Blue Band provides creative outlet for analytical minds

Jessica Hallman
October 08, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Sean Penfield’s mother encouraged him to start playing piano while he was in elementary school, she had a substantial reason.

“My mom said that piano lessons will help the right and left sides of your brain communicate with each other, and help them communicate for life,” said Penfield.

Now, as a senior majoring in security and risk analysis in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Penfield continues to put that notion to practice as a member of the Penn State Blue Band.

“The balance [between my major and Blue Band] is almost a necessity for life,” he said. “You have to find certain things you’re passionate about. There’s work, and there’s play.”

Penfield now plays the trumpet — something he’s been doing since fifth grade when he picked up his dad’s old horn. He — along with Jack Beam, Lauren Boehmer, Alec Brown, Stephen Giacobe, Andrew Kucenski, Reed McGarvey, Wade Miller, David Snowiss, Dalton Stone, Heather VanGorder and Joseph Wasko — is one of 12 IST students who are current members of the Blue Band.

Sean Penfield

Sean Penfield

IMAGE: Provided

In addition to Blue Band, Penfield has also participated in the University’s pep band and concert band and serves as president of Penn State’s chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a national fraternal society in music. But, he says, nothing compares to the experience of playing in front of a capacity crowd at Beaver Stadium.

“Sharing the gift of music is really powerful,” said Penfield. “All of the energy in the stadium goes through you. You bring memories back to people who went to Penn State and remind them of what it’s like to be a Penn Stater.”

“I don’t even know how to explain what it’s like [performing at Beaver Stadium],” said Snowiss, a senior majoring in IST. “You see all these screaming fans, and they’re all there to watch you and cheer you on. It’s an atmosphere like no other.”

The sport of the Blue Band

To join the Blue Band, students must complete a competitive audition process. The band accepts an average of 305 musicians annually, and members must audition each year whether they’re new or returning.

Penfield recalled the day during his freshman year that he was selected.

“It was surreal,” he said. “I didn’t know how much I wanted it until they were calling names. This is probably one of the most important things that will ever happen to me.”

Now, Penfield serves as a trumpet guide, which is a leadership position that oversees a section of his peers who also play the instrument, along with fellow College of IST trumpeters Snowiss and Beam, seniors majoring in IST.

VanGorder, a sophomore studying IST, also remembers the competitive nature of her freshman audition. While she said that the following year’s audition was somewhat less nerve-wracking since she knew what to expect, there is still a lot at stake.

Heather VanGorder

Heather VanGorder

IMAGE: Provided

“There is a lot of pressure,” she said. “We have a different performance every week, and we have to learn it in the time we’re given. If you mess up, everyone can see it.”

While she enjoys performing in front of a crowd, she noted that there are also physical demands, as members wear wool uniforms while marching and carrying heavy instruments, like her 30-pound sousaphone.

“Blue Band is a sport, it really is,” she said.

Finding personal and professional growth

Not only do student-musicians have to keep up with the mental and physical demands of being members of the Blue Band, they have to balance their time practicing and performing with their academic studies. The band practices nearly 10 hours per week during football season and requires additional time commitments on game days and for other activities.

“One of the biggest things you need to do is plan ahead,” said Beam. “We know when we’ll have rehearsals and what the time commitment is. We need to be able to plan when we’ll do school work and be mindful of how we’ll spend that time.”

“It’s not so much about balancing, as music is a creative outlet for me,” added Snowiss. “When I need to take my mind off the stresses of school, I can creatively express myself through band.”

Snowiss has found a way, however, to blend this creative outlet with his interest in technology. Three years ago, he helped to start the band’s Innovation and Technology Committee (ITC), which develops technology-based solutions aimed at improving the overall efficiency of the band.

Since the committee formed, they have implemented tools to leverage technology in the band, such as digitally tracking musicians’ song memorization check offs — a required part of the Blue Band curriculum — and digitally taking attendance. The ITC also plans to incorporate iPads into practices to help band members learn pregame and halftime drills, and to introduce virtual reality and 3D printing in the near future.

“We’re applying the things we learn in class to help the Blue Band solve logistical problems,” he said.

Bringing the classroom to the marching field is something students know helps them to stand out.

“Blue Band is valuable not only for the social aspect but also for professional development,” added Penfield. “When you put Blue Band on a resume — especially a leadership position — it shows a recruiter or prospective employer that you’re a person outside of class. It helps to personify you.”

Lifelong connections deepened through music

Snowiss is committed to advancing the Blue Band’s innovation while maintaining the organization’s longstanding tradition, and for good reason: His father also played trumpet in the Blue Band during his own time at Penn State.

“I wanted to play the trumpet anyway,” Snowiss explained. “My brother played it, too, at UC Berkeley. It just trickled down. It was a no-brainer for me to pick it up.”

David and Jack Snowiss

David Snowiss, right, with his father Jack at the 2017 Penn State Homecoming game. Father and son have both played trumpet in the Penn State Blue Band and play together during the halftime show during Homecoming each year, when alumni return to take the field.

IMAGE: Provided

Snowiss explained that, upon his acceptance into the Blue Band, his dad said that it felt like a dream come true. His dad has since traveled from California to play with Snowiss during halftime of Homecoming games at Beaver Stadium.

“The past three years, my dad and I have been able to share the field,” he said. “It’s an incredible bond to be able to play together in our favorite marching band.”

While not all Blue Band members share these same generational bonds, each is developing new connections that will last a lifetime.

“Everyone I live with is in Blue Band, my girlfriend is in Blue Band, all of the important people in my life at school are in Blue Band,” said Beam. “I wouldn’t have those people or the support network they provide without the band.”

“You’d be surprised how close you can get to everyone in a 300-member organization,” added Snowiss. “All of my best friendships at Penn State started in the Blue Band. I’ve built life-lasting friendships. That’s the biggest and most impactful takeaway for me.”

'It’s something you’re part of'

For College of IST students who are in the Blue Band, they’ve gained similar benefits of membership through their own unique experiences. They’ve developed time management and leadership skills, found a creative outlet for their analytical career paths, developed lasting friendships and honed their musical passions. They’re members of one of the largest and most recognized student organizations on campus. And, they recognize that the experience has been life-changing.

“I’ve really discovered who I am,” said Penfield. “I found the ability to search out and find my passion.”

“You realize when you’re done performing and you stomp the ground, and everyone is screaming, that all of this work wasn’t for nothing,” added VanGorder.

Beam recalled a moment after the 2017 Rose Bowl when he was returning to the bus following the game. The senior trumpeters called the underclassmen to join them for one final song.

Jack Beam

Jack Beam

IMAGE: Provided

“Looking around at the seniors and seeing them start to cry, and others who were visibly trying not to cry, was an emotional moment,” he said. “I thought ‘wow, this really does mean a lot to everyone here.’ Blue Band is not just something you do; it’s something you’re part of.”

Last Updated October 15, 2018