Picking up the beat

For the few dozen Schreyer Scholars who are members of the Penn State Blue Band, so much of their day revolves around time – keeping it during practices and game-day performances and keeping track of it during the rest of the week.

Like their peers in one of the country’s most iconic collegiate marching bands, they learn and hone new pieces each week, and many also play in one of Penn State’s other athletic bands or its symphonic band during the spring semester.

They also take honors courses, do thesis work and, like many of their Schreyer peers, take their academic interests and activities beyond the classroom. They have little time to spare, but they find ways to make the most of every minute to reap the benefits they see in both programs.

“Strangely enough, on days that I have Blue Band I feel like I’m the most productive; I get the most things done,” said senior baritone player Matthew Sorna, an engineering science major who is taking 20 credits this semester.

“I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone.”

Sorna missed the audition for Blue Band during his freshman year but made sure it was on his schedule the following August. He became a Gateway Scholar in Schreyer in 2015 because he wanted to push himself in the classroom. He catches up on schoolwork during weekends Penn State plays on the road and the band doesn’t travel.

Sophomore mellophone player Anthony Stem can relate. The political science major plans out his schedule three to four weeks in advance and acknowledges that he doesn’t have a great deal of time to unwind.

“I’m kind of famous for having to say no to going to dinner,” he said. “But I’m happy to do it, because it’s opened a lot of doors.”

One of those doors opened when Stem, who was doing volunteer work for a local political campaign, interviewed for a position in state representative Glenn Thompson’s office.

“The first thing they said in the interview was ‘Wow, this kid’s in Schreyer,’” he said.

Blue Band director Greg Drane likes to point to Stem as an example of cultivating leadership. The 38-year-old Bethune Cookman graduate came to Penn State in 2005 and assumed his current post when longtime director O. Richard Bundy retired in July 2015. 

Drane, who already earned a master’s degree from Penn State and is currently working to complete his doctorate, understands the balance between band and academics his students face, but he also works hard to develop leadership skills within the band.

“We are underutilizing our students if we are just using them to play a saxophone or twirl a baton,” he said. “They have so much more to offer.”

Schreyer Scholars rise to those leadership positions naturally, Drane says. They include drum major Jimmy Frisbie, Blue Sapphire Rachel Reiss and student historian Olivia Dowd, who takes behind-the-scenes pictures of the band each week.

“Just to watch people as they’re reacting, and I can capture them in moments of huge joy and they’re working so hard and trying to support other people and have fun themselves, and I get to capture all of that,” Dowd said. “There’s no energy that can match that.”

Dowd, a music education major, helped the band director at her alma mater, Bethel Park High School, show the students a few things during a band camp there this summer. She’d like to teach at the varsity level someday.

“What I want to do is to care about people and to teach people how to care,” she said. “I love to learn and I love to teach and I love people, so this field is the perfect culmination of that. And with music, it’s a really good medium for doing those kinds of things. It challenges your mind, it challenges your disciplines and so many aspects of your life that you don’t even realize, and your brain works a lot of different ways with music.”

For Dowd, part of the appeal of the Schreyer Honors College was joining an environment “where people would get together to collaborate on their ideas.” Sophomore Katie Heckman, a saxophone player from nearby Spring Mills, Pennsylvania, liked the smaller class sizes and the priority scheduling, which allows her to avoid conflicts between classes and Blue Band. The College’s Academic Excellence Scholarship was another plus.

“I’m an animal science major, hoping to continue to veterinary school,” Heckman said. “Anything I can put away to save for vet school is huge.”

Heckman said the most rewarding part of her Blue Band experience is coming out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel on game days. Reiss, now in her third year as the band’s feature twirler, agreed.

“Every time I do it I feel like it’s a dream,” she said. “It never gets old. I’m always nervous.”

Reiss grew up in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. As a 6-year-old, she wanted to take tap dance lessons but the class was full, so she signed up for baton twirling instead. Former Blue Sapphire Bobbie Jo Solomon was an inspiration; Reiss never saw her twirl at Penn State, but she took private lessons from her.

“She had a bag that said ‘World Champion,’ and ‘Penn State,’” Reiss recalled. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”

Reiss spends the spring in competitions at the state, regional, national and international levels. A double major in French and Francophone studies and corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, she joined the Schreyer Honors College as a Paterno Fellow this semester and has been impressed by the personal touch of the faculty in her honors classes.

“I feel like they really want to help us learn,” she said, “not just (have us) trudge through the class and do the assignments.”

There is little trudging from the 450 students who make up the Blue Band as well as the volleyball, basketball and hockey pep bands (“It’s a small army,” said Drane). They are active across campus, and Drane wants them to take ownership in the band.

“I want a team of leaders,” Drane said. “These students have a perspective I don’t. And I try to rely on that.”

The responsibilities of Blue Band and the college are both massive commitments on their own. Tying them together is a different kind of challenge, but each year, Penn State students take it on.

“If your heart’s not in it, why would you do this?” Dowd said. “It’s so much time and so much work, but it’s so rewarding and so wonderful.”

Last Updated December 07, 2016