They're Back!

Robert Beyers

Chris Griffith entered the thorny thicket of Stanford Band administration 12 months ago, perhaps expecting a few nicks and cuts. An associate dean for graduate student life, she was familiar with the Band's reputation as a party-hearty group with an apparent disregard for rules that govern student organizations. Then she got to know the students themselves.

When the Band was placed on “indefinite provisional status” in September 2006 after an incident of vandalism at its former Shak, Griffith was named interim director and also was asked to co-chair a reinstatement committee charged with spelling out conditions under which the Band could resume full activities. For much of the past year, she went just about everywhere the Band went. She looked in on rehearsals, hung out in the new Shak, sat with the musicians in the bleachers at basketball games, and accompanied the group to off-campus gigs that ranged from an aids fundraiser to a Harry Potter book promotion. Over that time, she says, she came to appreciate and understand “the unique role” of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, and the students who compose it. “People associate Band members solely with the Band, but these students are also RAs, peer counselors, resident computer consultants—they do all the other things students do on campus, in addition to their classes,” she notes. “They're a wonderful group of young people.”

If this sounds odd coming from a Stanford administrator, it exemplifies what Griffith and others believe is the beginning of a new kind of relationship between the University and the Band: less confrontational, more communicative, and with a much greater emphasis on appropriate conduct. Says Greg Boardman, vice provost for student affairs: “That relationship in the past was one of tolerance. Now we see it as a partnership.”

Based on the Band's “recent record of good behavior” during its provisional status, and armed with the recommendations of the reinstatement committee, Boardman in June restored the Band to full status, clearing the way for its return to the Stanford Stadium field for the 2007 football season. Band manager Adam Cohen, who sat on the committee, said the outcome “could not have been better” from the Band's point of view. “I am very enthusiastic about this fall. We're going to come out strong and make a better impression on people.”

The committee's report has not been released, but the key recommendation, endorsed by an ad hoc advisory group of senior administrators, calls for the hiring of a full-time administrative director. Serving in much the same way as Griffith did during the past year, he or she will be a Band advocate and adviser. The administrative director will implement leadership training, act as a liaison between the Band and the administration, and help meet the group's needs, such as obtaining instruments or assisting with travel logistics. Although the new person will provide direction and counsel, “the Band will continue to be student-managed,” Boardman says. At press time, he hoped to have the position filled in time for the first week of classes in late September.

“We don't consider this a punishment,” says Cohen, '07. “We're happy that the University is giving us more resources—a second professional to help us.” (The first is its musical director, Giancarlo Aquilanti.)

Boardman emphasized that the reinstatement committee “affirmed our commitment to the Band as a scatter band, and celebrates its creativity.” But the committee also calls for much greater accountability on the part of individual Band members and its leaders, a challenge Cohen accepts. “There are two rules in Band—have fun and follow the rules. We will have higher expectations about following the rules,” he says.

Since 2003, the Band has been involved in 10 incidents that resulted in disciplinary action by the University. The sanctions have included a prohibition of alcohol at all Band activities—which the group violated four times—and various travel bans stemming from conduct on and off campus. In summer 2006, several Band members trashed the group's Shak—a modular trailer near Encina Hall that had housed the Band while its new quarters were under construction. Boardman decided enough was enough. He bypassed the familiar adjudication route that would have placed the matter before a panel of student peers, the Organizational Conduct Board. Instead, he suspended the Band indefinitely, effectively sidelining it for the entire 2006 football season, and established the 13-member reinstatement committee.

The measure was necessary in part because of the Band's prominence as a University ambassador, according to Boardman. “With that privilege come responsibilities. The Band represents the University, and it has to do so in a positive way.” And it was an acknowledgement that the Band needed help. Without intervention, could the Band break the cycle that had resulted in declining student support and increasing public criticism? “Historically, we have not faced up to our responsibilities to the Band,” Boardman notes. “We really only got involved with them when there were problems. We never stepped back and asked, 'What do we want the Band to be?' ”

Now, after decades of turbulence, he is “very hopeful” that the Band will be both a better performance group and a better citizen.

It's hardly a secret that opinions about the Stanford Band occupy two camps, far apart. The litany of misdeeds, both actual and alleged, during the Band's tumultuous history have alienated some sections of the alumni body, just as the group's energy and zaniness have endeared it to others. But perhaps more than the individual episodes over the years, antipathy toward the Band in some quarters has stemmed from its irreverent style. How much those folks ever will embrace the Band is an open question, but Boardman says the reinstatement committee found strong support for the notion that the Band represents a special Stanford characteristic—“the willingness to not take ourselves too seriously. There was consensus that that should be preserved.”

