Blue Band: Nine days from auditions to opening day

University Park, Pa. — On Aug. 6, both football Coach Joe Paterno and Blue Band Director O. Richard Bundy were busy preparing for Penn State's fall football season. One major difference is that Paterno was surrounded by his players as they prepared for their first day of football camp, but Bundy was alone, in his office, working on the formation for the band's first halftime drill. It would be 13 more days before he would see prospective band members for their auditions.

"A question I get a lot this time of year is, 'How's the band doing?' but we don't have a band yet," said Bundy. In fact, he didn't have a band until just nine days before they had to perform their first halftime show on Aug. 30.

"In that period of time, what we have to accomplish is hear all of these kids, evaluate them, select the ones who are going to be in the band this year, then start training them, working with them to turn them into a band, teach them two shows — the pregame show and the first halftime show — uniform all of them, and do all of that within that nine-day timeframe."

Wednesday, Aug. 21, was a tough day for both Bundy and the prospective rookies (p-rookies). "This is the part of my job that I hate the most," said Bundy as he prepared to announce the names of the p-rookies who made the cuts and would be joining the 310-member band.

As p-rookie trombonist James Ball heard his name announced, he let out a long sigh. "I'm relieved," he said moments later. "Relieved of the tension. If I hadn't made it, just not hearing my name would have relieved me also. But yeah, I'm relieved. I'm looking forward to it."

Trumpet player Matt Steindorf also is looking forward to joining the band. "It was pretty exciting to hear my name. I was surprised, but it was a welcome thing. I think it's going to be a good year," he said.

With about 200 p-rookies competing for only about 72 open spots, many students weren't as fortunate as Ball and Steindorf. Sydney Shaw, one of 20 p-rookies auditioning for two open piccolo spots, did not hear her name. "I came in knowing that (competition was stiff), so it really wasn't something that I expected to happen. If it happened, awesome. If it didn't, I'm a chemical engineering major with 16 credits, seven of them for honors classes. That will be a lot easier (without Blue Band)," she said. "And there's always next year."

On Thursday, Aug. 21, the newly formed band began three days of band camp, during which they rehearsed three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon and three hours in the evening.

"Obviously the band camp days with the three-a-days are very intense. Each one of those days is more time than we have in a regular week during the season. So those are really important days for this whole process," Bundy said.

On Sunday, Aug. 24, after only three days of rehearsals, the band headed off to its first performance of the season, at the annual Be A Part from the Start rally in Rec Hall. "We also have to appear at the Football Eve event, which is the Friday night before the first game," said Bundy.

Once classes began on Monday, Aug. 25, they followed their regular published rehearsal schedule: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 4 to 5:45, and Tuesday from 7:30 to 10 p.m. "They do get an academic credit, which is something I think some folks don't realize. But one of the things I'll tell the prospective rookies is, if you're considering doing this because you need one credit of general arts requirements, this is the hardest, most time-intensive one credit at the University," Bundy said. "This essentially is like having a part-time job. Once classes start they are investing a minimum of 12 hours a week in rehearsals, and if it's a game week then that jumps on Saturday." Typically, the band reports for duty five hours before kickoff and continues to play after the game ends.

On that first game-day, the crowd doesn't know that the band has just formed and just learned the day's routine. "I tell the kids, one of the things that's a mixed blessing for us is that people expect us, on that first game, to look and sound just as good as we did last season," Bundy said. "If we don't, nobody's there saying, 'Well, it's early in the season.' They're saying, 'What's wrong with the band?' It's almost as if it goes on year-round. Another thing people don't realize is that we end. This is a fall-only thing. We start today, and end after the bowl game. A lot of those kids will play in other aspects of the band program, but the Blue Band, as a performing entity, isn't functioning in the spring or summer."

While the band members have just nine days to learn the music and drills, it takes a lot of preparation on the part of Bundy and his staff to put together each show. Preliminary work starts in January, and then momentum builds in May in terms of the amount of time per week spent on preparations for the fall.

"Late in spring semester, we request that Blue Band students send us their ideas for show themes, for individual tune titles that they think would be fun to play or are interested in playing," Bundy said. "So we get a lot of input from the students, and we summarize that and look at it. It can prompt some ideas."

When Bundy and his staff get into their brainstorming sessions in May they take those student-generated ideas into consideration. "We also look at whether there are any special events that are occurring that we might tie a show around or build a show around. This year, for example, we're going to do a show using some of the music of Michael McDonald and Earth, Wind and Fire the week before they're going to appear at the Jordan Center. The big challenge that we find is finding music that will be 'worth' playing, music that is going to be challenging and enjoyable for the students, and hopefully enjoyable for the audience."

Bundy, who has been Blue Band director since 1996, spends his summer coordinating with the musicians who arrange the music for the band, getting them their assignments and getting the completed musical scores back.

"Dr. Bundy gives me my annual writing assignment over the summer," said Rick Hirsch, who this year arranged two numbers for the band. "This year's selections were both more involved than previous arrangements I've written for the Blue Band. Imagine taking an 8-minute classic 'Stairway to Heaven,' condensing it to 2.5 minutes, having it not sound like the Readers' Digest abridged version, and writing it in a way that allows a marching band to rock out! I think it took me about a week to do this one," said Hirsch.

"We also have to get the drills written," said Bundy. "I probably spent a good 46 to 48 hours writing the drill for the first show. And that show will last seven minutes. That's pretty true for the others, as well."

Bundy used to write all of the drills for the band, but now he has delegated some of that responsibility to others on his staff. "We have an assistant director now, and a graduate student with a year of experience with the band, and one of our volunteers who all participate in sharing some of the drill-writing responsibilities."

Bundy writes the drills for three shows: two Blue Band shows and the Alumni Band portion of Homecoming. The assistant director, Greg Drane, does one show and the Blue Band portion of Homecoming. The graduate assistant, Darrin Thornton, does one show, as does Blue Band volunteer Dave Cree. "That's been a huge positive change for me to have gotten away from the hours that are necessary to write the drills for all of the shows, which is what I did for a long time," said Bundy.

Over the course of the season, the band does six different halftime shows, each unique in its theme, and then a "best of" show for the final home game. This year, the opening show acknowledged the Summer of '08 gas crisis with Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" as the opener, Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine" (because people are walking more) as the concert feature, and Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" as the closer. Other shows include a tribute to some of the all-time great guitarists and a show featuring music by Queen.

"We're also going to do a show featuring mostly classical-oriented music from the same time period that the Institute for the Arts and Humanities is looking at this year as part of the 'Moments of Change' series. We're tying into a Penn State academic program on that particular show. So it's a real mélange of things we try to do in a season."

For more information about the Blue Band, visit online. For a glimpse of band camp activities, visit online, and for more photos of the band's preparations for this fall, visit online.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010