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NNU pep band resurrected by freshman

January 24, 2019

By Veronica Craker, Marketing & Communications Operations Manager

Basketball fans who attended last week’s women’s game against Montana State Billings were treated to more than just a win. Even before the game started the Northwest Nazarene Pep Band was putting on a show.

As the announcer called out the names of the starting five, the band played a snippet of music —or “Stand Ditty” —before cutting off in time to hear the next player’s name. During these musical introductions, the trombone player could be seen raising his hand in the air before motioning his hand into a fist for the cut-off. That was Raven Mathison, a freshman music education major from Poplar, Montana. And he is the reason for the band’s presence after a three-year hiatus.

Throughout the game he and his fellow bandmates got the crowd pumped up with renditions of “Zoot Suit Riot,” “Sweet Caroline” and Mathison’s personal favorite “25 or 6 to 4.” The pep band cheered on the players, playfully razzed the opposing team and did their best to entertain the crowd. From the look on his face, it’s obvious Mathison and his bandmates enjoy sharing their passion for music with the crowd.

“It takes a lot of courage, and many of my students are too scared to try something new,” said music professor, Dr. Casey Christopher. “Raven wasn’t scared. He had the courage it takes to jump-start his education that many of us try to do in our junior and senior year.”

For many years, Mathison has turned to music as a way of refuge and has turned that love into a way to give back to the university he loves.

Music as refuge

Mathison has long had a love for music. In fact, it’s what he credits for helping him through a shaky upbringing off the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes reservation.

“You know it’s hard,” Mathison said of his time before NNU. “I grew up in an Indian reservation and so you see a lot of poverty and hardship and stuff like that, so music was there for me to be rescued pretty much as an extra-curricular.”

Mathison admits he didn’t have a stable upbringing and often leaned on music as a way to bypass the hardships. “My mom and dad were never really married and so living with my grandparents and going back and forth with my mother and them—I didn’t have a lot to do other than music,” he said.

Mathison started playing music in eighth grade at Poplar Middle School and spent a lot of his time with the community pep band. “We only had a volunteer community pep band where some of the old people would come play with us high school students and we played at all the games we could,” he said. “My junior and senior year we had a student pep band, which I really enjoyed because it brought a really strong atmosphere to the games and helped inspire a lot of people and people love it.”

Music as faith

Music also played a part in his spiritual life. Mathison grew up attending a small Nazarene church that consisted of much of his extended family. While he never had the opportunity to play his instrument, it certainly didn’t stop him from worshipping through song.

As graduation rolled around he looked for ways to continue on that pathway. Mathison said he grew up attending many Nazarene Church camps in Montana and often heard about NNU. “I never really gave it much thought until probably my senior year,” he said. “And that’s when I decided that I think a real nice private Christian university would be a really good atmosphere for me to grow closer to God and that’s what I was hoping for in my attempt to come here and that’s what I’ve been getting so far. I love it here.”

Even before Mathison stepped foot on NNU’s campus, he understood there was no pep band. In the past, the pep band was a student group extra-curricular where the participants were paid to play. “But even the enticement of the paycheck per game was not enough to ensure there would be enough people to show up,” said Dr. Casey Christopher, music professor. “So what Raven is accomplishing with enthusiasm others haven’t been able to accomplish with bank.”

Getting the band back together

Shortly after beginning his freshman year, Mathison decided he wanted to resurrect the pep band. He turned to Dr. Christopher for guidance on how to get started. In turn, Dr. Christopher told him he would need to care deeply about the program if he was going to succeed.

“He would have to be comfortable taking risks, doing a lot of salesmanships… before he even has the pieces in place to do the music,” he said. “But the reward would be a tremendous amount of experience and self-confidence. As long as he was tough-skinned, as long as he was resilient he couldn’t lose from the venture.”

As predicted, Mathison faced many roadblocks early on. He struggled with getting enough participation, finding time for band practice and finding the right music, but he never let it stop him from moving forward.

“The faculty have shown an extreme amount of support and it has been so-so helpful in some of the challenges that I faced,” Mathison said. “I found a lot of solace in talking with Dr. Christopher … about things I should do and the ways that I should run it and Dr. (Phillip) Miller has been a huge help in helping me run it and help me schedule and finding the right people to talk to.”

While it required a lot of work and dedication, Mathison credits his bandmates for being willing to show up and share in this experience with him. “It was the hardest in the beginning because just finding that motivation from students after something that had been off and on for that long of time was kind of hard to begin with,” Mathison said. “I don’t think I had more than 12 people signed up before our first rehearsal and after that, we more than doubled in size.” Now the band meets weekly to rehearse and attempts to be at every home game possible. “They are not getting grades, they are not getting paid they are giving time and they are giving effort and a lot of emotional energy to see this through,” Dr. Christopher said.

And it’s not just the music students and faculty who have appreciated their work. Junior Zoe Wessels plays on the women’s basketball team and says she can remember a time when there was no pep band at her games. Wessels recalls seeing them for the first time this past fall when her dad pointed them out to her. “I just never realized how different it was and how important it was, how (the band) does change the atmosphere and gets everyone into it,” she said.

Women’s basketball coach Steve Steele echoed that sentiment noting how their presence can help motivate not just the crowd, but his players as well. “It just gives us energy. It puts a little pep in our step,” he said. “I think that we will play a little harder, play a little faster. We feed off the crowd when we’re forcing turnovers or hitting (3-pointers). I know the crowd gets really loud, so definitely it’s an advantage to us.”

For Mathison, playing his instrument and making music for others to enjoy is just another way he can fuel his passion. “I think Raven has found some of the best parts of NNU,” Dr. Christopher said. “He has found a peer group that can appreciate his strengths without having to make him like anybody else. He’s been able to be humble. He’s been able to apply his strengths to trying out new things.”

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