It isn’t at every school that the most popular sports team has to compete for attention with the band that plays at their games.
That’s a possibility at VCU however, as the Peppas have gained popularity and gone on to become a nationally recognized pep band, and recently released their second album, titled “Havoc Suite.”
They play with a distinct sound, utilizing an array of brass and percussion instruments to lead the chants that VCU has developed over the years. Recently, the band began leading a “VCU Haka,” which is a traditional Maori ancestral war song that’s been revamped to be one of the Rams’ most amplifying performances.
Kayen Wilborn, the trumpet player who has been tasked with leading the Haka this year, said, “I already knew it was being done by the New Zealand All Blacks, I already knew a little about it when I was asked, and it was a great opportunity for me to get really into it. It really helped with my enthusiasm, and getting the enthusiastic level of the band.”
This is Wilborn’s second year playing with the Peppas, but his first year playing on the Scholarship Band, a special group of players who have proven their commitment to the band, as well as outstanding school spirit and playing ability.
“I really took time and practiced and worked on memorizing the music and being more enthusiastic during the games,” Wilborn said. “A lot of being a part of the Scholarship Band is not only your skills as far as playability, but your enthusiasm and willingness to being committed during the game and attending the events.”
Wilborn first heard the Peppas a few years ago, and was immediately impressed with what they were presenting.
“I think it was 2011 when I went, and those cats, they had so much passion and so much love for the music that it just made the music sound so much more powerful,” Wilborn said.
The Peppas play music at various events throughout the year. During the fall semester, they play for the men’s and women’s soccer games, they then play at basketball games through the winter season. They’ve performed on the Today Show, and this week, they’ll be performing at King’s Dominion for their 41st anniversary celebration.
The band director, Ryan Kopacsi, also works as a volunteer firefighter. He’s been the band’s director for more than 15 years. In 2013, he unofficially announced his retirement from the position, but continued directing.
Following a social media campaign “Keep Ryan at VCU,” athletics director Ed McLaughlin released an official statement which said that Ryan will continue to entertain the crowds at VCU sporting events with his band. This is the first ever public statement regarding contract agreements with a band director.
“He’s got a strong passion for the band, and he really wants us to succeed,” Wilborn said. “Everything that we do is sort of a reflection of him. Him being there, personally, makes me more amped up because he puts so much energy into and it inspires me to put my best foot forward.”
“The environment is awesome, but it’s really energetic,” said Byron Maldonado, a freshman member of Peppas. “You have to have a lot of passion for this university, to actually be able to play. Once you know the music, you know the music by heart, and you really don’t need to read anything.”
The Peppas have received national recognition, and this January, NCAA.com listed them as the second best pep band for college basketball in the United States, second only to GMU’s “Green Machine.”
Maldonado hopes to be a part of the Scholarship Band next year as well so that he may perform at the A-10 Tournament. Members of the Scholarship Band are awarded special opportunities to travel alongside the men’s and women’s basketball teams and perform at games around the country.
“If you go to pretty much all of the soccer games and show that you really love doing this, you really go on and get to do basketball games,” Maldonado said. “That’s where the real fun is, and I’ve done all the basketball games.”
The Peppas’ first self-titled album was released back in 2011, during the famed season where VCU’s men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four, a feat they’ve yet to be able to replicate.
Some of the graduates of VCU who were members of the Peppas have gone on to join professional brass troupes, and many of the members of the band now are music majors who intend on following careers involving musical performance.