Robert Calonico bleeds Berkeley blue and gold.
He grew up on UC Berkeley’s campus, went to college there and has served as director of the school’s marching band for 28 years.
During his tenure as the school’s director of bands — a position that includes leading the 225-piece “Pride of California” marching band and the 60-piece University Wind Ensemble — Calonico has traveled around the globe with student musicians as they performed at countless school sporting events, all while gaining the respect and admiration of students and faculty from across Berkeley’s campus.
On Wednesday, Calonico announced that he plans to step down from his position in June. I sat down with him in his office to talk about his time at Berkeley.
After 28 years of leading Cal’s bands, what’s your favorite memory?
“I’d have to say, with the marching band, performing at the Great Wall of China in 2016.”
I’ve heard that you grew up in Berkeley. So you essentially bleed blue and gold, don’t you?
“You know, a lot of students say, ‘Bob, the first three letters of your last name kind of say it all.’ C-A-L, so there it is. My dad did grad school here, and my mom was an undergrad. That’s where they met. Back in the day, they would tell us, ‘You can apply anywhere you want, but you’re going to Cal.’ ”
Can you tell me a little bit about your first time playing with the Cal band?
“My brother was a sophomore here at the time. It was my first year, in 1972. There’s an explosion that goes off at pregame, and my brother didn’t say a word about it. And I marched right over that spot right before the bomb went off, and I must have jumped 6 feet in the air. He never told me until it actually happened. I found him on the sideline and go, ‘You didn’t tell me!’ He goes, ‘Well, of course I didn’t!’ ”
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with students here at Berkeley?
“They are incredible on every level — just as people, and then as musicians and students. They’re just a joy to be around. With the marching band, it’s student leadership. There are five students who run the band and every aspect of it. And I’m maybe institutional memory — a guider, if you will, a mentor at times. They chart the course of the band.”
I was a student at Berkeley not too long ago. I’ve seen firsthand the sense of community in Cal’s band. When you watch them perform, you see that they love every second of it. Can you tell me about the culture and how it’s evolved over the years?
“That is one of the things I talk to potential students about. Find your community, whatever it is. If it’s gonna be working on the newspaper, or if it’s gonna be a fraternity or sorority — whatever it is, it makes a place like this a lot smaller. It’s just so strange that I’ve been here all these years, and I can walk across campus, and there isn’t one time where I’ve not seen a student that I teach — either in the band or in the wind ensemble or something. It’s just uncanny. It does make a community within a very large one.”
You’ve been all over the world with these bands. Is there one specific instance you can point to as the moment you were most proud to be director of Cal’s bands?
“Being asked to be in Super Bowl 50. During a recording session with Will Champion, the drummer of Coldplay, he was as kind as can be to my students. And I mean that whole experience. And there was also a memorandum — we had to not tell anyone that we were selected. So this all occurred in late December, and the performance wasn’t until the second week of February. So for six weeks, my students didn’t say a word. And they were warned: ‘If you do, they may pull you from the show,’ so I think the whole picture — that whole Super Bowl experience in 2016 — is probably way up there.”