The origins of the Band's cheeky personality are poorly understood by many alumni, some of whom long for a more “traditional” marching band, and chafe at what they see as sophomoric antics unbecoming to Stanford. Ironically, one of the arguments often presented in support of the Band is that it has established traditions at a school hungry for them—for example, the ritual Band Run welcoming first-year students to campus is now a revered part of the undergraduate experience, Boardman notes. But like it or loathe it, the Band's evolution from military-style discipline to pajama-clad foolishness was not an accident of history.

Frank Robertson was there for the birth. He arrived for his freshman year in September 1961, a self-described “nerdy kid from a modest background,” whose passions included playing the trombone. He signed on to play in the Stanford Band.

At the time, the group resembled most other halftime bands at U.S. universities. The uniforms included embroidered waistcoats and tall, ornamental hats. The musicians played marching songs and performed drill-step routines. The 1962 Quad said the Band added “vibrant color” to halftime shows with its “precision marching and lively music.” Robertson, '65, remembers it a little differently. Students were disinterested, and fans unenthusiastic. “Nobody paid much attention to us.”

Student disillusionment led to changes beginning in 1962. The waistcoats were replaced by red blazers, and the parade hats were lifted in favor of gray Tyrolean bowlers. No longer mimicking a battalion of cadets, the all-male marching band now resembled a convention of Austrian hotel managers. “The hats were pretty stupid-looking,” Robertson admits. The 1963 Quad was a bit more sanguine in its appraisal, noting that the Band's halftime routines “help to divert the fans from such other activities as throwing cards and joining in objectionable yells.”

Later that academic year, Julius Shuchat, a well-liked music teacher from Palo Alto High School who had directed the band for 17 years, was told his contract would not be renewed. His interim replacement was a 33-year-old DMA student on leave from Fresno State named Arthur P. Barnes.

The Band leadership revolted, and when the call went out in the fall of 1963 for the first rehearsal, only 21 students, mostly freshmen, showed up—“a drummer and a sickly assortment of woodwinds and brass,” according to Barnes. Robertson was one of the few returning upperclassmen, many of whom felt marginalized, he says. Although there was no organized effort, the Band had effectively gone on strike. “They were unhappy, and rightly so, about the way my predecessor was forced out, and they saw me as a patsy of the music department,” Barnes recalled during an interview at his campus home.

Unable to muster sufficient numbers, the Band didn't play at the first two football games of the 1963 season. It was the first time since 1916 that a home football game did not feature a Stanford band.

Barnes says he was “in and out of [President] Wallace Sterling's office constantly” as administrators looked for a solution. A few weeks into the school year, they worked out a plan intended to pacify the disgruntled students. Administrative support for the Band was shifted from the music department to athletics, a mostly symbolic gesture because athletics already provided most of the funding. Robertson and others went dorm to dorm recruiting musicians. “Students began dribbling back,” Robertson says, and Barnes cobbled together about 80 musicians in time to play at the October 26 game against Notre Dame. The hastily constituted band earned a lukewarm response from students and football fans. “We were struggling,” Barnes recalls.

That changed on November 30, eight days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's death on November 22 had forced the postponement of Big Game, and the mood remained somber as the teams prepared to take the field the following Saturday.

Barnes had brought with him an arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner that he had written at Fresno a few years earlier. As the mournful crowd sat rapt, some in tears, a lone trumpeter played the first half of the national anthem as his Band mates stood by silently, finally joining in for the final few bars. When the song ended, jam-packed Stanford Stadium was as quiet as a church. Barnes calls it “the loudest silence I ever heard.” LSJUMB was on the map.

Although the Band had been experimenting with contemporary songs prior to Barnes's arrival, his ability to write arrangements specifically for their shows opened new possibilities. “We said bye-bye to Sousa,” Barnes recalls.

There was nothing in Barnes's past to suggest that the Band would adopt a “scatter” approach to halftime shows, in which the musicians run from one loose configuration to another. His Fresno band was, as he put it, “straight lines and diagonals,” with none of the serpentine chaos that came to be LSJUMB's hallmark. But when the marching music disappeared, so did the marching.

