A YouTube video of George Mason University’s pep band performing a two-minute Rage Against the Machine medley, posted last February, got more than 1.7 million views. A similar video of the band performing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was viewed by 112,000 people.
If the best kind of publicity is free, then Mason’s pep band — known as the Green Machine — has become a PR machine for the school, working to raise its profile through music.
The success of the band has resulted in recognition on campus and off, said Mason’s Daniel Robb, assistant vice president of enrollment management. “We often get people who say, ‘Oh yeah. I’ve heard of them,’ ” Robb said. “For current students, it has really helped to transform us from something we knew was good to something others recognize as good.”
What sets Mason’s pep band apart from those at other schools is its drum-major style frontman professor Michael Nickens, known as “Doc Nix,” said fans, students and staff. Nickens’s zany costumes and dance moves displayed while leading the band have earned him two bobble-head miniatures of himself for sale for $15 on campus and a crabcake sandwich at Brion’s Grille, an off-campus restaurant and hangout.
During a men’s basketball game recently against James Madison University, students from the rival school carried a six-foot cutout of a Doc Nix bobble-head and visited with the man behind the band.
“He’s got this whole thing going with the outfits and dancing. He’s kind of a staple of the Mason music program,” said James Madison student Steve Plante, 22, a trumpet player.
The Green Machine, he said, is more than just a pep band.
“It’s more like the Mason pep orchestra. I mean look at them,” he said.
Between 50 and 60 students — some music majors, some not — came out to play with the pep band during the game. Depending on the level of interest in a game, the pep band can swell to more than 100 players, students said. Those numbers are a far cry from where the band started, said Nickens, who is in his sixth year leading the band and teaches brass methods and applied tuba for Mason’s School of Music.
“Before we built this up at Mason, there was nothing that captured a [sporting] event like this does,” Nickens said. “It was about 25 members when I showed up. By the second year I was here, we had 200 people show up — singers, rappers, scratch DJs . . . electric violins and viola. We’ve got everything.”
The pep band is open to any student who can play an instrument or sing. “One of the main things that this band proves is a connection with the community, helping with branding. It helps with recruiting. It helps with brokering partnerships with local business,” Nickens said. “I think that shows that the idea of community outreach is successful.”
Students attribute the band’s growing popularity to its leader, adding there are student fans and visitors to the school that come to basketball games just to see Nickens and the Green Machine.
“I think it gives you a sense of school spirit that you wouldn’t normally get. We have a great reputation and that gives you something to be proud of,” said trombonist Peter Milligan, 20, a communications major who has performed with the pep band for 3.5 years. “That’s what I love about the pep band. People from JMU come holding a Doc Nix bobble-head cutout.”
Tuba player William Johnson, 21, who studies network engineering, has played with the band since he was a freshman. “I think we have a strong impact not only on the fans and team but wherever we go,” he said.
Paul Hewitt, who is in his first year as the men’s team’s head coach, said he knew about the Green Machine long before coming to Fairfax.
“They’re the best. Anything that can provide some enthusiasm and some adrenaline to the building helps,” he said. “It’s definitely reflected on the scoreboard.”
Senior basketball forward Mike Morrison, 22, said his favorite Green Machine tune is Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
The pep band “is very important to us,” Morrison said. “The Green Machine is really a part of the Mason basketball culture. . . . It’s part of the whole basketball experience.”
Basketball fans agreed that the pep band is a big part of Mason’s game-day experience. “They unify us all with their music,” said junior Katie Dugan, 20, a communications major. Nickens “is really connected with the fans.”
The Green Machine has built up a nearly 80-song repertoire, with many of the arrangements created by Nickens. “It’s the best job I could pick for myself,” Nickens said. “I grew up with sports. I grew up with music. So this is a great fit for me.”