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Society, Arts and Culture

'One Big Buddy Group.' Mustang Band Feels the Love At SF's Chinese New Year Parade

Mustang Band lines up near the Ferry Building in San Francisco for the annual Battle of the Bands with UC Davis ahead of the Chinese New Year Parade.
Written By Gabby Ferreira

When the Mustang Band took to the streets of San Francisco for the 2024 Chinese New Year Parade on Feb. 24, it was a culmination of hard work and a celebration of their togetherness. 

 “When you wake up on the day of the CNY parade, you just strap in,” said Evi Bengel, a fourth-year cymbals player. “You just know you’re going to be doing fun stuff all day.”  

The day of the Chinese New Year Parade typically goes like this: the band meets up at Cal Poly at 7 a.m. for the drive up to San Francisco, then grabs lunch in the city ahead of the annual “band off” between the Mustang Band and the marching band from UC Davis. After that, it’s off to the parade’s starting point in the Financial District, where they join floats, dancers and human-powered dragons for a nearly two-mile route around Union Square and up into Chinatown.   

Sierra Jordan, a fourth-year clarinet player and section leader, first marched in the parade as a sophomore. It was her first time playing in a parade of that size, and her first time exploring a new part of California.  

“That parade was actually my first time in San Francisco, ever,” she said. “We do the holiday parade in SLO but that doesn’t compare to the Chinese New Year Parade. It was the biggest parade I’ve ever been to in my life, and it was really cool to be a part of that.”  

Six clarinet players in Mustang Band pose for a photo on a staircase to commemorate their senior year.
Sierra Jordan, left, poses with the other clarinet seniors on the day of the Chinese New Year Parade. Courtesy of Sierra Jordan

The parade, sponsored by Alaska Airlines and run by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, is part of the largest Lunar New Year celebration in the world outside of Asia. This past February marked the ninth time the Mustang Band has performed in the parade since 2014.  

To mark their final Chinese New Year Parade, Jordan and the other senior clarinet players made goody bags for the rest of their section to keep them occupied — and feel the love — on the way up to San Francisco.   

“That bus trip is early and people might not have eaten breakfast yet, so we put in some snacks and a bingo card of things to spot on the drive, and made slime that they could fidget with,” she said. “It was really a ‘This is from the seniors, we hope you have a good day’ kind of thing.”  

The togetherness continued once they got to San Francisco, with the 26-member section refusing to split up when a few of them went to get boba.  

“We’re all one big buddy group,” Jordan said. “I love my section a lot.”   

Mustang Band's 26-member clarinet section posed for a photo in uniforms on the steps of the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.
Mustang Band's clarinet section poses for a photo ahead of the parade. Courtesy of Sierra Jordan

In the weeks leading up to the parade, Mustang Band members have about 12 hours of rehearsal, where they go through the music and practice marching the parade route.   

For Bengel, the cymbals player, marching in the parade means her arms have to be up and in position for a long time. On Fridays leading up to the parade, she and the rest of her section went to the gym for some extra conditioning, which they dubbed “gymbals.”   

“We’d just get together and try to put in a little effort,” Bengel said. “Obviously we're goofing and we're laughing and none of us are ripped. We're all just there to get better.”  

Marching in the Chinese New Year Parade can get physically and mentally tiring — though the route isn’t overly long, it’s still about two hours of marching and playing instruments. To get through it, Bengel said she likes to remind herself why she’s there.    

Mustang Band's cymbal players perform in front of the San Francisco Ferry building ahead of the Chinese New Year Parade.
Cymbals players including Evi Bengel, center, perform during the Battle of the Bands in front of the Ferry Building. Mike Bottini

“One of my friends described it this way: at a football game, people are there to see football, but at a parade, people are lined up because they want to see you,” Bengel said. “Even just waving or smiling and making eye contact with an audience member makes it feel like no time is passing at all. When you see a little kid with a giant iPad filming you, you’re like ‘Okay, I can’t mess this up now.’”   

But at the end of the day, it felt like the perfect send-off to a treasured event.     

“I’m here to have fun, and I’m here to play music with my friends and I’m here to show off who Cal Poly is,” Bengel said.    

“I often dismiss the band after games and events by saying, ‘I have the best job on campus,’ and that was never truer than at the 2024 Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco,” said Mustang Band Director Nick Waldron. “This year’s parade was already a success before we arrived in San Francisco just by how we prepared and rehearsed, but for the students to also have one of their best performances of the year, made it unforgettable!” 

Header photo by Mike Bottini