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Band marches to its own irreverent, tradition-steeped beat

Relaxed environment, troublemaking, oral tradition create unique culture for members

The Brown Band’s Tuesday night practice in Fulton Rehearsal Hall is lively with banter and laughter, both among musicians and with head student conductor Daniel Muller ’17 as he leads the group through various musical numbers.

“We’re not like a high school marching band,” said Carol Medina ’18, sousaphone — the marching band version of the tuba — player and band general manager or “Mom.”

“It’s structured chaos,” said Iuliu Balibanu ’18, percussionist and band business manager or “Money God.”

The Brown Band isn’t a marching band but rather a “scatter” or “scramble” band, meaning its members run loosely between formations on the field rather than marching in unison. All of the Ivy bands are scatter bands except for Cornell’s.

“We’re a little bit more low-key than your average marching band,” said Caleb Hersh ’17, trumpet player and band president. By not enforcing attendance in any formal way, the band ensures that “people are there because they want to be there and not because they feel like they have to,” he said.

Meet the members

Despite a lack of requirements for participation, a core group of about 50 members regularly attends rehearsals and games, said Greer Christensen-Gibbons ’18, flute player and band recording secretary.

“Coming here was literally a 180-degree turn,” said Gaby Usabal ’19, who plays the mellophone — the marching band version of the French horn.

Joining the band was a seamless transition from her high school group despite the disparate styles of the two, Usabal said.

“It was almost like picking up with some old friends that you always had,” she said. “I’ve never felt more welcome anywhere else.”

Coming from serving as the drum major ­— someone who conducts and leads the band — of her high school’s competitive marching band, Hayley Siegel ’17 watched her brother play in the Brown Band. She decided to follow in his footsteps, opting for a more relaxed band experience in college.

“I was excited to have a place where I could continue playing but have it not be intense,” said Sidney Karesh ’16, trombone player and former band president.

“It wasn’t just something that I was doing for the music,” Karesh said. “We’re not the Ohio State Marching Band … It’s a community.”

The group also welcomes people who have never played an instrument before.

“If people want to join the band and don’t play any instruments, then they can learn,” Karesh said. “Usually they end up on cymbals.”

“The president of the band two years ago started playing no instrument,” Hersh said. “She learned the cymbals and became the most dedicated member of the band.”

“We have wider appeal than just the people who were in marching band in high school,” he said. “It really becomes a central friend group to a lot of people in our membership. There’s a lot of shared experience.”

The band’s traditions

Established in 1924, the band has a long history and many traditions.

“There’s a saying that if the band does something twice, it becomes a tradition,” Hersh said.

A large part of this culture is what the band calls “bus songs,” which they sing while traveling to away games. Passed down orally, these songs poke fun at other schools, herald certain landmarks along the drives, tell stories from the band’s past and even thank the bus driver.

“We have songs for everything from when we go through tollbooths to when we’re pulling back into the street behind Fulton,” Hersh said.

Percussion coach and band alum Karen Mellor ’82 recognizes many traits of the band from when she was a student member.

“I think every generation is wild in its own way,” she said. “A lot of the traditions are the same,” she said, remembering the bus songs from her time in the band.

“You can come back 30 years later and still recognize the songs and the traditions and still enjoy the camaraderie,” she said.

Each year at Commencement, alums return to campus to play with the band and share memories. The band is working on compiling their stories in a blog to keep the group’s history alive.

One alum shared the story of the origin of the iconic buttons, which the band members wear on their uniform blazers and hand out at games.

“It’s a tradition that we’ve been doing since the late sixties,” Hersh said. “The alum who was on the board who originally proposed the idea (did so) because he had some family or friends who were a button manufacturer, and we were interested in having a new promotional tool,” he said.

Now, a different button is printed for each football game of the season, typically poking fun at the opposing team.

On the bus ride of the band’s winter trip this weekend, students will generate button ideas for next football season that they will vote on later in the spring. The band doesn’t get to see the final buttons — or know which designs won — until the week of each game.

“We print a couple hundred for each game,” said Lim, whose role as corresponding secretary includes managing the button printing and distribution at games. “They go pretty fast,” she said, adding that she’s often running around passing them out to attendees at the homecoming game. “People will expect the buttons every single game.”