Gradually, the halftime shows took on a more playful, comedic tone. The new style wasn't unique—bands at Princeton, Harvard, Yale and a few other elite schools had undergone similar transformations. If anything, Stanford was behind the curve. The Princeton Band adopted the scramble (the preferred term at Eastern schools) format in 1956, and its uniforms—orange plaid jackets and straw hats—were more unconventional than what Stanford eventually adopted. (See sidebar.) These new halftime bands weren't necessarily designed to strike a blow at tradition, says Barnes. They were the product of student-run bands finding a new means of expression. In that sense, he notes, the change was inevitable.

A political awakening was under way, and with it emerged a willingness to test boundaries. Although still predominated by white, upper-middle-class kids from California, “Stanford was changing—it wasn't a 'gentleman's college' anymore,” Barnes says. As the '60s wore on and the campus became a cauldron of antiwar and civil rights protest, the disparity between the experiences of students before and after 1963 informed attitudes about the Band—and, to some degree, still does, Barnes believes.

Women joined the Band in 1972, an agreeable move, according to Robertson, who was showing up regularly as an alum player. “They were playing the same gross songs, singing the same dirty limericks about each other—the girls were right in there.”

Despite the occasional run-in with authorities, the University maintained a live-and-let-live approach to the Band when Barnes was director. Barnes taught music and wrote arrangements, but also mentored individual students and shepherded the organization with a benevolent, knowing eye. “Band leaders really respected Dr. Barnes. Even though his word wasn't the law, it carried a lot of weight,” says former Dollie Juli Oh, '91. When Barnes retired in 1997, she says, he left a huge void.

Former drum major Scott Stanford, '92, MS '98, served as interim musical director until 2002, when the athletics department signed Aquilanti, a senior lecturer in music, to fill the post. But while Aquilanti, DMA '96, has enjoyed the job and has helped students sort through problems, he concedes his interest is primarily as a music teacher. “I've been very clear since the beginning that I do not want to be involved in the administrative and disciplinary sides.”

Historically, no student organization has been given as much latitude as LSJUMB. Since Barnes's departure, the group has mostly governed itself, relatively free of administrative oversight. And that, say critics, has been part of the problem. Even those who love and support the Band have worried that the lack of a true faculty adviser made the group vulnerable to its own excesses. “You knew, eventually, they would get in trouble,” says Oh.

John Chase, '00, was a freshman in Barnes's final year, and later Band manager. He saw firsthand the struggle to manage the Band's affairs without the benefit of an administrative director. “Losing Dr. Barnes and not having a replacement made everything harder—from day-to-day operations as well as developing relationships with various administrators and offices on campus.

“Dr. Barnes didn't simply advocate to smooth things over when the Band got in trouble with the administration, he also brought the administration's concerns and thoughts down to the Band. That link in the relationship between the Band and the administration is crucial. The student leadership has done a valiant job at negotiating that relationship, but it's not the same as having a respected faculty member at the helm of the Band.”

Resentment over the Band's flaunting of University policies has alienated some students. “I know a lot of students don't understand why the Band isn't held to the same standards that other student organizations are,” says Lauren Graham, '07, MA '07, last year's ASSU vice president and co-chair of the reinstatement committee. “The average student would acknowledge that the Band's public image makes a difference in how they're treated, but would like to see them take more responsibility for their actions.”

The Stanford Daily, while generally supportive of the Band, has editorialized in favor of tighter sanctions and more rigorous enforcement of rules governing its behavior. In March 2002, the Band left the Shak such a vomit-fouled mess following a beer bash that school custodians refused to clean it. At the time, the Band already was on probation, prohibiting alcohol at any of its events or activities. Days later, the Daily backed a University decision to institute a travel ban, saying: “We can no longer trust the Band to be a fitting ambassador for the University.”

Band members have complained that what once was laughed off as college hijinks later became grounds for punishment, and the line delimiting acceptable behavior kept moving. They say the Shak vandalism incident that precipitated the suspension last year was itself a product of a Band “tradition” that involved ceremoniously trashing buildings meant for demolition as they departed them for a new home. But the trailer they vacated in July 2006 wasn't going to be torn down. The belief that vandalizing it was acceptable was another example of a communication breakdown that might have been avoided had an administrative director been in place, according to Boardman. In addition, liability concerns are more pronounced than in years past and University officials are less willing to look the other way at student behavior that might cause harm to people or property. “What if somebody had gotten hurt [in the Shak vandalism]?” Boardman asks. “Who is responsible? The University.”

