An outsider looking in: My weekend with the Blue Band - The Daily Collegian: Arts & Entertainment

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An outsider looking in: My weekend with the Blue Band

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  • Blue Band

Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 12:00 am

A caravan of six buses and one tractor-trailer were lined up outside the building.

It was 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday — a time many college students don’t even know exists. Searching for bus No. 2, I walked half-asleep down the row. People bustled past me trying to find the right bus to board.

All of us had the same destination: The Ohio State University.

It was the game day Penn State football fans had been anticipating since September and it was crucial for this group of people to not be late.

That day I would be representing the student section with an elite army of 310. That day I would be a part of the Penn State Blue Band.

When it comes to away games, the football team doesn’t have a stadium packed with fans to cheer them on. Instead they must rely on the so-called “bandwagon,” more commonly known as the Blue Band, for support.

“I’ve always been convinced that the [Blue Band] can be an outstanding representation of Penn State,” Blue Band Director Dr. O. Richard Bundy said. “The students in the band take a great deal of pride in representing Penn State well both in performances and general conduct.”

When I was given the chance to spend the weekend with the Blue Band, I jumped at the opportunity.

During my weekend with the band, I learned much more than music and marching.

First off, celebrity status comes with the job.

All Penn Staters know who the Blue Band is. We may not know the individuals, but that’s not the point, Blue Band President and bass drummer Ryan Simpson said.

“No one person is going to get all the glory because not one person should,” Simpson (senior-marketing) said. “It takes everybody.”

When we see the blue and white uniform with “PS” embroidered on the front and hear the “Penn State Fight Song,” in that instance, we know the Blue Band is here.

This fame isn’t limited to the Penn State campus, either.

“I’ve had countless pictures taken with people on trips, who just come up to me and say, ‘Hey, can I get a picture with the Blue Band?’ ” clarinetist Allison Long (senior-music education) said.

And that celebrity status was really evident when…

There was a police escort to the game.

Looking back, this didn’t seem necessary at all, but it was pretty awesome to shut down an interstate. I’m not kidding by the way. The police shut down the entire highway so the Blue Band buses could travel safely to the game.

Before this weekend, I thought this was something only done for political caravans and as far as I could tell, this was not something the Blue Band was used to either.

The security continued throughout the night. While parading to St. John’s Arena, there were security guards lined along the road to block fans from getting near the band.

The Blue Band members advised me to be prepared since…

Everyone is nervous their first time.

Across the Blue Band sections, there was a common sentiment — walking onto the field for the first time is a completely nerve-racking experience, especially at Beaver Stadium.

“We were in the tunnel getting ready to head out and I was the first sousaphone to walk out,” sousaphonist Nancy Hartman (senior-music education) said. “I cried my eyes out the whole time. I had all my music memorized and I didn’t play a single note.”

Of course, when there are 26 sousaphonists in a band of 310, one member not playing could go unnoticed.

“The mindset is [the audience] can’t tell if you’re not playing,” sousaphonist Clayton McKee (sophomore-Spanish and French) said about performing for the first time. “But they can tell if you’re not marching.”

That kind of thinking works for most members, but not for Drum Major Chris Siergiej — all eyes are on him when he runs onto the field.

“I was very nervous my first time ever performing the flip in a group larger than the [310] blue band members,” Siergiej (senior-computer science and mathematics) said. “I had one shot to perform it right. If I messed up, I couldn’t redo it.”

Luckily, Siergiej landed his flip at MetLife Stadium in the Nittany Lions’ first game of the season, which of course led to a roaring cheer from the fans.

Even after performing in numerous shows, band members still get those butterflies that they felt their first game, Simpson said.

And who can blame them when…

Walking into Ohio Stadium was terrifying.

It’s the Colosseum.

In Ohio, we were the lion and Ohio State was the Roman gladiator. And just like in the Colosseum, no one roots for the lion.

The fans may have intimidated me, but the Blue Band wasn’t fazed.

