Sixty hours: The making of a Penn State Blue Band halftime show

Penn State just isn’t Penn State without its Marching Blue Band. Each home football Saturday, anxious Beaver Stadium fans bristle with excitement as the band takes the field, white hats luminous in the sunlight and visible from the press box.

They perform for 10 minutes, playing flawlessly and moving through complex formations with such ease the audience can’t help but be unaware of the production time required to achieve such a feat.

This endeavor takes work and a whole lot of it. Sixty hours, to be precise. And all before the band ever sets foot on the practice field.

The Blue Band has mastered the football halftime show, and they’re using technology to make it happen.

It’s a challenging job, but it’s one Gregory Drane adores. Drane, in his 10th year as assistant director of the Blue Band, is one of three directors who designs each of the band’s home football game halftime shows, which change weekly.

He’s a familiar figure to seasoned Beaver Stadium fans, directing his instrumentalists with panache, arms flowing back and forth like an artist painting an invisible canvas.

Drane is an artist, just not the kind who takes ink to parchment. He interprets and translates complex lines of music into formations that are executed by students carrying burnished tubas and glistening piccolos. For Drane, it’s all about engaging fans to experience the music through the Blue Band’s uncommon approach to halftime shows.

“Unlike most collegiate marching bands, the Blue Band plays toward both sides of the stadium,” he explained. “It’s important to us. We want to make sure no matter where you’re sitting you get the full picture of the music.”

Originally from Miami, Drane trekked north to complete his master’s degree in music education from Penn State and was hired as assistant director shortly after. Now he manages more than 600 students among the Blue Band and two athletic pep bands, teaches in the School of Music and is finishing his doctorate.

Downtime isn’t in Drane’s vocabulary.

Which is why it’s an amazing feat that each of this year’s seven Blue Band halftime shows is programmed with the level of detail Drane and his fellow directors expect. Pyware, 3-D software that assists in designing marching band drills, is their best friend.

“Back in the day you had to design drills by hand on paper,” he said. “You wouldn’t get to see if it truly worked until you were on the field rehearsing with the students.”

Now Drane designs performances on a computer, animating hieroglyphic-esque figures and scrutinizing each detail to make sure the Blue Band’s standards are upheld. Making changes is as easy as deleting a sentence in a Microsoft Word document, and he doesn’t have to wait for rehearsal.

“We can upload the finished drills online for the instrumentalists to look at before they ever get to practice,” he explained. “They can even zoom in on their position and watch their specific movements.”

And since Pyware is compatible with some mobile devices, students can bring the drills up on their phones while on the field rehearsing. It’s a practice Drane champions.

“We have to use this technology. It’s too good not to,” he said.

Even though the Blue Band has gone high-tech to design halftime shows, instrument repair and maintenance is still done the old-fashioned way. Dave Cree, volunteer assistant of the Blue Band, chuckles at the suggestion of using software to speed up his process.

“Each year I will disassemble every instrument in the band, clean or rinse it out, reassemble it, lubricate it, replace any pads or corks that need it and test play them to make sure they’re functioning,” he said.

Cree has been keeping the Blue Band’s instruments in working order for 23 years, a position he took on as a change of pace after retiring from his role as the director of the Bellefonte Area High School Marching Band. He’s located in the Blue Band Building’s repair suite, overseeing the working order of all the band’s instruments by hand, with a little help from Microsoft Excel.

“We keep track of all the band instruments and uniform parts using databases and spreadsheets,” Cree explained.

In the last decade, the Blue Band’s traditional brass-colored instruments have been transitioned to silver, almost doubling Cree’s prep work for the season.

“The silver has to be hand polished and takes about an hour to do each instrument,” he said. “But wow, what a visual impact on the field.”

While the music draws the audience in, it’s the visuals that keep them interested. The Blue Band regularly performs in front of 100,000 frenzied spectators, who have no idea of the collective effort involved in making one halftime show.

And they shouldn’t. Drane, Cree, the Blue Band staff and performers will see to that — with just a little help from technology.

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Last Updated September 04, 2014