Nov. 19, 2007 — When Dan Dickson transferred from Lord Fairfax Community College to the University of Virginia this fall, he was concerned about fitting in among traditional college-age undergraduates.
To bridge that gulf, the 32-year-old Dickson dusted off his trumpet and signed on with the University of Virginia Cavalier Marching Band.
"I hadn't touched my horn in about a dozen years," Dickson said. "But it's like riding a bicycle."
And then there was the marching.
"That," Dickson confessed, "was difficult. These kids are so energetic. I hadn't been used to doing a lot of activity the last 12 years or so."
But Dickson persevered. He cut his two-packs-a-day smoking habit by more than half, shed some pounds and became just another band member among the 234-strong Cavalier Marching Band.
The presence of an older student in a college marching band is not unusual, according to William Pease, U.Va.'s director of the bands.
Pease should know. As a graduate assistant at James Madison University in the early 1990s, he played the snare drum with that school's Marching Royal Dukes when they performed in the Inaugural Parade for President Bill Clinton's first inauguration.
"It about killed me," said Pease, who was 31 at the time. "I remember how my back felt at the end of that parade. I didn't think it would ever end."
But, Pease added, that's the great thing about music that's different from sports.
"As a musician, you can always go back and play," Pease said. "I admire Daniel for what he's done. If you saw our band, I don't think you would ever be able to pick out the 32-year-old trumpet player."
Dickson has played trumpet as long as he can remember. He picked it up from his father and has played in bands through grade school, at Monacan High School in Richmond and at East Carolina University as a nonstudent volunteer during the 1994-95 football season.
After trying community college about 10 years ago but lasting only a semester, Dickson was tending bar in Gainesville, Va., when he decided it was time to return to school.
"I was getting sick and tired of slinging drinks and wanted something more," he said. "I would work at the bar all night and then come home and watch The History Channel all day. I'd always heard that you should go with what you love. For me, it's history."
So he went to Lord Fairfax with the idea of transferring to a four-year institution, majoring in history and going on to either graduate school with an emphasis on Middle East history or to law school.
Once he was accepted at U.Va., Dickson began to think of ways he could meet people once he got to Charlottesville.
"To be honest, I didn't even know that U.Va. had a marching band. I remembered the days of the Pep Band," he said. "I found the marching band's Web site, signed up, downloaded the music and started practicing."
The experience has been different than he had anticipated, primarily because of the autonomy that U.Va.'s band members enjoy. The organization is truly student-run, Dickson said, with members themselves writing the drills and making sure everybody is on the same page. "It's a little more laid back that way," he said.
Dickson has never felt out of place. He has been amazed at how mature the students are — "probably more mature than I sometimes am. I'm really a kid at heart."
From the first day of band camp in the late summer, Pease said, Dickson was never out of step with his new bandmates.
"He has life experiences that the other students don't yet have," Pease said, "but he respects them for that maturity they have. And the respect is mutual."
There have been times, Dickson will admit, when the time commitment of practices and performances has been daunting. His time management was not as effective as it might have been in the first few weeks of classes. But he's adjusted and wouldn't trade the experience.
"I have been amazed at how welcoming everyone has been," Dickson said. "That's one thing about the school in general. People seem to feel better if they're helping somebody out. They just embrace that."
And game days, Dickson said, are worth the long practices.
"We really do get into the games," he said. "You can feel the energy on the field and in the stands. It hasn't always been easy, but it has always been fun."