In the role of band historian, saxophone player Ben Weedon ’16 has been engaged in digitizing the band’s scripts — the documents, written by band members, that are read over the P.A. system during football pregame and halftime shows, as well as at the ice shows at hockey games.

“We run around screaming while a script reader over the P.A. system reads a script,” Weedon said. “The script is usually making fun of the other school or making really bad jokes,” he said. “But then the band stops running around screaming, forms some sort of glob-like shape on the field because we’re not very good at that, and then we’ll play a song. And then repeat.”

“The raunchiness of the band was very evident in the seventies,” Weedon said, adding that the band even stole the Harvard bass drum.

“Some members of the band dressed as an ABC news crew and convinced a freshman member of the Harvard band that they wanted to film their bass drum because they have a giant bass drum,” he said.

“We got the freshman to help us load it into the back of a pickup truck, and then we just drove it away. We got caught and apparently maybe put in jail for a short amount of time. The people who stole it are referred to as the Foxboro Four.”

Today, this story lives on in the lyrics of a bus song from that time period, Weedon said.

“The direction of the irreverence in terms of what we’re making fun of has changed over time, but the quality of irreverence and disrespect for authority has definitely persisted,” Weedon said. “We just do weird things. We write really weird scripts.”

The pregame script for the football game at Harvard Sept. 26, 2015 reads, “We have to admit we’re a little intimidated to be here today, considering that Harvard’s football team has won its last 15 games. But with a winning streak that long, we feel like they must be compensating for … something. After all, while football prowess wins you fame in the streets, we all know that what really matters is fame in the sheets … of paper. Go for those diplomas, kids!”

This provocative wordplay is typical of the band’s scripts. “When they’re at their best, they’re spreading their contagious fun and making people a little nervous in the process,” said Matthew McGarrell, director of bands and senior lecturer in music.

“For a football game, they’ll run their script by us, and we’ll take a look at it, but we haven’t provided many changes in my time, if any,” said Mike Neely, marketing and promotions officer of the Department of Athletics and athletics liaison to the band. “There’s a lot of tradition behind what they do, and you don’t mess with tradition.”

Controversial past

Going through old scripts, current band members have had to come to terms with the band’s history.

“We’re digitizing scripts from the sixties and the seventies, when the band was a different band,” Karesh said. “They were still the same spirit but less what would be considered tactful now, or even right or kind.”

In the eighties, the band was banned from the United States Military Academy at West Point and the College of the Holy Cross for provocative scripts or cheers, Karesh said.

The West Point incident resulted from a “decently sexist cheer,” Weedon said. “We would not have done what got us kicked out of West Point now.”

The band is currently grappling with how to archive its scripts in a productive way. “We want to own up to what we’ve done but not continue to perpetuate that stuff,” Weedon said.

This year, the band is undergoing a thorough review process of its bus song lyrics, making sure they are socially conscious and sensitive to everyone, Karesh said.

Though the bus songs and scripts differ in that the songs are only heard by the band members, the Brown Band is trying to reform both in order to become more inclusive.

“Tradition is not an excuse for harm,” Hersh said. “It’s a constant reevaluation,” he said, adding that they are currently trying to eliminate many of the gender pronouns in the lyrics.   

“The songs, in a way, are the Brown culture preserved in amber,” McGarrell said. “They reflect, to a certain degree, the way things were and not the way things are now.”

Supporting sports

Perhaps inadvertently, Brown’s script-writing, Canadian-anthem-singing, button-wearing students are the biggest sports fans on campus. The Brown Band plays at football, basketball and hockey games.

“We’re not one of those big school-spirit schools where we have the giant tailgate on game day with 40,000 or 50,000 fans showing up to a football game,” Muller said. “There are a couple of people I see at every game aside from the parents, but otherwise it’s really just us who goes to every single game. I’ve been to every single home football game over the past three years.”

“I definitely have a lot of respect for them because they’re our only fans,” said football player Jake Hall ’18.

“We see the football players around, and when they learn we’re in the band, they actually thank us,” Muller said.

“You don’t see a lot of students come to the football games, but the band is always there,” Mellor said. “In November, it’s 33 degrees, and it’s raining, and the band is there cheering the football team on.”

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