I wasn’t worried when the bus lurched to one side, that fateful morning.
I was worried even before then.
This is a story of things that should have worried me, but didn’t. And a story of things that shouldn’t have worried me, but did.
There were more of the former than the latter, happily.
Some time during the 2004-05 school year, I got a phone message from my friend Heidi that said, approximately, “…Hey! Just got the football schedule for next year, and you’re on it. So. You comin’ down?”
At that moment, I was in my third year of directing the marching band at the College of the Holy Cross. Heidi was in her tenth year of directing the band at the University of Delaware.
At that moment, the Holy Cross band was a group of not quite forty absolutely sweet collegiate folks who were stalwart and sturdy marchers. At that moment, the Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band was a group of sweet college kids who were stalwart and sturdy, too; and they were also about ten times our size.
That might have worried some folks, but not me.
When I returned her call, my first question to Heidi was, “…do you know what a hell of a bad football game that’s gonna be?”
Delaware football was only about 15 months separated from its 2003 national championship win over Colgate University. Holy Cross played in the Patriot League, which long ago abandoned the silly idea of offering scholarship money for something like football. Perhaps you grasp the enormity of the challenge that faced the Crusaders?
“Yeah, well,” she declared. “So should we schedule High School Band Night for that date? Get you a little more exposure.”
Hard to argue with that.
It wasn’t that the trip would have been lengthy. We had traveled to Bucknell University during that football season, and that took better than six hours on a bus. So.
It wasn’t the idea of our small-but-mighty band performing for lots of high school bands as well as the local home crowd. We’d had experience with that – the Bucknell game was their high-school band day, and after the trip was all over, I got a letter from Bucknell’s assistant athletic director, praising the band’s performance and good-natured spirit, and insisting that we were welcome to come back any time. So.
And the year before that, we’d gone out to UMass, to participate in their high-school band day, and that thing was full of just about 4,000 high school band kids, and Holy Cross wasn’t even the football opponent. So.
(Thanks to a number of happenings that day that were anywhere from inconvenient to too-sweaty to logistically-confusing to a-really-long-day, I took a bit of flak for the trip from some of my charges … but honestly I didn’t really factor those in. Partly because: look, kids, a Saturday football game when you’re in band is inconvenient, is sweaty, and takes up a whole day. And honestly, in spite of what it looked like from the field, surrounded by a sea of other band uniforms worn by people rather younger than you … hey gang, UMass has that Band Day organization thing down to a science, really. And didn’t you guys get a chance to perform at postgame, by your lonesomes, when all the kids were up in the stands and could see and hear you?, and didn’t they cheer loudly for you guys?, and wasn’t the UMass band on the sidelines the best audience you’ve ever had? Right. So suck it up, and ac-cen-tuate the positive.)
It wasn’t even the idea of yet another road trip. That was what Holy Cross did: made sure the band traveled to road football games. Because if there’s one thing HC alumni do really well, it’s show up at Holy Cross road football games. If the band isn’t there, they ask hard questions. I learned about this early – my first HC game was on the road at Harvard University, and given my experience of Harvard and being the visiting band there, I was a wee bit nervous. But there was this sea of purple in the visiting stands that cheered us before we played a single note, and I was properly enlightened. And quickly came to understand the value (and fun!) of being on the road in a purple jersey. So.
The band kids, of course, knew it long before I figured it out. And had a ton of fun, on the road, in enemy territory (except for the nearby alumni), chanting “HC! MB! HC! MB!” By the way, we don’t get intimidated easily, in case you missed it.
My HC higher-ups were all in favor of us going down to Delaware. Neither the team nor the band had ever been there, so … a whole new region of the country that would get to see us! But they were not super-in-favor of a double-overnight trip. We traveled a lot, and so we had to mind our budget, and two nights in a hotel would run into serious money.
So we created what I can only describe as the Itinerary from the Imagination of the Optimistic:
Load the bus Friday afternoon and drive into the night. Stay overnight Friday into Saturday morning at a hotel in southern New Jersey. Load the bus that morning and drive the rest of the way to Newark, Delaware. Play the game. Load the bus one more time, after the game, and drive straight home. Straightforward.
Did I mention that the game was a Saturday night game? Kickoff around 7 o’clock? So, load the buses after the postgame show, say, around 11, and get back to central Massachusetts as the sun was starting to come up.
That makes sense.
Actually, in the college world, it kinda does. Also, this being Holy Cross, quite a number of my band people were interested in getting to Mass on Sunday morning, rather than still being on the road home. And I had a church gig of my own. Which is where a bit of the insane part comes in (he said, selfishly, thinking of his own 8:45am Sunday-morning choir warmup); but y’know, it was going to be a great experience.