The same applies to alcohol policies, which have been strengthened in recent years, creating a more buttoned-down climate. When Oh arrived at Stanford in 1987, beer was served at Orientation and resident assistants routinely bought kegs for dorm parties. “Band culture hasn't changed, but the rest of campus has,” she notes. “That's not just at Stanford—that's everywhere.”

In a letter June 14 to Band leaders outlining next steps, Boardman noted that “One area of continuing concern is the use of alcohol and its role in several of the Band's recent misconduct situations.” The Tree was arrested for public intoxication during a performance at a home basketball game in February 2006. She was immediately booted from the Band.

Technically, the Tree is the Band mascot, but has become recognized as the de facto mascot for the University. Its role is one of several subjects still being discussed. Issues on the table include whether one student can reasonably satisfy the demands made on the Tree—“should there be more than one?” Boardman asks. A committee representing athletics, the Band and the office of student affairs will review and develop guidelines for the Tree, field shows, the use of alcohol and alumni participation in the Band.

Boardman accepted the committee's recommendation that alumni be allowed to participate in the Band with the proviso that they sign a conduct agreement. “We're thankful that [athletics director] Bob Bowlsby allowed alums to come back because they are a very important part of what we do,” Cohen says.

The field shows have been the source of much of the angst about the Band. Halftime skits over the years have irritated Oregonians, Irish Catholics, Mormons and virtually every person who has ever attended Cal. Not to mention a significant number of alumni.

Scripts are written by Band members and then passed along to athletics department reviewers. When Barnes was directing the Band, he pressed for changes when he felt the content was out of bounds, and in rare cases had scripts quashed. He notes, however, that he signed off on the “spotted owl show” that resulted in the Band's censure and subsequent banishment from the University of Oregon. “You can't guarantee people won't be offended.”

Cohen says going forward there will be more communication with the marketing staff in athletics to try to avoid creating shows that will be offensive or inappropriate. “The average fan won't notice a difference. We will sound the same, look the same, we'll be just as funny—or not funny—as before.” And, responding to critics who said the Band's humor was often based on inside jokes that left audiences puzzled (and not laughing), Cohen adds: “We can't have jokes that only people under the age of 25 will understand.”

“The challenge will be for them to be creative without being offensive, but they're up to that challenge,” Boardman says.

Bowlsby, who arrived at Stanford from the University of Iowa in July 2006—just about the time the dustup over the Band's Shak attack was beginning—didn't need long to stake out a position about the Band's role at athletic events. “The Band is there to enhance the game-day experience for fans,” he said in an interview last December. “They bring energy and vibrancy—the Band does a good job of that. But it has to be done in a way that reflects positively on the University.”

He wants the Band to draw attention to the athletes, not away from them. “It's not a concert where a football game or a basketball game happens to break out. The Band is only there because there is a game.”

In the end, why does the Band require special handling? It's a student group like all the others—why not treat it as such? The answer, Boardman says, lies in the Band's extraordinary public outreach. “The Band is one of the University's most visible groups, and has a very prominent role not only on campus but in the community. It has many constituencies, and sometimes the expectations of one constituency conflict with the expectations of another. It's a difficult challenge for them.”

One of her epiphanies, says Griffith, was the sheer magnitude of the Band's performance schedule. She says they could play “virtually every day” if they accepted all the requests they receive. “I had no idea. The demand is enormous.”

When co-chair Lauren Graham began serving on the reinstatement committee, “I didn't have a favorable, gung-ho opinion about the Band,” she says. However, after months of testimony, research and discussion, she now says she has “a real fondness for the Band and what they represent.”

The Band provides “a mirthful alternative” to traditional performers, says Chris Holt, '06, MA '07, the Band's public relations manager last year. That may account for its appeal at venues as disparate as Rotary clubs and nursery schools. They're regularly engaged for public service events—the AIDS walk in San Francisco and Special Olympics meets are annual gigs—and at community parades. When Kepler's, a Menlo Park bookstore, wanted entertainment for its midnight promotion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in July, whom did they call? “We play energetic songs wearing crazy costumes. This is California. People love it,” Holt says.

“They are of great value to the University,” says Aquilanti, the musical director. “Not just because they are an icon, but when they play, people just love them. Kids, old people, community members, Stanford students—there's an intrinsic love that people have for the Band.”

Stanford intern TED BOSCIA, MA '07, contributed reporting for this story.