Banding Together

The Princeton University Band poses on the steps of Blair Arch in October, 2010.  (Photo by R.W. Enoch Jr., Wikipedia)

100 Years of the Princeton University Band

By William Uhl

In 1967, Princeton University’s football team faced Harvard. During the halftime performance, the Princeton University Band marched onto the field, clad in their traditional black-and-orange plaid blazers and boater hats. This time, they had a national audience: ABC was televising the show, one of the band’s first televised performances. Forming the letters “ABC,” the Tiger Band began to play. And as they performed “Who’s Sorry Now?” their formation shifted from “ABC” to “NBC.”

The Double-Double Rotating P in 1984. (Photo by R.W. Enoch Jr., Wikipedia)

“As a result, national networks refused to broadcast the band for many years after,” laughed Jim Bedell ’68. During his four years in the band, Bedell played the snare drum, and years later became one of the original trustees of the Friends of Tiger Band alumni organization.

Shortly after the ABC incident, the band’s halftime performances came under scrutiny.
“About a year later, some of the shows got risqué enough that they actually instituted a censor,” said Robert Wright ’97. Now working in aerospace engineering, Wright joined the band first as the halftime show announcer, and later as a saxophonist and trombonist. “To this day, 50 years later, the band has to take the halftime show to someone in [the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students] to go through and approve everything that’s in there.”

The Tiger Band’s prankster legacy continues as it celebrates its centennial anniversary this year. It started as a group of undergraduate students in 1919 bringing musical school spirit to football games. By 1952, the band was playing at all manner of PU sports games, wearing their iconic blazers, and infusing their performances with wildcard comedy. Now, the band is rich with traditions, including a banquet called the “bandquet,” a White Castle burger-eating contest, and a playful prank on its censors known as “the show that never was.”

“At least once a year, they come up with a fake show that’s specifically intended to horrify [the censor] as much as possible,” said Wright. “They take a couple tacts. Sometimes they hit them right out of the gate with just the most offensive things you could think of, and sometimes they try to slowly descend, so they draw them in and think it’s real at first. What was particularly fun is, if we had an overly shy president, we’d have that person do the talking on it as well, who often was not the person who’d written it.”
A tradition for irreverent humor has been an important part of the band’s identity, but so has offering welcoming inclusivity.

“If you’re interested in joining the band and you don’t know how to play an instrument, that’s fine,” said Gabe Eggers ’13, secretary of Friends of Tiger Band. “You can come in and you’ll get stuck on trash percussion for a bit, like for a game or two, just to ease you in and get you used to all of the different things that are going on.”

The trash percussion section (also known as the “garbussion” section) is a mix of common percussion instruments and objects just as oddball as the band’s humor. “Most famously, a school crossing sign that someone stole deep in the past,” said Eggers. “They repainted the kids on the sign to be in plaid jackets, and covered over the ‘School Xing’ and put ‘Band Xing’ on it.”

Beyond including students without musical experience, band members are also happy to help teach fellow bandmates how to play more traditional instruments.

“If you want to learn how to play an instrument, then someone will take you under their wing, or one of the sections will take you under their wing and teach you how,” said Eggers. “I know several people over the course of my undergrad that learned actual percussion, trumpets, saxophone, etc.”

Princeton University Band members with the “56” bongos at a Princeton University vs. Lehigh University football game in 2009. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer)

Eggers also noted, “The band has a pretty close relationship with the Class of ’56. They fundraise for us and we play all their tailgates at every football game and go to their thing at Reunions. It’s been a really tight relationship over the years. At some point before I came to campus, Tom Meeker — I don’t know if he’s technically the president of the class, but he’s definitely the face of the class — had crafted these bongos. You know those plastic pumpkins that kids will go around on Halloween with? He took two of those, screwed them together into bongos, put a chain around them so you can wear them, and then painted ‘56’ on the backsides of them. That is sort of a legacy instrument. It was passed down to me by the prior player, and then I passed it down when it was time for me to graduate.”

Band alumni are a key part of the band’s community, especially at Princeton’s Reunions Weekend. Ben Elias had several roles in the band, including officer, drillmaster, and president.

“When I was an undergrad, I was class of ’05, there were regularly people from the class of ’90-something coming on the road trips with us,” said Elias. “At Reunions, large groups of bandies would all hang out together — people from the class of ’70-something all the way up to modern day. You see them every year and get to know them pretty well.”

According to some of the alumni, the band has an ability to bring people together across generations, whether they graduated three or 30 years apart.

The band often celebrates victory with a post-game concert in the Woodrow Wilson School Fountain and a rendition of “Rock Lobster.” (Photo by R.W. Enoch Jr., Wikipedia)

“It’s more than 20 years ago now, and it’s still where so many of my closest friends come from,” said Wright. “It’s part of why I go back to Reunions every single year. I’m about to buy my tickets for this year. This’ll be my 22nd and I haven’t missed one yet, which is saying a lot coming from the West Coast. Now I have all these close friends that I was never in school with at the same time, and we know each other because we were both in the band at different times.”

After 100 years, some traditions have come and gone, but the Princeton University Band has remained and become something greater.

“I would, in a very real sense, attribute to the band why I completed my four years at Princeton,” said Eggers. “More than extracurricular, it really becomes a family.”

As Reunions begin again this year, you can expect to see the band marching (or scrambling) with alumni in tow, clashing cymbals and rapping snare drums to the same songs from their college days.