So I sold this trip hard. Straight from the top of the fall-2005 semester, I went full-court press on the kids. This late-September trip will be one of the absolute highlights of your marching life. The Delaware home crowd is 16,000 people who have been trained by their own band to cheer loudly even for the visiting bands. The Delaware band will replace UMass as the best audience you’ve ever seen – and you’ll go nuts for their show.
By the way, their band is about 380.
No, they’re sweet people! They know how to play the game. My friend is their director; she’ll make sure they’re nice. They won’t eat you.
“Judge me, by my size, do you?” Do you guys play musically?
Do you march well?
Do you have a fun show?
We think so.
Do you trust me not to throw you to the lions?
…Well, in three years, you haven’t.
Right. Suck it up. You’ll be fine.
We hit the road on time … got to the hotel on time … the next morning, the hotel staff said they’d love to have us back … we hit the road on time again … we found the Delaware campus … and our bus turned the corner into the parking lot adjacent to the Fightin’ Blue Hens’ rehearsal field.
And the bus leaned perceptibly to the left.
Not because the bus driver hit a curb or anything. No, our drivers were from the Silver Fox Bus Company (free plug) and for my money they were the best in the business, early in the day or late, clear weather or stupid.
No, that bus leaned to port because a bunch of the Holy Cross bandos on board suddenly were plastered to the bus windows, getting their first look at the particular three hundred and eighty people who were making music on the field, on the left of our bus.
No, I said, unable to repress a smile … that’s not our name.
“They have more tubas than we have brass players.”
Didn’t I tell you? You’ll be fine. Relax. Sit back down, you’re making the driver nervous.
Yeah, I made a great show of confidence that morning. What was also true was that in the back of my mind, since we’d loaded the buses at the hotel in Jersey that morning, was the nagging question: what if this somehow doesn’t turn out to be the absolute best marching memory my gang will have this season? Have I bitten off more than I chew on this one?
The first moment that I knew I didn’t have to worry was when, shortly after my band pretended to relax, I saw a troupe of Delaware marchers heading for our bus. Drum majors, and other student-staff members, sauntering over, smiling.
I called out from the front of the bus, “hey Suzie? Jay? Come on up here.” The kids in the UD welcoming party had been on the summer Drum Major Academy “IMPACT” collegiate team … and so had Suzie and Jay, representing HC. “You guys have some greetings to do.”
As soon as the rest of the HC band saw, out the left-hand-side windows, the UD and Holy Cross IMPACT team mini-reunion happen, they relaxed for real. Hugs and handshakes all ’round, out there on the parking lot. It’ll be all right after all.
Didn’t I tell you?
And after that came moment after moment after astounding moment of knowing we didn’t have to worry.
At that afternoon’s rehearsal, after the two college bands had rehearsed the tune they would play together at halftime, they jointly passed the time while waiting for the high school bands to arrive. I looked over and saw our lone mellophone almost literally swarmed by the, um, many Delaware mellophonists. I saw our drum major hanging out with theirs. Memorably, I saw the Delaware and HC clarinet sections, intermingled, sitting in a big circle on the turf and playing duck-duck-goose.
(Man. Only in college.)
While the HC band ate their suppers, I stood with my friend Heidi, looked around, and marveled that these two former UMass drum majors seemed to have gotten their two college bands together for what amounted to a play-date.
The actual game began. By the third quarter, I had actually seen the Holy Cross football team hold their own with the recent national champions. My band played its fight song more than just ceremonially. (In the fourth quarter, the team ran out of steam, and the score ended up not an embarrassment but a mere loss. And at least as much of a moral victory, if you believe in that sort of thing. Which we did, that night.)
At postgame, I saw the Holy Cross band play the living snot out of their Earth, Wind & Fire opener, and I heard the fans in the stands cheering, but more importantly I heard the Delaware band losing its mind on the sidelines. No, those thirty-eight musicians weren’t bigger and louder than the 380 in gold and blue … but they were laying it all out there. And the gold and blue team was right with ’em.
And then the Fightin’ Blue Hen band took the field (and I mean they took it) … and by the end of their show, far from being intimidated or humbled or Mom I wanna go home … the Crusader Band people were standing (some of them on the offensive line’s benches), and adapting their usual cheer for to be pumpin’ ourselves up …
“UD! MB! UD! MB! UD! MB!”
Several years later, I had a Facebook exchange with one of (I say selfishly) “my” HC band alumni, which started out not really about that particular band trip. But something in the midst of the conversation reminded me, and I said so, of that absurd weekend in Delaware, and my alumni friend immediately responded, “Favorite band trip? Ever!”
