Bonding Through the Band

Writer: 
April 1, 2008
Strike up the band: Band director Au, far right

Strike up the band: Band director Au, far right on trumpet, is joined by students and alumni for the men's basketball game against Albany. Jon Gardiner

Fans are beginning to file into the seats in the upper sections of Cameron Indoor Stadium as Russ Owen tinkers with his drum kit. He adjusts the toms and taps a drumstick lightly on the snare drum and hi-hat.

Nearby, other band members, decked out in blue jeans and striped polos, are sprawled on the bleachers, putting together their instruments, chatting, watching men's basketball players Jon Scheyer, DeMarcus Nelson, and Gerald Henderson take warm-up shots in preparation for a game against Albany.

It's a winter-break game, and many students, having finished up final exams last week, have headed home for the month. Judging by their ages, several of the spectators now meandering through the bleachers of the student section are, no offense, clearly not current undergraduates. But then, neither are the band members.

Owen '84, Ph.D. '89 is actually a biologist with the Environmental Protection Agency, but tonight he is moonlighting, as he has on a handful of nights in each of the past three years, with the Duke Alumni Pep Band, a group formed five years ago to fill in for the undergraduate band at Thanksgiving and winter-break home games for football, women's basketball, and men's basketball, as well as at marquee away games at venues like the Meadowlands in New Jersey and Madison Square Garden.

Among Owen's fifty or so bandmates tonight are other alumni and their family members, university staff and faculty members, and a handful of current students. A row of trombones includes Steve Nowicki, dean of undergraduate education, and Tim Pyatt '81, university archivist. Jocelyn Brumbaugh, a high-school junior and the daughter of two Duke alumni ("I'm a big band geek and a big Duke fan"), is playing alongside clarinetist Dean Morgan B.S.E. '69, M.D. '76, a physician, and Duke sophomore Jason Pifer, a native of nearby Hillsborough. "I moved out today, went home and put my shirt on, and came back," Pifer explains.

Duke's alumni band was the brainchild of former pep band trombonists Nick Superina '03 and Mike Rosen '84. As a student, Superina had stumbled upon the idea while watching a December game featuring the University of Kentucky on television. As the camera swooped through the band, he had noticed, in a field of blue and white shirts, a surprising number of gray hairs. Marching bands at many large universities invite their alumni back to perform at homecoming events, but this was the first time Superina had seen the alumni-band concept applied in a basketball context.

Superina approached Neil Boumpani, then the director of the marching and pep bands, with the idea of creating an alumni band at Duke. Boumpani says that over his eighteen years with the undergraduate bands, he often heard from alumni who would reminisce about their band careers at Duke. He had many conversations with seniors who talked about how great it would be to get an alumni band started, but one after another failed to follow through.

Superina, who served as the undergraduate band's president his junior and senior years, was different. "Nick's one of those people who's going to get things done," Boumpani says. Soon after graduating in the spring of 2003, Superina began sending e-mail messages to other band alumni, asking them if they'd be interested in starting an alumni band. Bolstered by a wave of positive responses, he approached Sterly Wilder '83, executive director of alumni affairs, seeking help in reaching out to alumni. He soon had in hand contact information for more than 1,500 alumni who had played in the band as undergraduates, and a space on the Duke Alumni Association's website for the new Duke Band Alumni Association. Since then, his list has only grown.

One of the most enthusiastic responses he received to his initial inquiry was from Rosen, a physician who lives in New York. The two spent that summer talking about their vision for the organization. In the short term, they hoped to be able to fill the band section with enthusiastic, striped-polo-clad musicians during fall and winter breaks, when most undergraduates were out of town. Boumpani had previously offered the section to local high-school bands or community bands, but often had trouble filling it. But down the road, Superina and Rosen also hoped to provide support—financial and moral—to an undergraduate band that they saw faltering, its numbers decreasing year after year. In the mid-'90s, the band peaked at almost 150 members. Since then, it has dipped well below 100.