Amid the booing coming from the Ohio State fans, the Blue Band took the field with heads held high for its pregame performance.

“It goes back into getting in a trance and performing like we do at practice,” Siergiej said. “There we don’t have crowds either, so it goes back to thinking about why we’re here to perform for the crowd.”

No matter how the fans react, the Blue Band is there for one thing only — to perform and to do it well.

“We wanted to say, ‘This is who we are and you’re not going to stop us,’ ” trombonist Sarah Shulbank-Smith (sophomore- psychology and trombone performance) said.

Even though the fans may have been hostile…

There are no rivalries between marching bands.

Our schools might be enemies when it comes to the football teams, but when the marching bands are on the field, there is nothing but support and encouragement coming from the opposing band.

“All marching bands have a mutual respect for each other,” baritonist Mike McNeill (senior-veterinary and biomedical sciences) said. “It goes beyond the football team.”

Without even talking to the Blue Band about it, the respect was evident after the Skulls Session –– the equivalent to Penn State’s TailGreat –– and halftime show. Members from each band were running up to members of the opposing band to congratulate them on a job well done.

“A band member is a band member no matter what state you’re from,” Simpson said.

College marching bands are not competitive teams. It’s more about performing for an audience than winning awards. However, the Blue Band was awarded the Sudler Trophy in 2005 — similar to a lifetime achievement award — Bundy said.

Still, I have to say…

The Blue Band kicked butt.

Considering I am not a permanent part of the Blue Band, I have no problem bragging about how talented the Penn State marching band is. The musical complexity of the Blue Band’s performance is incredible. This band doesn’t take its performances lightly.

“The one constant [over the years] was we wanted to always be putting forth the kind of product and musical experience for students that had always been a part of the band’s history,” Bundy said.

Practicing typically for two hours, four days a week, the Blue Band is committed to achieving perfection.

The majorettes have additional practices during the week, which has led to their success at the National Baton Twirling Association (NBTA) competition, where they currently are the 11-time national champions.

This past year, the majorettes accomplished something at nationals that had never been done before.

“This was the first year ever that a college has swept all categories in NBTA championship,” Feature Twirler Matt Freeman said.

Freeman (senior-marketing) himself is a six-time world champion in twirling and appreciates his chance to represent Penn State.

“To be an ambassador for the university is just amazing,” Freeman said. “I never thought I would get this opportunity.”

With such strenuous practices, it comes as a shock to know…

This is not an extracurricular.

Despite what other students may think, Blue Band members are not paid nor are they on scholarship.

“I don’t think people realize that Blue Band is technically a class,” clarinetist Kristin Lambert (senior-immunology and infectious diseases) said.

In the beginning of the semester, the members actually pay money to be a part of the team and because it is a one-credit class, they also pay tuition to perform, Lambert said.

None of the members seem to be complaining about this though.

“We don’t do it for money,” clarinetist Mark Shultz (senior-marketing) said. “We do it because we love it.”

Still, no matter what…

Every minute of the Blue Band is worth it.

After spending a weekend with the Blue Band, what stood out the most was the pride and passion every band member had for not only the Blue Band, but for Penn State.

“It feels good to represent something that has a really effective impact on this university,” trumpeter Alex Grego (junior-toxicology) said.

There was something about watching the Blue Band perform in Ohio, which as a Penn Stater, made me feel honored to be a part of the experience.

“We have a responsibility to all of Penn State to makes sure as the [Blue Band], we represent our school as best we can,” bass drummer Brian Prewitt (senior- crime law and justice and political science) said.

The Blue Band is truly one big family.

“We are one family with a bunch of different siblings — the piccolos are the sister, the sousaphones are the brother, and so on — each section has a different personality,” Hartman said.

The Blue Band creates a bridge between the bleachers and field. Without the Blue Band, there would be something missing from the atmosphere.

“In the words of Dr. Bundy we are the bandwagon,” trumpeter Jacob Hamlett (junior-biology) said. “We will always be cheering.”

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