About which I was, and am, pleased. I was worried … but a bunch of stellar college marchers took the hyper-optimistic game plan laid out by their director guy and turned it into a trip that, if it’s not my absolute favorite band trip ever, it’s certainly in the top two.
The final, clinching proof of that?
We loaded the bus at around 11pm, after the lengthy Band-Day postgame show was over, and headed north. People caught what sleep they could … the bus, at one point, was unnervingly silent … but as the sky got lighter, and the bus crossed into Massachusetts from Connecticut, on Interstate 84, I thought I heard band members quietly singing Billy Joel songs at each other, and with each other. And, far from hearing other band members gently asking them to quit it … I heard more of them join in. And laugh. And suggest the next singable songs. All the way to Worcester.
As we drove up the hill toward campus, I found the bus driver’s PA mike, and murmured into it (it was 5:30am, after all), “I have no business expecting you guys to be in this good a mood. I would travel with you anywhere.”
And the bus lurched to the left again … but only because that’s what buses do when they have to navigate the main parking lot at Holy Cross.
That trip began ten years ago tonight.
I can’t find my car keys sometimes … but I remember the Delaware trip like it was just this afternoon.
Faithful readers of this blog will already be aware that I’m kind of a UMass guy.
Four years in the marching band there, and pretty much the rest of my life rooting and writing for them.
Also a journalism degree. Also many lifelong friends.
Good place. Beautiful scenery. Amherst, the quintessential college town, looking largely the same as it did thirty-one years ago when I was a rookie tenor saxophonist just trying to find Orchard Hill.
(Except for a relatively colossal and totally out-of-place six-story office building that’s going up at the join of North Pleasant Street and Triangle Street, looking for all the world like a Borg cube just went all eminent-domain on a Norman Rockwell painting. Not that I have any feelings about that, no indeed. <*grrrr*>)
I’m a little attached to the joint.
So, just about twenty years ago this moment, I was stepping outside the ol’ comfort zone: starting work as the graduate assistant for a college marching band that was one of UMass’ direct competitors, at least as far as football conference rivalries went.
At least until the school disbanded its football team, the Boston University Terriers were a regular part of the UMass football schedule. The two bands saw each other annually. There’s even a painting, hung up in the lower level of UMass’ Campus Center, that purports to be a panoramic depiction of a home football game in Amherst, complete with the UMass band on the field … except that if you look closely, you can see that the band on the field is wearing the red blazers and white fedoras of the BU Band of the 1980s and 1990s. Whoopsie. Get me quality control, stat.
And the first few conversations that I had with BU band folks gave me the polite but distinct impression that they hadn’t always appreciated the UMass band strutting into the friendly confines of Nickerson Field in Boston, and using its relative size to seem like it was stomping all over the marching Terriers.
(Somewhat futilely, early that 1995 season, I gently suggested to my new BU colleagues that UMass didn’t really go places aiming to do terrible things to any other bands. Well, except maybe Harvard’s – which thanks to BU’s Beanpot tournament experiences was at least something we could bond over. Anyway, in New England, when your band is 250, or 300, or 350, it’s kind of an act of aggression just to step off your buses.)
My new boss at BU, band director Joe Wright, was a University of New Hampshire grad, so he had no particular dog in that fight, other than being kinda cheerily feisty about both schools. And happily, he also had (um) a sense of perspective. Before I was even officially on board as his able assistant, he had suggested to me that he felt it would be valuable to add my UMass experience to his staff.
If it was an olive branch, I was happy to grab hold of it. It seemed an oasis of “your UMassness is okay” in an ocean of New Boston University Things and Procedures and Surroundings.
“Starred Thought: Do what works” was my philosophy as I prepared to run my first brass-and-woodwinds music sectional. I’d asked if there were particular exercises or activities that the BU winds had traditionally done. Joe had looked at me and said, “well, we don’t really have a music technique program per se, so … create something.”
When your band experience (at least on the brass and woodwind side) includes instruction by the drum major and arranger and brass caption head of the DCI world-champion Garfield Cadets (ya know … the guy who’s writing the shows for a little group called Carolina Crown, nowadays?) … you go back and ape everything you can possibly remember him doing.
And I did. Partly it was smart stuff, and had shown itself to work; and partly, in the midst of unfamiliar surroundings, it was something I could latch onto for dear life until I got my feet under me.
(It came as a great relief when one of the band’s seniors … who had the opportunity to be the most territorial about “the way we’ve always done things” of all the undergrads present … quietly supposed, midway through band camp, that she really liked the things I was doing, especially all the work with breathing exercises. “I was chatting with my section and we were saying we’d never really gotten into that before, so that was cool.”)
