November 04, 1999
University Gazette


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Stepping Lively at 80, The Band Plays On

By Alvin Powell
Gazette Staff

FIGURES OF SPEECH. The versatile University Band spells out its age in band members to the delight of fans filling the stands at last weekend's football game between Harvard and Dartmouth.

It’s been 73 years since they made their first recording, for Victor Records, 18 years since they ate a giant chocolate mousse at the Yale game, and 9 years since they played a surprise gig in the offices of The Harvard Crimson.

Eighty years after it was established, the Harvard University Band is still going strong, bringing music, marching, and merriment to football halftime shows and concerts across the region.

Walt McLean '56, who was a member of the Harvard University Band during his college days, celebrates the Band's 80th birthday at Harvard Stadium by joining other alums and current band members in the music-making.
To commemorate its eight decades, the Band gave itself a birthday party last weekend with a reunion celebration that brought in about 150 Band alumni. Of those, 114 marched and played instruments with current Band members on the field at the halftime show at Saturday’s (Oct. 30) Harvard-Dartmouth football game.

The enlarged band, which practiced together that morning, acknowledged its age during the show with a variety of formations. They spelled out words related to the anniversary, such as "HARVARD BAND" and "FOUR SCORE." At one point, the Band formed the Harvard shield, complete with its logo, broken into two lines: "VERI" and "TAS."

After a moment, however, the marchers shifted and the logo changed from VERI-TAS to VERI-OLD.

Very old, yes. But apparently still as young at heart as in 1938, when they spelled out "WE ARE WET" at halftime of the Yale game, played in a downpour. Witty formations made while playing Harvard fight songs and other numbers are part of the shtick of the Harvard University Band, which prides itself on being not just fun, but funny.

Fred Richardson, another Band alum, cheers on Harvard last weekend. Photos by Marc Halevi.
Reunion weekends are held every five years, said Band Director Thomas Everett. The reunions give former Band members a chance to reconnect and reminisce, but they also give current members a chance to see their own experiences in a different light.

"For undergraduates, it was very special because it’s their link to the past," Everett said. "It was a remarkable reunion and fulfilled our expectations."

Reunion events spanned the whole weekend, starting with music rehearsal Friday afternoon, followed by the Dartmouth Concert at night. Saturday started off bright and early with an 8 a.m. march from the Band’s headquarters on Mount Auburn Street to Soldiers Field for rehearsal of the halftime show. The 80th Reunion Banquet followed the game on Saturday evening at the Sheraton Commander, followed on Sunday with a final brunch in the Band Room.

Formed in 1919 to whip up student spirit during football games, the Band has long since branched out and today plays at hockey games, basketball games, other athletic events, official University occasions such as commencement, and a variety of community charity events.

Its musical offerings, which include 13 Harvard fight songs, have branched out as well, pushed along by the formation of two new musical groups, the Harvard University Jazz Band and the Harvard Wind Ensemble. All three groups entertained the returning alumni during the annual Dartmouth Concert in Sanders Theatre Friday evening.

The concert featured music ranging from Duke Ellington’s "Black and Tan Fantasy" to a playful version of "Asleep in the Deep," by H.W. Petrie. "Asleep in the Deep" featured a solo on the world’s largest working tuba, played by Boston Symphony Orchestra tubist Chester Schmitz, after two students lugged the enormous instrument – which was taller than they were – to center stage.

Band Room Is a ‘Second Home’

Music and spirit may be the Band’s mission, but its soul is camaraderie. The Band Room, in the basement at 74 Mount Auburn St., is a second home to many members. Several returning alumni said they came back this weekend because the Band was their place at Harvard. It was where they spent their most memorable time, where they made their best friends.

"It was very important to my experience here," said Theo Hong, a clarinet player who graduated in 1995. "Most of my best friends from college I met here in the Band. It was a social center."

Hong flew in for the weekend from England, where he is working on a doctorate in computer science at the University of London. Others who live closer, but who were here longer ago, also echoed Hong’s experience.

"My best friends in college were fellow bandsmen," said Robert Abrams ’49, a trumpeter from Brookline, Mass., who attended the reunion with his family, including his son, David Abrams ’85, also a Band trumpeter. "I’ve always had a very warm feeling for the Band, and having my son here is just the icing on the cake."

Robert Abrams, who marched at halftime, said he plays occasionally to stay in shape musically. As for the marching formations, Abrams said, "I’ll just follow my son."

The Band officially began as a replacement for the Banjo Club in 1919, the year when the Harvard football team won its seventh and last national championship by defeating Oregon 7-6 in the Rose Bowl.

On Saturday, the Harvard football team marked the occasion by setting or tying eight school records and defeating Dartmouth 63-21.

Students Run the Show

The 110-member Band is a student-run organization, with students filling posts as manager, drill master, drum major, student conductor, and the combined position of social chairperson and newsletter editor, called the "Schneider," after a World War II-era German band. Student leaders write the halftime shows, arrange the music, do administrative tasks, and handle finances. The students are guided by Everett, who has served as director of the Harvard University Band for more than 25 years.

Band Manager Kevin Daly, a senior, said the shows are put together in a spirit of fun. The Sunday one week before a football game, the Band gets together and the drillmaster throws out a topic and asks "What’s funny about this?"

Jokes and associated songs and formations will be selected from the ensuing brainstorming session, Daly said.

"We try to be witty as well as entertaining," Daly said. "I think the one thing that remains constant over time is a group of people who come together to play music, be spirited, and have fun."


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College