the value of simplicity

a conversation with the brown marching band

It has almost been one year since I last played music with a band. At the start of my freshman year, I made the difficult choice to drop music and set aside time for other pursuits, and up to now I had swept feelings of regret and treasured band memories to the back of my mind. After all, wasn’t college the time to knuckle down, pick your priorities, and move forward?

I recently had the opportunity, however, to sit down with the e-board of the Brown Band, and in half an hour I was reminded of the joy and magic I found in symphonic band. Instead of playing in concerts, marching band members play at football games, marching in complex patterns and showing off their stellar uniforms as they do so. A marching band typically performs on the field during halftime, when the energy in the stadium is at its highest. In front of such crowds, players need to have stage presence in addition to musical ability. But while marching band is very different from symphonic band, with members playing at football games instead of in concerts, there is one quality that they share: in band, life is distilled down to just the music and people around you.

The Brown Band dates back to 1924, when then freshman Irving Harris was stunned to hear that the university did not have a marching band. Beginning with a makeshift group of 26, the Brown Band was born with Harris wielding a baton homemade from a mop handle as its tenacious freshman leader.

The first experiences of many of the band members today are no less unique. For David Cabatingan ‘21, a saxophonist in the band, “ADOCH really cemented for me that it was a great community to be a part of, with people all across campus and in classes that I know.” Adam Mercier ‘19, Vice President of the Band Board, remembers that at the first rehearsal, “Everybody got on their chairs and started playing ‘Al.’ I was like…what the heck? I couldn’t leave after seeing what I saw.”

Sofia Frohna ’20, Corresponding Secretary (“CorSec”),  found herself pulled in without any previous experience with a band instrument: “I don’t play an actual band instrument, but I do have a melodica, which is a sort of a keyboard-horn. I was like, ‘Can I play this?’ And they were like, ‘Sure! Just find a section to join.’ The flute section leader at the time just took me in and welcomed me into the band.” For Natalie Delworth ‘19, Head Student Conductor, “I saw people playing percussion, and I always wanted to try the drums or cymbals. They said they could just teach me to play the cymbals, that of course I could join.”

The band also tries to make it easy for those with other time commitments to participate. Kelvin Wong ’20, Business Manager (“money god”), says, “I was in marching band in high school, but I didn’t like having to practice. The Brown Band…it’s like doing marching band S/NC.”

Waves of laughter greet each response at the table. It’s the type of laughter that is loose, free, and incredibly contagious. Immediately after Kelvin’s response, the board excitedly discussed using “it’s like doing marching band S/NC” as a slogan on one of the band’s buttons. Sofia explains that the band has been making buttons during football seasons for decades, which fosters interactions among spectators and other teams. Sophia recalls, “A guy at the Fenway game was like, ‘Oh! This is a great button! I’ve been collecting them for 30 years!’ Other schools really enjoy the fact that we make buttons. At the Fenway game, Dartmouth actually gave us buttons, which was a really nice gesture. We become really close with other bands.” Full of wit and humor, past buttons have read “Ted Cruz ‘92 is the Zodiac Killer” (Princeton, 2017), “Big Red What?” (Cornell, 2015), “Rotten to the Core Curriculum” (Columbia, 2007), to name just a few. For this year’s home game, the button is simply a picture of Blueno.

Another band tradition is equally unique, in addition to being visually stunning: the Brown Band on ice. In fact, Brown’s is the world’s only ice skating band. The Brown Band perform an ice show after two to three games during Hockey Season. Summer Gerry ‘20, General Manager (“mom”), says, “You don’t have to know how to skate to join the band. Many people haven’t even seen ice. I host Learn to Skate, where we all learn together and have a great time.” For those who still don’t have a knack for it, there is still nothing to fear. “I have often been dragged around the ice by someone who knows how to skate while I’m playing,” says Sofia, “which really just shows the level of support in the band.”

One of the most enduring traditions, however, is returning to the community. “We have a lot of alumni that come back,” says Gaby Usabal ‘19, President of the Band Board. “We have alumni ice shows. We have an alumni game. At commencement, alumni, and current members play together. Even the guy who started the buttons comes back.” At the meeting, I noticed several black and white photos of previous groups skating. Adam mentions recently finding “a video of an ice show from 1980, a reminder of our unbroken chain of tradition.” These relics are a reminder of how solid the foundations of this group are, and it makes perfect sense that a group with such spirit and camaraderie lives on after graduation. “That sense of community transcends your time here at Brown. The band itself has never changed, spreading cheer and goofiness,” adds Gaby. Natalie agrees: “I think it’s the importance of goofiness in my life. Part of the reason I love this group is that we all just love being goofs together. It’s a connection I still want to have in my later adult years.”

Participating in the Brown Band also comes with many memorable experiences. Summer says, “We go caroling around campus every semester to spread cheer before finals. This year it was pouring rain. Sophia and I went around giving hot chocolate to people. It was a wild experience walking on the street, pouring rain and pushing a cart with hot chocolate, but it was so nice to see people’s day brighten because of it.” Other band events stand out to different members. For Gaby, it is commencement: “Walking down that hill during commencement, with everyone cheering and alumni there…it’s such an emotional experience. It’s almost like experiencing graduation a few times.” For first-years Sebastien Jean-Pierre ‘21 and David Cabatingan ‘21, it’s the trips to the games: “For the Cornell Trip, we always hear about Ezra Cornell, and during the parade, we yell at Cornell people to join the band, even though they would literally have to transfer schools,” says Sebastien.

For many like Adam, however, it is also about family. The band was the first organization on campus that Adam joined. He went to Jo’s one day with a group of fellow freshmen, who welcomed him in with a conversation about memes. That conversation formed the friendship between himself, his current best friend and his girlfriend. Adam sums it up by saying, “I just sat down with this group of people I never met before, and we shared two common languages: band and memes.”

“It’s one huge entire family dating back to the oldest alum,” says Gaby.

After listening to Gaby’s and Natalie’s comments, I could not help but remember some of the faces back home with whom I shared countless laughs in band. There are, of course, moments in band that are profound and sentimental, whether it is sharing a great moment in a piece of music or realizing a reservoir of support in the people around you, but I think the true nature of band is far simpler. It’s an amalgam of quips and silly jokes that breathe the most amazingly awkward humor, full of childlike joy. The magic of it all lies in its simplicity.

After speaking with this wonderful group of people and looking back on my own years of playing with a band, I realize now that I miss band the way I miss being a kid. If there is one thing I believe that the band experience embodies the most, it is innocence. I can think of few other extracurriculars, or things in the world for that matter, where the scale is so tipped toward happiness and unity rather than stress. After sitting with these people for just half an hour, I probably laughed more than I do on average in an entire day. I was reminded that there are things in this world that don’t have to carry so much weight in order to have meaning—that inside of all us, there should always be permission to let loose.