Head over heels for the Blue Band drum major

September 21, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — It would be difficult to imagine a Penn State football game without the Blue Band marching down the field in formation, with the drum major leading the way, psyching up the band and keeping everyone’s spirits high.

The Penn State Blue Band’s roots go way back to the beginnings of the founding of the University, with a fife-and-drum-and-bugle corps whose purpose was primarily to set cadence to battalion marching drills and parades. But it was in 1901 that the then-Pennsylvania State College formally recognized (and funded) the Cadet Drum and Bugle Corps, with the help of Trustee Andrew Carnegie.

The corps increased its numbers from six to 23 and included a drum major for the first time – senior George W. Dodge, who had previously been the snare drummer. With some gaps in the early years, the band consistently has had a drum major since 1947.

The Blue Band’s drum major is known for his whistle blowing, high-step strutting, mace acrobatics, and his signature move – a running forward flip – that makes many who are watching catch their breath. But the flip hasn’t always been a part of the drum major’s repertoire.

Edwin L. Anderson, drum major and gymnast, practiced a flip for the 1942 season, but unfortunately had to leave school for the fall semester due to appendicitis and did not get to perform the move at a game.

The flip didn't resurface for nearly 30 years, when, at the start of the 1971-72 season, drum major Jeff Robertson wanted to add something exciting to his routine. Having been a gymnast in high school, Robertson decided to teach himself a back flip, which he practiced in secret for months; he didn’t tell anyone, not even band director James Dunlop. It was especially difficult because he had to jump high enough for his tall hat to clear the ground.

When Robertson performed the flip on Band Day, the crowd was quiet, unsure of what to make of it. Then they went wild.

Jeff Robertson, Blue Band drum major, circa 1971

Jeff Robertson, drum major for the Blue Band 1971-74 and the first to perform a flip at a game, also was a student patrol officer and a U.S. Navy ROTC midshipman, as shown here in a photograph for a newspaper article about his three Penn State roles.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

It quickly became a Penn State tradition, with subsequent drum majors adding their own style and flair as they wished. Additions developed over the years included changing from a standing back flip to a running front flip; adding a “Russian lift” to gain height for the flip; a split; a salute; and other embellishments. After 1977 the flip became an audition requirement for the position.

“As far as I know, Penn State is the only member of the Big Ten who’s drum major performs a flip,” said Olivia Dowd, student historian for the Blue Band. “Others have their signature moves, but none of them flips like ours does.”

Today, the Penn State Blue Band is recognized as one of the nation's finest college marching bands, with 310 members — including 260 instrumentalists, 34 silks, 14 Touch of Blue (majorettes), the feature twirler and, of course, the drum major.

Jimmy Frisbie, a junior in the Schreyer Honors College majoring in immunology and infectious diseases, is the Blue Band’s current drum major. Watch Frisbie perform the flip in the latest edition of This Is Penn State.

  • Mike Harrell, Blue Band drum major, circa 1990

    Mike Harrell, showing his high-stepping skills during a halftime performance, was the first African-American student to hold the position of drum major with the Blue Band (1990-91).

    IMAGE: Penn State Blue Band Archives

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Last Updated October 15, 2018