Two marching bands gather in the bleachers before halftime of the Princeton-Lehigh football game — two distinctly different marching bands.
Lehigh’s “Marching 97” practice precision, moving like a Big-Ten band in miniature. Members wear white tunics, brown pants with a yellow stripe down the side, white shoes, and white hats, topped with a bright yellow plume.
On the other side of the stadium, the Princeton University Band crowds together in rumpled plaid jackets, white shirts, and black neckties. Most band members wear sneakers, and those who do sport the once-uniform white bucks tend to decorate them with orange and black magic markers.
“Yo, band!” cries Princeton drum major Doug Sprankling ’10, as he adjusts the long orange wig that he wears on game days. He begins to rally his troops for their field show, taking note of the obvious contrast with the Lehigh contingent. “They are a real marching band! And we are not! I want to see you running! I want to see some really crazy [stuff] out there!”
The band rises to his call. There are cartwheels, conga lines, and a spirited wheelbarrow race. And the band sounds good, too — clear, crisp, and lively. In the finale, “Gimme Some Lovin’,” the crescendos that the band rehearsed earlier in the week are right on cue. The setup for the song used a recent Princeton research study that connected height with happiness to start a riff about the world’s largest man, who has “the world’s largest feet, the world’s largest hands, and of course, the world’s largest ... heart.” As a final flourish, the band adds a pulse to its “enormous, throbbing” heart formation, expanding and contracting in unison.
The Princeton University Band, which marks its 90th anniversary this year, shares the basic goal of its more serious marching brethren: It wants to put on a good show. But the band has its own definition of “good” — something that gets laughs, tiptoes along the boundaries of taste, and includes competent music.
Princeton has one of about a dozen “scramble bands” in the country. Most are in the Ivy League; the name comes from the way that band members haphazardly scatter between formations. In field shows, scramble bands value humor and irreverence over precision and polish.
A quick tour of the Princeton band’s script archive provides an overview of its brand of humor, ranging from crass innuendo to campus satire. In a show performed at the 1971 Yale game, the band billed itself as “20 girls and 76 tromboners” who “put in long hours developing their fingering and tonguing technique.” A decade later, band members skewered the Concerned Alumni of Princeton’s stand against affirmative action by spelling out the acronym for an opposition group, the Caring, Responsible Alumni of Princeton. The field show for the 1989 Brown game was a tribute to undergarments, with songs linked to the field formations — “June is Busting Out All Over” (a tightening corset) and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a jockstrap), for example. And in 2008, in a script barely audible amid a chorus of boos at The Citadel, the band outlined the differences between Princeton and its new Southern rival: “At Princeton, we study abroad to learn a foreign language and experience a new culture; at The Citadel, you study a broad because you rarely see one on campus.”
Critics of scramble bands — Princeton alumni included — have questioned whether this sort of humor deserves such a prominent display on football Saturdays, and in the last four years, a handful of schools have either banned student-written scripts or simply refused to give the Princeton band time to perform on the field.
Cornell, which has the lone traditional marching band in the Ivy League, has been particularly inhospitable, keeping the Princeton band off the field in 2006 and 2008. According to band members, Cornell athletics officials said Princeton’s act was “inane, irrelevant, and does not contribute to a football atmosphere.” The band shrugged off the critique, using the quote on its official T-shirt. But band historian and former student conductor R.W. Enoch Jr. ’09 believes there is a serious subtext. “This type of attitude toward the Princeton band, and other Ivy League bands, really threatens the future viability of the scramble tradition,” he says.
The scramble-band style is an acquired taste, even for the students who join one. “The people who sing in choirs know that they want to do Glee Club, and the people who’ve played in a jazz band know they want to do jazz band,” explains Simon Fox Krauss ’11, the Princeton band’s student conductor this year. “But no one comes from their pretty strict high-school marching band and says, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ... We have to get people excited about this brand of marching band.”
To do that, the band casts a wide net. No experience is required, although nearly all of the band’s members have some musical background, and all instruments are welcome. In addition to the “trash percussion” section of pink flamingos and toilet seats, this year’s marching contingent has included a bassoon, a violin, and an accordion.
There are plenty of serious musical groups on campus, says Sprankling, the drum major, so the band plays up its laid-back, goofy approach and promotes itself as a fun social organization. “We’re lovable,” Sprankling says with a broad grin. “We’re a bunch of lovable dudes and ladies.”
The band often puts its lovability to the test on road trips, where members march into libraries, dorms, and other well-traveled campus buildings to play fight songs and other band favorites, like the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster,” at top volume. Band alumnus Chris Hyson ’99 says that about 90 percent of the time, these march-around missions spark confused looks, followed by smiles and applause. “Then there’s the other 10 percent of the time,” he adds, “when they call security.”
Trying to corral or silence a marching band sounds like the premise for a slapstick comedy, and sometimes it does look that way. (Hyson fondly recalls an incident at Brown in which a librarian shooed band members out a revolving door, only to watch them re-enter after a full revolution.) But during a September 2008 visit to The Citadel, the band’s parading high jinks touched a nerve in some cadets, who were in the midst of a field-day event when the band marched through the Charleston, S.C., campus. A physical altercation ensued, and the friction continued at the Princeton-Citadel football game that afternoon, where cadets booed and taunted band members.
Looking back on the incident, band leaders say that they made their best effort to prepare for the trip to Charleston, speaking with Citadel officials and getting approval for the band’s halftime script and its pregame march through campus. “I’m not sure that that information got passed down to the cadets,” says band president Hannah Valdez ’11. “We kind of caught them off guard, I think.”
The experience wasn’t entirely negative, according to Sprankling. Some cadets were welcoming and friendly, and the Princeton alumni and fans at the game were supportive. In the weeks that followed, many alumni rallied on the band’s behalf in letters to PAW and The Daily Princetonian. Online fundraising for the Friends of Tiger Band saw an immediate boost, according to Ben Elias ’05, the group’s president. In a year when the University’s Annual Giving fell by nearly 18 percent, the band had its best campaign on record, drawing $45,000 from about 300 donors. (The Friends group funds about two-thirds of the band’s $40,000 annual budget.)
This year, when The Citadel came to Princeton for a football rematch, the band seemed determined to stay out of the headlines. It didn’t back away from the usual gags, but it harbored no bitterness. In the pregame show, the band kept with tradition, playing a medley of Citadel fight songs while facing the opponents’ stands, and the visiting crowd responded with a hearty roar during the chorus of “Dixie.” At halftime, the band’s script began with a self-deprecating routine about the rocky start to its relationship with cadets, and later grabbed laughs with jokes about South Carolina politicians. The show also included a game of “capture the flag,” between a blue team and a gray team that was, ahem, in no way symbolic of anything in particular. (The blue team won by invading the south end of the field.)