Here it may be helpful to take a step back and explain something about pep band members in general, and Duke alumni pep band members in particular, that may not be obvious to the casual observer: They are not just here for the free basketball tickets.

Over the years, almost 600 alumni band members have performed during at least one basketball or football game, and many have become regulars at the events. Band members have even made forays into nonrevenue sports. Many e-mail Superina months in advance to get the music for the thirty or so songs in the band's set list. Their motivations are various. Some, Rosen acknowledges, are selfish. "We just wanted to play again. It's sort of like we've gotten a second life. Especially those of us who had to live through the really lean years of Duke basketball, it's been great."

But they are also there to support the band, to support the team, to support the university. In 2005, Rosen attended the national championship lacrosse game between Duke and the Johns Hopkins University. Hopkins had its undergraduate band there. Duke had none. "I called Nick and told him that would never happen again," Rosen recalls. Two years later, when the teams met again for the championship, alumni and students joined together to field a band twenty-five strong.

The night before the game, band members stayed up until 3:30 a.m. talking about the status of the band and its history, Rosen says. "The undergraduates loved hearing stories from the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1980s, even more recent stories from the 2000s. We sort of filled in all the blanks in the history with all the generations."

That's exactly the type of generation-bridging Superina and Rosen had hoped for. "It's really fun to sit with undergrads who are now, dare I say, young enough to be my kids," Rosen says. "To sit with them, hang out with them, listen to them share what's going on on campus. Because we have a common connection. It gives the alumni an opportunity to connect in a very special way with undergrads who are carrying on a tradition they were part of decades ago."

Part of the reason the alumni band concept works so well, says Boumpani, is that the alumni and the students really aren't that different. Once they get back into the stands and get their horns to their lips, "it's like they never left. They get as excited as some of my undergraduates would get."

Asked about the differences between his time in the undergraduate band and his time in the alumni band, Rosen says, "Well, I'm not as good, although I've gotten my lips back." He pauses. "You know what the beauty is? It's almost like there is no difference. I feel like I'm a student again." He's enjoyed participating in the new tradition of surfing with the Blue Devil, where band members lie on the floor, the mascot stands on a surfboard on top of them, and they roll him across the court.

At halftime of the Albany game, Dean Morgan, who joined the alumni band this season after years of attending games as a fan, is pleased with his performance but notes that he didn't see as much basketball as he's used to. "I spent half the time looking for the right music," he says. "I'd look up for a couple plays, cheer, then go back to flipping through songs."

Others point out the physical challenges of playing just a few times a year, sometimes after an interlude of twenty years or more. The band kicked into full gear about forty-five minutes before game time, and as a result, says trumpet player Dave Melton M.Div. '79, "about the time the game starts, your lips aren't right." Even D.J. Vaughn, a saxophonist who graduated in 2005, says that his instrument feels a little foreign at first.

Band director Jeff Au and assistant Bart Bressler '07 are conscious of the differences between the alumni and the undergraduates. During the Albany game, they often hold up a whiteboard listing upcoming songs five or ten minutes in advance, where they might only give undergraduates a minute or two to prepare.

Duke wins the game 111-70. Au and Bressler then turn their attention to a Madison Square Garden match-up against ninth-ranked Pittsburgh later in the week. For the alumni band, this is a big event. It's a chance for many alumni band members based in the Northeast to perform without traveling to Durham. The fifty-four seats allocated to the band were snapped up in less than a week. Superina will be there, as will Rosen and alumni band member Herb Savitt.

As a student, Savitt '52, J.D. '57 played the snare drum, but these days, he accompanies the band on the cymbals. Savitt has a cassette tape that features the collected works of the Duke Pep Band. He likes to listen to it when he's in the car, driving around his hometown of Ansonia, Connecticut, and, when he's alone, he'll often find himself tapping out the beat on the steering wheel. Sometimes, he'll tap a little too hard, and the horn will sound.

"Other drivers give me crazy looks," he says. "Little do they know this is a crazy Duke alum getting ready for another game."