At the University of Pennsylvania and many other Ivy League schools, marching bands aren’t as serious. However, they can be just as dedicated, enthusiastic and caring about their performances, their teams and their fellow “bandos.”
It’s a Wednesday night, and I’m looking out over the band at historic Franklin Field, the football stadium at the University of Pennsylvania. I blow my whistle, and the band immediately erupts into chaos: everyone dashing around the field, holding instruments and trying not to run into each other.
I cringe a bit when I see a bass drummer and a piccolo player avoid a near collision at the last minute. The low brass put down their trombones and sousaphones to make an impromptu human pyramid. There are several woodwind players that are leapfrogging with each other.
I blow my whistle again, and the movements become more hurried as each member dashes to their correct spot on the field. There’s a sigh of relief from me and my fellow drum majors as we see that the formation looks the way it’s supposed to be— three letters spelling out “VHS.” I then lead the band into playing “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles.
To an outside observer, these Wednesday nights seem like utter madness, but for a scramble band, it’s just another field rehearsal preparing for the Saturday football game.
The Black Sheep?
I think of scramble bands as the black sheep of the marching band family. We’re a bit weird, a little unstructured and definitely outspoken. Each week we perform a different halftime show that is written by a dedicated show writing committee made up of bandos (Penn band speak for band member). These shows are read over the loudspeaker by “the Voice,” a member of the band chosen each year specifically for this job. As the show is read, the band “scrambles,” running around the field in all directions. Anything goes until the drum major blows the whistle that signifies that everyone must get in the correct formation. The formations and songs correspond to jokes contained in the week’s show.
In high school, I was a member of a 220-person marching band that was intensely focused on putting on a perfect show and winning competitions. Many other band members had similar high school experiences. However, the Penn band is a far cry from the regimented and tightly scheduled lifestyle of competitive marching band. We certainly don’t have 200-plus members, and we don’t march in step with rolled feet and perfect posture. However, the band’s traditions, spirit, and closeness set it apart and have added so much value to my years at Penn.
Our band does not have a set attendance policy, nor do we receive academic credit for our participation. I am not alone in saying that I juggle my band commitments with the other aspects of university life: a full course load, two work-study jobs and membership in other student groups including the Penn Wind Ensemble.
However, event after event, I’ve seen 60 or more students show up to support athletics or other university functions. People come to band not because they have to, but because they want to.
We’re the most dedicated fans at athletic events. Not only do we attend every home football and basketball game as well as some away games at other Ivy League schools, but we’ve also been a presence at soccer, softball, lacrosse and even a swim meet. We stay on our feet the whole time and cheer on our student athletes at a school where academics often take priority over athletics.
Between Exhausting and Exhilarating
Being the drum major of a scramble band definitely comes with its challenges. In addition to choosing the music, the drum majors are also responsible for keeping up the spirit and energy of the band. This constant need to be enthusiastic can sometimes be a challenge, especially during a particularly long game or during less-than-ideal weather conditions.
During one memorable football game at Dartmouth College, we stood outside in the pouring, freezing rain for hours. After the rain became too heavy for us to continue playing, I remember looking up at the band, wondering when they were going to mutiny and just leave to go back to the bus. Instead, our soggy, very cold, and somewhat miserable band started singing a cappella versions of all our songs. That weekend I got a pretty bad cold and the bus ride back to Philly smelled like wet dog, but I had a new appreciation for how the band adapts to circumstances.
It’s difficult to think of a single word to sum up what it’s like being a drum major, but it would fall somewhere between exhausting and exhilarating. I have no doubts, however, that it’s worth it.
As a band, we do so much more than play at games and university functions. The band is where we’ve found our closest friends and a place where we can be our genuine selves. Chances are: Someone is probably just as weird as you. We have band lunch, or “blunch,” every day at predestined locations on campus, where a mishmash of people from all different sections gather to eat and just hang out. For Thanksgiving, we have “Bonegiving,” which is a giant potluck dinner in the band room, and the low brass section puts on a pageant for the rest of the band. During the winter holidays, we have our “Non-Denominational, Non-Gender-Binary, Secret Snowflake Gift Exchange,” where we gather to exchange gifts anonymously.
A Place to be Imperfect
I think sometimes at schools like Penn, there can be a lot of pressure to be perfect. The Penn Band isn’t perfect. We’re not always (or ever, really) perfectly in tune with each other. Sometimes we have halftime shows where everyone seemingly forgets the formations and our director has a miniature heart attack.
Looking back over the past three years, though, I would not change anything. I love the band’s imperfections because it makes the band authentic and memorable. Years after I leave this place, I probably won’t remember the social psych class I took or the parties I attended. I’ll remember things like looking up at the crowd during the Homecoming game and tearing up like a baby seeing students and alums sing the school song or meeting the mayor and leading the band into a Phillies baseball game.
The countless rehearsals, games, blunches, study sessions and road trips have added up to shape my life at Penn into a more fulfilling and amazing experience, and I am grateful.