To those in the marching arts world, band couples—and their subsequent marriages—may seem commonplace. But what is it about marching together that creates a love connection?
Photo courtesy of Steve and Beth Peterson
On a cold Friday night in November of 2009, I was freezing at my high school’s football game despite my wool marching band uniform. Thankfully enough, my friend Tim offered to share his hand warmers with me. We spent the rest of the night awkwardly holding hands, but I had been charmed by his generosity. Several months later, while playing in the pep band at a basketball game, Tim decided to ask me to be his girlfriend. The very next year, our parents bought buttons with both of us proudly in our band uniforms. It was official—the two band geeks were permanently together. We then went to the same college, joined the marching band and settled into college life. Last year, Tim popped the big question, and I (of course) said yes. In the time since, I’ve seen a handful of other couples getting engaged or married who were in the marching band with us.
So why do marching marriages work? From interviews and observation, it seems that the common thread was commitment— not only to each other but also to the team, to the band and to music.
The Dating Game
For some couples, band is the perfect place to become acquainted. University of Michigan (UM) alumni Jonathan San and Danielle Mai had seen each other on campus in engineering classes but first spoke to one another on the football field. “I guess I had noticed her in band,” explains San. “We were at an away game at halftime, and we were lining up, and I introduced myself. And then we had our first date a few weeks later.”
The Northwestern University Marching Band in Evanston, Ill., actually has a tradition of setting up couples on dates, affectionately known as the “NUMB Dating Game.” At the end of the band’s traditional “spirit session,” two people would be paired and given each other’s phone numbers. If no other band members asked them out, the two would be forced to go on a date.
In one instance, former band director Steve Peterson was matched with a graduate assistant, Beth, whom he later married. “It makes a nice story to say it was the dating game,” explains Peterson. “She’ll tell you she had this all planned before we met.”
Beth recalls that former director of bands John Paynter introduced the idea of the two dating. “I had gone to Northwestern before I started working to pick up some music history packets,” she says. “I ran into Mr. Paynter and said, ‘I will be working with the marching band,’ and he said, ‘Oh, you’ll be working with Steve Peterson. He’s single!’”
While both believe that they would have dated otherwise, they agree that the game made it easier for them to justify a relationship between a director and a graduate assistant. “We thought, ‘Now we have a good excuse to do this,’ so we did,” Steve Peterson says. “Then it took quite a quiet turn because I was afraid of how it would look. But by the end of the fall, it was pretty clear that we were going to end up together.”
For other couples, however, a relationship didn’t start until years after their first halftime show. While Amy Wardeska and her husband, Jay, met on the marching band field at Mount Union College (now the University of Mount Union) in Alliance, Ohio, they failed to make a connection. It was years later, when Jay needed a color guard instructor at Buckeye High School in Medina, Ohio, that the two met again.
“He called me because he needed a color guard instructor—we were not dating at the time,” Wardeska says. “I turned him down three times, but he said he had somebody lined up. He needed me just to come and help get the kids started. The reality was he didn’t have anybody lined up. So once I got there, and we started working together, it sort of took off from there.”
Similarly, James Strecker and Jessica Nokelby played together in the Astoria (Ore.) High School marching band but didn’t start dating until they marched in the Oregon Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps post-graduation. “There’s a debate whether we met in band class or math class in middle school,” Strecker says. “We were in this back-and-forth ‘crush mode.’”
Ultimately, it was their time in drum corps that brought the two together. “I got to know who Jessica was and mostly everything about her prior to dating, just from being in band for so long,” Strecker says. “So I think that we were pretty good friends beforehand and that helped with the ability to start a relationship.”
Proposals are truly a chance for future grooms to get creative; for instance, my proposal was against the lit-up skyline of Pittsburgh, one of my favorite cities.
Having the sights and sounds of a marching band can also provide a special setting for an elaborate proposal. San knew that he wanted to incorporate the marching band, and being a UM alum, he also knew the perfect way to do so. After each home game, the band performs a “donor set” and spells the name of its halftime sponsor on the field.
“I thought it would be cool to write a message using that set,” says San, who worked with the directors to have the band spell his proposal—“Marry Me Danielle?”— on the field. “I figured I would try; I had this great idea. I got back to them, and it ended up working out perfectly.”
Mai, of course, was excited by the proposal. “The weather was terrible that week, so I was trying to leave the game early, and he had to come up with some sorry excuse to make me stay,” explains Mai. “But then he told me, ‘I’m this week’s show sponsor,’ and as soon as he told me that, I knew. I was just kind of in shock, but I was incredibly flattered and very impressed.”