But I tried my hardest not to talk a real lot about that group in Amherst, and not to identify what I was doing as all Minuteman-like. I think this was mostly out of respect for the fact that it was a new situation, and partly to keep my new friends from getting that look in their eye again. We would like to keep these new friends, period, please and thank you.
August turned into September, and I seemed to be keeping enough friends to get by, and mysteriously, the Commonwealth Armory was feeling more and more like home. It wasn’t UMass’ Old Chapel, but it probably had a comparable amount of history. It was a huge brick building with not much else in it but space for a whole football field, and it was where we … ahhh, the BU Band was starting to be “we”! … stored our stuff and rehearsed our show.
[A brief aside: yes, the BU Band rehearsed inside a brick building. You may rightly ask, how can anyone rehearse marching band shows inside an echo chamber like that? It’s a good question. When I would conduct a long tone in a wind sectional, the echo that followed the release of the note lasted a complete seven seconds. The answer to your question: … you get used to it. And I did.]
[It’s amazing how clean and clear the sound is when you get out there, across the street from the Armory, in the open air at Nickerson Field, for halftime, though.]
Something that struck me early on … and which I did adapt to … but which I still noted … was the contrast between how they do things here, compared with how they do things there. Many of the BU marching commands and terminology were very similar to what was used at UMass. Some were assuredly not. It was my job to figure out the differences and not screw them up.
At UMass, we went to the ready. At BU, we went to stand-by. At UMass, it was “left turn harch!” At BU, it was “four-count-turn-to-the-right… one, two, ready, move.” (I had my own thoughts about that, but we didn’t have many of those commands in the actual show, or in many parades, anyway.)
And while UMass’ PA guy, Jim MacRostie, was all stentorian bombast and kept 99 percent of the time to the written script … the BU band’s announcer, Scott Monty, was clearly influenced by the free-wheeling irreverence of Ivy League band narrations, and honest to Heaven, we had NO idea what silly and sometimes borderline-inappropriate jokes he was going to deliver next, while introducing the band at halftime.
It was a good lesson. In Amherst, they do it this way, and it works. On Commonwealth Avenue, they do it slightly (or very) differently … and yes, it works.
Every so often, I would gently soft-pedal a possible adjustment to how we did what we did … and as the season went on, I would even occasionally whisper, “tiny UMass tactic which might help clarify this” … and folks started to get the idea that I wasn’t really trying to create “little UMass” on the Charles.
Once, in late September of that first BU semester, we were running a music rehearsal session that focused on our rather sizable folder of stands music. The BU band stands book was actually two overstuffed marching folios (per musician) full of tunes. If you were a BU bando, you put one of them on your lyre, and you put the other one next to you on the stadium bench. I quickly discovered that the reason they had that many tunes available is because it made life better at hockey games – wherein you play eight bars of a tune, the puck drops, and you stop playing and immediately get a different song ready. Lather, rinse and repeat.
It was a dizzying thing to catch up with … especially since the focus of the UMass marching establishment, at least when I marched, was always almost completely on the halftime field show. In Amherst, in the stands it was usually trombones barking out John Williams’ “Superman” fanfare, or the trumpets wailing out a charge that either came from Temple University or West Chester University (I was never sure which), or everybody dancing to the “go-fight-win” cowbell cheer. And that was about it.
So my band director boss Joe stopped the rehearsal, looked over at me, grinned, and said, “at the risk of ‘dissing’ my able assistant here … in the stands, we did a whole lot better than the University of Massachusetts last year.”
I’m pretty sure a number of the BU bandos were waiting to see how I’d react to that.
What can I say? The truth will set you free. I smiled, and said, “no, you’re probably right about that.” And he smiled. And they smiled. And we went about our business. And nobody came to console me afterward, possibly because I didn’t need consoling. Hmm. Three weeks into the BU life, and I’m feeling comfortable, even though instead of maroon, I’m wearing scarlet.
Ooo. How ’bout that. Two shades of red. Different, but related. Didn’t see THAT comin’, did you?
Yeah, neither did I, until that September.
Previously, in this space, I’ve described “because we’ve always done it this way” as one of my least favorite phrases. Again, lesson learned: the first way you learn to do something is always going to be your default. But there are alternative ways of doing it which, as it turns out, can work well too.
And, in the best of situations, the new ways that work perfectly well … can also help you understand why the old ways work so well.
Wouldn’t trade that experience with the Pride of Commonwealth Avenue for anything. Go Terriers.
And, as well, go Minutemen.