March 5, 2009

Marching on the Hill

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The Cornell Big Red Marching Band is certainly a unique organization. Not only are they the largest student-run group in the Ivy League, but they are the only traditional Ivy marching band, spanning a history of well over a century. Despite these distinguishing qualities, there is little known about the inner workings of this welcoming organization. This is what I aimed to seek out.
First formed in the 1890s as a part of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, the Marching Band remained under ROTC jurisdiction until 1948, at which time the band became affiliated with the Cornell Concert Band and the Cornell Repertory Band under the name Cornell Bands. After leaving its military origins, this formerly all-male student organization continued to advance, admitting its first female member in 1970. From this point forward, the Marching Band took on a whole new essence as a vibrantly social institution, leading to the family-like atmosphere that pervades it today.
This familial component to the Big Red Marching Band (BRMB) is today as integral to the band’s identity as its musical performance. Beginning during the first days of Orientation Week, the group has a visibly lively presence on campus, animatedly recruiting any and all new members interested in joining at first-year events like the Swim Test and Big Red Blow Out. These high-energy sightings are truly indicative of the band’s persona, as band members embrace their incoming band mates with ancestral vigor, immediately integrating the new members into the chaos of band through a section bonding dinner and a first-night rehearsal full of teaching new traditions.
And the Big Red Marching Band is built on these traditions. Led by the Head Manager and Drum Major, the “Bandstaph” is a highly dedicated group of members who are committed to the well being of the band. Performing at all of the home, and most away, Cornell football games, the band has many game-day customs that are as recognizable to the group as they are entertaining to the fan. Unlike other Ivy League collegiate bands, which are called scatter bands, the BRMB is a true marching band, running actual drill while playing their instruments. While scatter bands forge random formations and disperse onto the field haphazardly before playing, the Big Red Marching Band works in well-defined ranks, meticulously choreographed and organized while performing. Moreover, the BRMB dons traditional marching uniforms and not sub-par suit jackets with lots of buttons like the other Ivy League institutions.
On the field, their traditions bubble with quirkiness and vitality. One of the oldest BRMB customs is called aardvarking, a display during which the aardvarker (typically a band member, but President Skorton has aardvarked before) suspended from a railing, ladder or other fixed object, warbles a series of shrill, upper register pitches as he bends his spine backward and shakes his arms wildly. Neither I nor the band is familiar with how this name came to be, but the ritual is surely amusing. Of similarly uncertain origins is the victory hat ritual, where band members turn their hats around 180 degrees at the end of each winning game and remain that way until removed at the end of the performing day. Another ritual the band holds dear is the post-game concert. Begun as a way to appease riotous Princetonians after a Cornell upset football victory in the 1940s, these concerts have become jubilant cappers to games.
Not to be confused with the Marching Band, the Cornell Big Red Pep Band is Cornell’s student-run band that performs primarily at Cornell Men’s ice hockey games, although it can be also spotted performing at a variety of other varsity sports ranging from lacrosse and basketball to soccer and wrestling. In Nov. 1985, the Big Red Bands voted to make the Big Red Pep Band a separate organization in order for the latter to secure its own funding, have more independent direction and cater to members who weren’t necessarily part of the Marching Band.
There is some debate between band members as to which group is superior. Although the majority of Pep Band members also are players on the Marching Band and vice versa, some are more dedicated to one group over the other. A few of the most polarized members will even go as far to tell you that the groups are completely separate. Nevertheless, this distinction likely holds little weight; as 2009 Drum Major Shayna Gerson ’10 clarified, “Our alumni association works closely together with both of the groups, and is very important that they’re both considered under the same organization.” To add to this correlation between the groups, the elected Pep Band Head Manager serves on the Marching Band’s Board.
In spite of their incredibly large memberships — around 150 for Pep Band and nearly 200 for Marching Band — both groups are tight-knit. Through rehearsals and performances, which occur at least three times per week during the varsity sports seasons, the groups have an interesting distinction of being wholly inclusive while maintaining a friendly competitiveness between their instrument sections. Although any band member will tell you their section is the best, friendships are not defined by sections in the group, as the familial tie of band bonds the members together.
Nevertheless, as is typical in large families, there are a lot of sibling rivalries and personalities forged within the bands, particularly within the Marching Band. These rivalries take the form of the band’s unique sections, each group bringing a distinct personality to the whole. Although they are sometimes perceived as being anti-social, the percussionists are “the most hardcore musically, scheduling practices outside of the regular band practices consistently”, said Gerson. She added, “the flutes are fun-loving and eager to dance, while the clarinets are somewhat anti-authority,” dedicated to the process, however defiant of marching during rehearsals. Both the trumpets and trombones are party animals, while the trumpets are loud and inclined to cause trouble. The tubas, however chill and talented they are, are a bit eccentric. The horns are a small, proud section, while the increasingly growing guard proudly flaunts a haughty attitude. Finally, the saxophones are endearingly comforting, according to Wendy LaManque ’10. The saxes are typified by “that really nice kid that you always want to see when you go home on break … nerdy in the most endearing way possible,” she said.
Regardless of their section distinctions, both band organizations are thriving and very active. Whether you are enjoying the last of this season’s hockey games with the Pep Band or catching the Marching Band’s performances during Cornell Days, the groups are not to be missed.

Catch the Big Red Marching Band’s Spring Concert on the Commons, Apr. 18.