Sixty students and professors are gathered in a room in Stewart Center. A gentle buzz of conversation permeates the early morning atmosphere. Friends greet each other after a summer away from campus, trade jokes and catch up on stories they’ve missed. Half-empty boxes of doughnuts litter a table near the front of the room. One of the professors tells the students to take as many as they’d like.
“We have to get rid of these by noon,” he jokes.
The gathering includes band director and professor Jay Gephart, drum majors Brendan Schultz and Lucy Bays, Big Bass Drum Crew Captain Josh Siegel and Purdue’s star twirler, Golden Girl Kaitlyn Schleis. They are the leaders of the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band, here to refresh their leadership and marching skills before the beginning of Purdue’s full band camp on Sunday.
In just two weeks, the full band will be parading down Third Street, doing drills in their practice field across the street from Shreve Hall and playing to the home crowd at Ross-Ade Stadium for the Boilermakers’ season opener. But now, the leadership is looking to replenish the band’s ranks after a long offseason.
The process of being selected to the band begins a week before the beginning of the semester. All candidates —usually around 500, according to the band leadership— participate in a week-long band camp that drills students on their existing marching fundamentals and teaches the Big Ten’s signature marching technique, the chair step.
Returning students can’t rest on their laurels, either.
“Everyone tries out for a spot,” Schultz said. “You’ll very often trade upperclassmen out if they aren’t up to the caliber of the freshmen.”
Even before this, however, the directors are choosing the season’s shows. Every week is a new halftime performance, with music, formations and personnel known since the spring.
Schultz described the process of learning all of these shows as a waterfall. Every week, the band learns formations and music for that weekend’s performance.
The closest thing to a constant in their on-field performance is the pregame show, featuring the famous “Block P” formation and “I Am An American” speech. Even then, the band finds some measure of variability. According to Siegel, each section has one person sit out of the pregame show per week.
The marching band’s signature is the Big Bass Drum, commonly known as the “World’s Largest Drum.” The rigorous selection process for the Big Bass Drum Crew, the six-person team responsible for maneuvering and playing the drum during appearances, happens during the larger band camp.
The process begins, according to Siegel, with a physical examination based off of the Air Force’s entrance physical: a 1/2 mile run, 400 meter and 100 meter sprints and two minutes each of sit-ups and push-ups. After that, they start to work with the drum.
“Obviously a big part of what we do is being able to physically maneuver the drum and do tricks,” Siegel said. “We teach them the basics, we show them how to do it, and they either get it or they don’t.”
Crew members are also required to memorize the entire history of the drum, summarized in a 14-page packet, before they arrive on campus.
Once the roster has been filled, the practice can begin in earnest. The band practices for two hours every day, and must be ready to play four hours before kickoff on game days.
Practices occur around Purdue’s campus and on the band’s practice field. The band’s leaders say that their first time on the field at Ross-Ade stadium is on game night, in front of spectators and athletes alike.
During games, the band’s playing is tightly controlled. There are strict NCAA rules in place for marching bands concerning appropriate playing times. Violating these rules could result in penalties being awarded on the football field. Due to this, there is no coordination between the band and student section about songs or routines.
“We’re providing the atmosphere,” Schultz said. “The student section responds to whatever we do.”
Band members say they feel support from the student population on and off the field. Bays recalled the attitudes of students during her early years at Purdue.
“When games would be a little rough, I had some friends say, ‘We stay until halftime to watch the band, and then we leave after that’,” Bays said. “That was a really cool thing to hear, that even if the football’s not great, people were still sticking around just to see us.”
Students have also been known to compliment members of the band in everyday life. Sometimes they’re recognizing the band by their “train jackets” or lining Third Street to film the daily parade well into the middle of the season. They’ve even requested songs.
“Mo Bamba’s the biggest one,” Schultz said. “People really wanted that one, it’s not gonna happen. I’m sure the arrangement is out there, but it’s not gonna happen.”