuns offense and defense was on the field, which was different. But the 170-band member pregame routine wasn’t touched. Music selection wasn’t altered much.
In time, Missal hopes to adjust the pregame routine to feature formations that incorporate all members of the marching band and find more contemporary titles to play while in the stands.
“There’s a strong sense of culture here,” Missal says. “The band is a part of that. I swear, as soon as I was hired, it seemed the entire region of South Louisiana ‘friended’ me on Facebook and wanted to know about what was going on. It was great to see that enthusiasm, that excitement for The Pride of Acadiana. It makes you aware of what it means to the fans and students, so it’s hard not to be excited about it and where we want it to go.”
Much like the fight song, the “Alma Mater” came to be thanks to a contest. Unlike the fight song however, the words of the Alma Mater haven’t changed over the years.
Pride of Acadiana Playlist
“UL Lafayette Fight Song”
In 1950, the university sponsored a contest among students to come up with an official school fight song. The winner, the brother-sister duo of Jack and Hilma Labauve, received a $100 savings bond, for composing the song that’s played after Ragin’ Cajuns scores. Over the years, there have been a few minor changes to the song, such as changing the word Bulldogs (then the mascot) to Cajuns.
For some time now, this Aretha Franklin hit has been a staple in The Pride of Acadiana’s rotation of songs. The band performs a fanfare rendition at the beginning of its pregame on-field performance, and belts out longer versions for in-game breaks and parade appearances.
Considering this old Hank Williams song features multiple regional cultural references in almost every lyric, it’s no wonder why The Pride of Acadiana incorporates it into its pregame routine.