Amy Andrews: Ever true: to the band, and to Brown

Guest Columnist
Thursday, May 26, 2016
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2016

A few days before I left for my first year at Brown, I was just starting to pack, and my mom and I were arguing. My mom asked again: “Are you sure you don’t want to bring your saxophone?” I scoffed at her. “No way,” I insisted, as though the suggestion were completely ludicrous. “I’m never going to play it. I’m not going to join the band like Peter.”

Peter is my older brother. We are almost exactly two years apart — “almost” because it’s actually one year and 363 days, and those two days matter when you’re the younger one. For my entire life, I have been two years (well, one year and 363 days) behind Peter. We went to the same schools, took the same classes, had the same teachers and even did most of the same activities: math league, academic bowl, soccer and so on. We also both played in our high school’s symphonic band — Peter on trombone and me on alto sax.

Most younger siblings can probably relate to the particular agonies of always coming second, of never getting to experience anything for yourself first. As my brother was applying to colleges during my sophomore year, I worried about how his college choice would affect mine in the future. I had spent the first 18 years of my life as “Peter’s sister” and was determined not to continue that experience. But as he was choosing between Brown — my number one choice — and Columbia, I silently willed him not to beat me to Brown. It worked: He chose Columbia, and my dreams were safe.

That fall, Peter left for college and joined Columbia’s marching band (the CUMB), a decision that surprised my entire family — while both Peter and I had played instruments for years, neither of us had shown the slightest interest in our high school marching band. Peter seemed to enjoy being a member of the CUMB, and I was happy that he had found his place at school, but I had no intentions whatsoever of following in his footsteps.

Fast forward to 2012. I was accepted to Brown and excited to start college by studying English, playing club soccer and writing fiction for literary magazines. When I arrived, orientation passed by in a desperate blur as I tried to overcome my inherent shyness to make friends. I went with some of those early friends to the Activities Fair that first week, wandering around the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center, overwhelmed by options. At some point, I snuck away toward the Brown Band’s table. I had no intention of joining the band, but at this point Peter was the head manager of the CUMB and he knew the Brown Band’s president, so I figured I should at least stop by and say hello to her. I had barely said more than “Hi, I think you know my brother” when the president exclaimed, “Oh my god, you’re Peter’s sister?!” And I was right back where I had been my entire life: defined in relation to my brother. It had taken less than a week of college for me to fall back into that all-too-familiar place. Despite this first less-than-ideal interaction, I let her convince me to write down my email. Then I walked away, thinking that I had done nothing more than get my name on another listserv whose emails I would probably ignore for the next four years.

But the beginning of college was hard, and I worried I wasn’t making enough friends, so I went to the band’s first rehearsal the next week. I made awkward conversation with some very nice upperclassmen, sorted out the logistics of borrowing a saxophone and played some tunes. I didn’t fall in love at that first rehearsal, but it’s not like I had anything better to do on Tuesday nights, so I kept showing up. I remember sheepishly calling my mom a few more weeks into the school year: “When you come for Family Weekend, can you bring my sax?”

And so I found myself following in my brother’s footsteps despite my best efforts. Ultimately, I had to stop resisting the similarities between Peter and me, seeing them as a good thing instead. Peter and I could swap our respective bands’ funniest, bawdiest cheers, compare notes about band trips to other schools and vent about the particular stresses of being on band leadership. Being in the band also meant that Peter and I were guaranteed to see each other every time our bands traveled to the other’s school — something to look forward to every semester and keep me from being too homesick.

Some of my friends at Brown came here in part because of the band. Most of my band friends were in their high school marching bands; more than one was a drum major or section captain or senior leader. At an annual band retreat before the first football game freshman year, we split into our instrumental sections to prepare for a practice field show. A senior in the band handed out form sheets and gathered the other saxophones into a huddle. “Okay, first we’re going to do a backwards glide pivot step and then march in 4/7 time.” For a few moments of panic, I was afraid I had made a huge mistake: These people were about to find out that I was a fraud, that I knew absolutely nothing about being in a marching band, even a “scramble band” like Brown’s. The whistle blew, and everyone took off running, and I realized that the senior was joking and I would fit in just fine.

All this is to say that I never would have predicted joining the band. But I wanted a community in college, a group of people I could rely on. It took a while — until my second semester at Brown — before I really felt that the band was that community, but ever since, I haven’t looked back. After my grandma died freshman year, or after I got norovirus and got sick at band rehearsal, everyone in the band was so genuinely nice, checking in to make sure I was okay. Upperclassmen who had intimidated me during my first semester became some of my best and closest friends. I spent the summer of 2014 in Providence specifically to live with band friends; I met one of my current roommates through the band; I had crushes on and flirtations with other bandies, and I experienced the occasional mild heartbreak (the band, like other organizations that spend a lot of time together, can be a little incestuous). That’s not to say that every moment of being in the band has been perfect. Early football call times make everyone irritable; seeing the same people every day during particularly event-heavy weeks can be exhausting; a lost election my junior year fundamentally altered the way I saw myself fitting into the band, and it took time to recover. But even with the bad things, over the last four years, this group of people has grown to mean so much to me that it physically hurts to think of leaving them behind.

I’ve also been a tour guide at Brown, and I usually close tours by talking about what makes Brown so special: the open curriculum, the freedom of choosing our own paths, the fact that I can’t imagine what college would have been like without that freedom. One of the joys of the open curriculum and of Brown in general is that we can always let ourselves be surprised by new things we try: by classes in departments we never expected to like, by people we never expected to meet, by clubs we never planned to join. I came to Brown expecting to study English and play soccer and write fiction and never take a science class again; instead, I studied comparative literature and played softball and wrote personal essays and took — and loved — CSCI0080: “A First Byte of Computer Science.” And, most importantly, I joined the band, and I cannot imagine what my life would be like without having made that choice. 

At some point during a Brown vs. Columbia basketball game freshman spring, members of the CUMB started gesturing at me and shouting something about my brother, who was studying abroad at the time. And members of the Brown Band — my band — started chanting back, “We have the better Andrews!” I happen to think my brother is pretty great, but that’s when I knew that these people liked me entirely for me, not because they knew my brother at all. This wacky, wonderful group of musicians has been my home away from home for the last four years, and I can’t fathom what life will be like when those Tuesday rehearsals end. But I remain eternally grateful that four years ago I took a chance on the band — going against my vow to avoid making the same choices my brother had — and let myself be surprised. It’s the best choice I’ve ever made.