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.)  

The acronym for the Caring, Responsible Alumni of Princeton, from the 1982 Dartmouth game.
The acronym for the Caring, Responsible Alumni of Princeton, from the 1982 Dartmouth game.
Princeton University Band/Courtesy Irwin Tillman ’86

The Princeton University Band has become an unmistakable part of football Saturdays, and not surprisingly, football sparked the group’s founding. An October 1919 advertisement in the Prince urged “any man who can play any band instrument at all” to sign up for a new Univer­sity band that would “play at games and mass meetings.” Much of the band’s early repertoire already was well known; in the days before the band, students and alumni sang Princeton fight songs in the stands, without accompaniment.

The Princeton band was a hit in its early days, particularly when the Tigers won. After its first Yale game in 1919 — a 13–6 Tiger victory — the band led parading fans on a five-mile march through New Haven, “blaring the sounds of celebration as it went,” according to a Washington Post report.  

For a few decades, the Princeton band followed a traditional marching model, but around the time of World War II, the band started a transition to its modern incarnation, according to Enoch. The three most recognizable elements of the band — the scrambling, the orange-and-black plaid jackets, and the humorous halftime scripts — arrived in quick succession. Band members experimented with the idea of running from formation to formation in the early 1940s, Enoch says, and adopted the practice in earnest sometime in the next decade. Plaid jackets and straw boaters became the official uniform in 1952. And in the ’50s, the band began making regular attempts at humor. (An archive of halftime scripts dates back to 1955.)

The early scripts sound relatively tame, but by the late 1960s, the Princeton University Band’s reputation for mischief was enough to make TV producers wary. When ABC told the band it would not be broadcasting the halftime show at the 1967 Harvard game, band members devised a clever response. They formed the letters “ABC,” in hopes of luring cameras into a wide shot of the field, and then scrambled the “A” to an “N,” finishing the stunt with NBC’s trademark three-tone jingle. Enoch is searching for video of the broadcast to find out just how much of the show aired on ABC.  

In the 1970s, the band’s halftime humor primarily targeted a student audience, according to onetime band president Vincent de Luise ’73. (Today, with fewer students in the stands, jokes about current events — like political campaigns — play a larger role.) Shows included hearty doses of double-entendre and phallic formations, and one Monday morning, de Luise was called into President Robert Goheen ’40 *48’s office to explain a particularly racy script. His explanation must not have been sufficient, because later that week, the band was introduced to its first two University censors. They were fairly lenient, de Luise says, but the filter made recognizable changes. “What came out the other side was not as funny, not as clever, not as risqué,” he says. “But what can you do?” Representatives from athletics and the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students continue to review the band’s scripts today (and the band continues to test the boundaries of what is and isn’t allowed). In the original 2008 Citadel script, for example, the band joked that while Princeton’s Armory was bulldozed to make way for the new chemistry building, “The Citadel’s was bulldozed to make way for Sherman.” That joke was removed.

Even with censors in place, the Princeton band has managed to offend audiences at home and on the road. One frequently cited example came during the Princeton-Delaware game in 1981, when the band infuriated many alumni with an innuendo-filled show about chemistry (“After ‘Orgo,’ everything is anti-climactic”). Afterward, officials at West Point pre-emptively banned the band from traveling to that year’s Princeton-Army game. But the band bounced back, as it often does. Army visited Palmer Stadium the next year, and the band played it straight (partly) with a tribute to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.  

In the 1980s, the band could count on 80 to 100 members to play at home football games, says Irwin Tillman ’86, a band alumnus and longtime supporter. But by the early 1990s, the turnout was more often around 50. While some blamed the end of Princeton’s physical-education requirement (which could be fulfilled with two years of band service), Tillman thinks that new musical groups on campus drew potential members away from the band. In recent years, though, the numbers have improved. At this season’s opening game, about 80 band members, including 26 freshmen and a handful of alumni, marched onto the field at halftime.

Members say that aggressive recruiting has driven the turnaround. At the freshman activities fair in Dillon Gym, for example, the band vies for attention amid rows of demonstrations by other student groups. Rugby balls spiral through the air, quartets sing a cappella tunes, and cheerleaders build human pyramids, all in hopes of convincing the newcomers to pause long enough to jot down their names and e-mail addresses.  

The band’s approach appears to have two elements: standing out and having fun. A couple of members have co-opted a 15-foot-tall black screen, normally used to divide basketball courts, and draped from the top a felt banner that reads “BAND.” In front, a dozen upperclassmen in plaid uniform jackets play drum cadences on plastic pumpkins, dance to the hip-hop tunes blaring from a dance group’s adjacent booth, and chat with the passing freshmen.  

By the end of the three-hour event, more than 100 freshmen have added their names to the band’s mailing list. Not everyone signs up, of course. Some smile politely and keep walking. “And a lot of people give you funny looks,” says Valdez, the band president, who has donned a plaid kilt and wears her hair in a Mohawk. “But that’s OK.”

The semi-chaotic scenes that the Princeton University Band showcases in its recruitment events, halftime shows, and other gigs are part of everyday life for band members. At field rehearsals, gang-tackling the drum major is a favorite diversion. Indoors, members toss stuffed animals around the room in the middle of songs, often forcing Krauss, the student conductor, to maintain the tempo while ducking fluffy projectiles. Krauss calls it part of the band’s balancing act. “I’m supposed to be productive, they’re supposed to be silly, and then we’re all supposed to find a medium [point] that kind of works,” he says.

At the Lehigh game, it all comes together on the field, from the opening dash to the “run away, band” retreat. The home team insisted that its own announcer read Princeton’s script — another common safeguard against Ivy scramble bands — but even that goes well. The announcer follows Sprankling’s notes, pausing at the right spots to make the jokes work.  

The band returns to the bleachers with satisfied smiles and takes a short rest before returning to its other game-day responsibility: rooting for the Tigers. Even without the music, band members are among Princeton’s loudest and most devoted fans. In addition to playing at football games, they travel to support other teams, including men’s hockey, men’s basketball, and men’s lacrosse. Valdez, the president, points out that the band has followed the Tigers to the NCAA hockey championships in each of the last two years, booking flights to Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis on short notice.  

At Lehigh, the football game is not exactly inspiring. Princeton, which led 14­–7 at halftime, kicks a third-quarter field goal and then clings to its lead with white knuckles, surviving with a 17–14 victory. But it is the first win of the season, and the band reacts with appropriate gusto, serenading the Tigers as they head for the locker room and continuing to play on a triumphant march across the stadium’s bleachers.  

Seeing the spirited, scattered parade, it’s not hard to imagine how in 1919, when Princeton-Yale games drew 50,000, fans were inclined to follow that same music through the streets of New Haven.  

For 90 years, the Princeton University Band has provided a soundtrack for the Tigers, win or lose, and the plaid-clad troubadours plan to keep going. As Valdez says, quoting a favorite motto, “The band remains undefeated.” 

Brett Tomlinson is an associate editor at PAW.