Who is the Penn Band?

The University of Pennsylvania Band, among the first collegiate marching bands in the country, was founded in 1897. Ever since, it has been a cornerstone of student life on its campus, serving as a guardian of musical traditions and all things "red and blue." The band has countless recordings, national broadcasts and concerts, and has performed at the pleasure of numerous American presidents and state leaders. Today, the group is a perennial bastion of music and mirth on the Penn Campus.

The organization is a part of the Department of Athletics at the University of Pennsylvania. Like most of the other 50 performing arts groups on the Penn Campus, it has no affiliation with any academic department and is sponsored by the Vice Provost's Office for Undergraduate Life. Typically ranging between 80 and 120 members every year, it is among the largest and most active student-run organizations on campus, performing upwards of 100 times during the academic year. Like most of the Ivy League Bands, the Penn Band is a scramble band.

In 1897, a lone cornet sounded through
the Quad to jeers of "Shut up, Fresh!"

The more understanding ear of John Ammon sought out the trumpeter, A. Felix DuPont, Class of 1901, and together they collected the 27 first members of the University of Pennsylvania Band. These 27 volunteers came from all departments of the University, but mostly from the professional schools.

The band was almost immediately in demand for official and unofficial student rallies, student parades, and even vaudeville. Then it gradually became customary for the band to parade down town from the campus to the Academy of Music for the Graduation Exercises; and beginning in 1898 for the annual Washington's Birthday Exercises on the 22nd of February which was known as "University Day." It was some time, however, before the Athletic Association fully realized the value of the Band. By 1915 it was a well established custom to have the Varsity Band play at all the football games and other occasions. It was seldom, in those early years, that other college bands appeared at the games. There were comparatively few Colleges and Universities that could boast of a band in those years for the University of Pennsylvania was a pioneer.

Up to 1922 the band had an annual membership ranging from 25 to 35, and also a number of student and professional directors. In that year, through the efforts of the Alumni, there was a graduate committee organized known as the "Musical Club"; and, following the example of Harvard University, all things musical were transferred to, and placed under the management of, this new graduate committee which included the "Varsity Band". The membership in the band increased from only 30 members to 144, including almost every known band instrument.

John Philip Sousa conducted the
University of Pennsylvania Band
on three occasions.

The boys considered it a rare privilege to play under the great March King's direction. Pictured above is his appearance with he group in November of 1930. At a luncheon given in Sousa's honor at the Acacia Fraternity House, he promised that he would dedicate one of his marches to the University of Pennsylvania, but he died before he was able to carry out his noble desire. He did conduct the Varsity Band for Seitz's famous "University of Pennsylvania Band March"; and was gracious enough to tell Dr. Nietzsche that he thought it one of the best marches ever written, facetiously adding "except my own." This is probably the best band march ever written for a student band in the United States, and it has been adopted by scores of other institutions throughout the country.

In 1941, women expressed interest in joining the marching band and cheerleading squad, but the faculty forbade them from doing so. It wasn't until 1959 that Louise Erlich became the first woman allowed to play in the stands at football games and in concerts. However, women were not allowed on the football field according to Ivy League rules. Finally, in the early 70's, women became full marching members of the Band.

The Band of the 60's to the present day has played for many well known people and occasions. In 1964, the Band played the opening of the New York World's fair. For many years they were regularly seen at the Miss America Pageant, the races at Liberty Bell Park, and the Penn Band was the first college band to appear at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. More recently, the Band has played for Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, and Al Gore.

The slow metamorphosis of the Band from a military style marching band to a sweater and slacks scramble band began as early as the 1940's. Over the next few decades the Band began writing more satiric shows with marching between formations such as the highball. Along with the Ivy League trend, the Band became a true scramble band by the early 70's. With women now in the band and the cost of the blazers rising, the Band decided to don a blue all wool sweater with a red "P" and white pants. It wasn't until 1985 that they discovered they had inadvertently copied the Freshman Band uniform of 1931! In 1979, the Penn Band followed the Men's Basketball team to the Final Four, as well as to 16 of the last 30 Ivy League Basketball Championships. In 1997, the Penn band celebrated its 100th Anniversary with the establishment of its own endowment and Alumni Association (BAA), as well as a tour to Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

If you were part of a marching band in high school, you can basically take all that discipline and regimented marching you've learned and throw it out the nearest window...

Like high school marching, we do have Point A and Point B. The big difference is how you move from one to the other. The typical scramble band only has about 4 formations in an entire show. As our Voice reads the show's script over the PA, each band member can run around however they want, as long as they get to Point B by the time the joke is over. You can run in a circle, you can run is a very screwed up line, you can fall down on the ground and writhe around, you can steal someone's trumpet and make the chase you...you get the idea. Just go crazy until you're supposed to be at Point B. Then we park in that formation, play a song, and repeat the process a couple of times. Sounds like it takes maybe one, two hours top to put this kind of show together. And that's a good thing, because that's all we've got! We do a different show for every game and rehearse the show at the preceding Wednesday night Field Rehearsal. So each show is of significantly less difficulty than a high school marching show, but we do a different one every week.

You'll find that a scramble band offers the following perks: no stress about perfect marching and no subsequent guilt if you make a mistake, a helluva lot more fun DURING the show, and a lot more free time in your schedule with fewer boring, repetitious field rehearsals.