For Nokelby, Strecker’s proposal came completely by surprise. During the Oregon Crusaders’ age-out ceremony, each age-out has the chance to give a piece of advice to younger members. Strecker took that opportunity to propose. “We do a militaristic ceremony of sorts to say goodbye,” Strecker says. “I knew it was going to happen, so it was something I could count on. I debated doing something like having the whole corps spell out, ‘Will you marry me?,’ but why would everyone go to the field except for her? I think this was better because it was a surprise for everyone who wasn’t involved.” And after a tearful ceremony, the proposal was completely unexpected by Nokelby. “I had no idea because, during the summer, when you’re doing drum corps, you’re very focused,” she says. “I was very surprised— but it was a good surprise!”
And while the band didn’t make an appearance during her proposal, Wardeska’s students were amazed to learn about her engagement to Jay. “At the end of band camp, Jay told the kids, ‘I have a surprise for you. I have a big announcement— Mr. Wardeska’s getting married. Would you like to meet her? Well, she’s here.’ And the funny part is, all the kids were looking around the football field, and I was standing right there with them!”
If marching bands are popular for proposals, they’re probably even more favored for weddings. Almost all of the couples say that band was a part of their weddings—even if they weren’t prepared for it.
For instance, former University of Cincinnati drum major Nick DelleCave had almost 60 guests walk out of his reception—unnoticed—and return ready to play. “Out of nowhere, [the best man] comes up to us and says, ‘There’s just one more thing,’” explains DelleCave. “And then you hear music kick up, and it’s ‘Down the Drive.’ So then this band is there, and they’re like, ‘You are the drum major, so you need to direct us.’ So I directed like five pep band tunes and some percussion cadences!”
The whole experience turned out to be the couple’s favorite moment of that night. “It was a phenomenal surprise,” DelleCave says. “I never expected that all of our friends would do something so caring and loving. They took the thing that brought us together and allowed us to celebrate that in the most important moment of our lives.”
Steve Peterson experienced a very similar situation at his nuptials. “We were surprised when the band showed up in uniform at the cake cutting,” he says. “I don’t know how they pulled it off—I didn’t know they were coming!”
Beth Peterson says that her dad had organized the surprise. “He worked it out and bought the kids a bunch of pizza,” she says. “We were starting to cut the cake, and Mr. Paynter stood up. I could hear music off in the distance, and then 10 to 12 band members came in and played for us.”
Mai and San don’t plan to have the band play at their reception, but their marching band spirit is definitely evident. “Our reception is at Michigan’s stadium in the press boxes, which looks down over the stadium and field,” San says. “And one of the ideas we are toying around with is to give all our guests a drill set that spells out ‘Thank you.’”
After “I Do”
Quite obviously, if marching band brought two people together, band will continue to be a part of their lives. Mai and San continue to frequent games, just as Strecker and Nokelby assist at their former high school. The DelleCaves found themselves highly involved at Cincinnati—Nick created a Drum Major Society and served as the president of the band alumni association while his wife, Stephanie, interviewed candidates for alumni scholarships and assisted with guard routines.
For the Petersons and the Wardeskas, however, band is a full-time job—and each couple works together at the same school! Steve Peterson is currently director of bands at Ithaca (N.Y.) College and conducts the wind ensemble while Beth conducts the school’s symphonic band. Jay Wardeska has moved on to be the band director at Brunswick (Ohio) High School; Amy works with him at his new location and has also continued as guard instructor at Buckeye.
Both couples found little issue with working together on a constant basis. “We both understand how we’re so busy and why,” says Steve Peterson. “In some cases, when a band director marries someone outside of band, they aren’t as understanding.”
Amy Wardeska agrees with the sentiment. “The benefit is that we get to spend more time together than if we were in different places,” she says. “The challenges? We sometimes have creative differences, … so there are little clashes, but for the most part, we have a great working relationship.”
So why is it that marching marriages produce such brilliant results? Beth Peterson thinks that it is the fire behind every performance. “I think [love is] natural when you share an intense experience; it’s easy to be attracted to one another,” she says. “I think maybe the secret or the key is that there are more common interests after that. When the band season ends, do you have the same interests or values? I think that when that happens, then a relationship might occur.”
There’s just something about the type of people who are in marching band, according to Strecker. “I think [marching marriages are] common because band people are weird, and they’re drawn to that weirdness,” he says.
Oddly enough, none of the couples play the same primary instrument. Mai thinks that the difference is what kept her with San, saying, “I think not being in the same section, not competing with each other— that probably helped!”
Music, as all band members know, is simply something that brings people together. “Band marriages last longer than other marriages because the foundation isn’t built on glass,” DelleCave says. “The foundation is built on music—something that elicits within us a unique emotional experience. And when two people have a similar emotional experience, that is an inseparable experience that you cannot get from seeing someone at a bar.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Natalie Brdar is an editorial intern at Halftime Magazine. She recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati (UC) with a degree in English literature and will be starting the professional writing master’s program at UC in the fall. She marched alto saxophone with the Olmsted Falls (Ohio) High School Bulldog Marching Band for four years and marched tenor saxophone during her three years with the UC Bearcat Bands.