A drum major waved and 42 white leather shoes stepped in time, building a four-square beat. It was a wedding march. A recent Saturday saw the Princeton University Band crash the nuptials of Patrick Miller ’03 and Melanie Papasian ’03, who met as band members six years ago.

“I was surprised by how much it affected me,” Patrick said of the band’s appearance at the reception. “They weren’t all people we knew, but they still wanted to make a four-hour ride to Connecticut.”

Quiet orchestrations started last summer and crescendoed when the students threw open the Marriott doors and thundered in, party crashers in straw boaters and orange plaid blazers.

“Immediately, the energy was through the roof,” said the band president, Greg Snyder ’08. The musicians played with whimsical bravado and offered round-the-room scrambles. In a sea of dinner jackets and sleek dresses, they looked glamorously tacky, lightning bugs among lilies.

The couple met in the spring of 2001. Patrick (trombone) was drill master, ruling rehearsals with droll announcements. Melanie (flute) sat in the front row. He liked her laugh. Melanie, an eventual English major, noticed when Patrick wore a Shakespeare tie; it suggested a cheeky intellectuality that could translate to good conversation. As she rose to conductor, and he to club president, the conversation continued at football games, at Princeton eateries, and finally down to Washington, D.C., where Melanie is an editor and Patrick is an education-policy researcher.

“The band takes what it does seriously, but it doesn’t take itself seriously” is how Patrick explains his group’s appeal. The band started in 1919; it takes its fashions from a barbershop nightmare, its sounds from the American songbook, and its jokes from the cramped, confessional atmosphere of a small orange tour bus. The bonds last long after the last set.

In a flock of black wings behind Nassau Hall, as seniors breathed deeply, chattered nervously, and adjusted each other’s tassels before the great last walk, Ryan Marrinan ’07, Alex Smith ’07, and Timon Lorenzo ’07 stood in a circle, punching each other on the shoulder.

“I feel graduatory,” said Marrinan. “Change that to gradutorious — it feels like victory.”

Marrinan, who graduated summa cum laude in English, wrote his senior thesis on modernist ideas of lateness. He handed it in late.

“We had four years of strenuous labor, with moments of agony,” he said, “but we persevered anyway, in pursuit of paideia.” Paideia? “It’s a Greek word for a formation of attention, a cultivation of the self, a maturation of the soul. I feel like we’re on a quest toward it. We’ll never reach it. You can only approach it asymptotically.”

“Leaving Princeton, it’s a borderline tragedy,” he added. “We’ll carry memories out. But the loss defies verbal description.”

“Good thinking,” said Smith, who is a philosophy major. “In any exam, you go to the limits of language.”

Below Marrinan’s robe peeped sandals and bare calves, a final gesture to tradition on a day so observant of the past. Though underwear was invented in the Middle Ages, scholars adapt but slowly. “In Chaucer’s time, on a warm day at Oxford, or at the University of Bologna,” he said, “they just weren’t wearing anything underneath.”

The bell in the cupola of Nassau Hall tolled again and again. The line swayed forward, around FitzRandolph Gate and up through colorful sprays of relatives waving cameras, to a sweep of chairs facing Nassau Hall, under the shadow of elms. On robed laps, programs opened and closed like butterflies.

By department and degree, the students rose for President Tilghman’s blessing. Clipped hair exposed necks that had been overgrown in the thesis months. “Geo rocks!” cried one student as his department stood.

“The purpose of the passion for intellectual inquiry that Princeton gave us,” said Eric Glen Weyl ’07, the valedictorian, “is the use of ideas to improve the world we share.” A drape behind the podium shifted. “Muhammad Ali just came out of Nassau Hall,” Smith whispered to Marrinan. Round went honorary degrees.

Then all with one accord rejoiced, and the hats, which had been restless as birds, flew. The alumni went marching two by two, in wing tips, loafers, heels, and sandals, out FitzRandolph Gate, into the sunlight, each to his personal drummer.