"Hail to alma mater...we will sing thy praise forever...
On Homecoming Day 1996, Northwestern alumna Staci Adelman Vincent (J87, GJ87) was back at the University for the first time in almost a decade. She was wearing her favorite Rose Bowl T-shirt and sporting as much purple as her suitcase from Washington, D.C., could hold.
Vincent was one of 176 Northwestern University Wildcat Marching Band alumni (NUMB Alums) who returned to Homecoming that year to march with the band and cheer the suddenly spectacular Wildcat football team in its game against Illinois.
"All thy sons and daughters...pledge thee victory and honor...
Mallory Thompson (Mu79, GMu80), the new director of bands, lifted her baton to signal the start of the University Hymn, the alma mater. The soft chords of the song's introduction hovered over the crowded stadium, and on cue Vincent and her band mates began to sing.
"Alma mater, praise be thine...may thy name forever shine...
She looked at her friends, then gazed up into the stands. She saw thousands of loyal Northwestern fans, all clad in purple, singing along with her. A chill ran up her spine.
"Hail to Purple, hail to White...hail to thee, Northwestern."
'Corny' and Loving It
"NUMB is probably the single reason I feel such a strong emotional connection to Northwestern University members of the band develop a genuine love for Northwestern that is rarely found outside the band," says music senior Tim Fawkes, a trumpet player and one of the band's current drum majors.
"NUMB is the place where I can exert all of my energy into music, friends and fun and receive the same energy in return from each and every member," adds WCAS junior Peggy Stetsko, a piccolo player and drill instructor this year.
Kevin Raleigh (S86) echoes the same refrains. "All of my closest friends from my days at Northwestern were part of the band," he says. "I am still in touch with approximately 20 people from NUMB."
The feeling stays with alumni for a lifetime. "I owe so much to the band, both in the past and in the present," says Carl Dill (EB39).
Each year, scores of NUMB alumni of all ages return for Homecoming, and, in fact, NUMB Alums became a formal organization in fall 1999 partly as a response to the sheer numbers. So far, almost 500 have joined the group (see sidebar).
"I have never seen anything like the level of loyalty and love for Northwestern that NUMB alumni exhibit," says Catherine Stembridge, director of alumni relations. "And it's shared by every single person, down to the last man and last woman."
So why do these students and alumni have such strong ties to each other and to their alma mater? Quite simply, it comes down to spirited band traditions and, more important, a sense of pride and loyalty in their organization and in Northwestern that goes far beyond football games and grueling practices.
NUMB members wear the title "band geek" with pride and never miss a chance to exhibit humorous and often highly sophisticated school spirit.
The cheers NUMB shouts during football games go far beyond the simple "Go, 'Cats, Go!" Consider these: "Northwestern them! Northwestern them! Make them pay heavily every quarter! AAAAAHHHHH!!!" or, "Advance! Advance! Ambulate over the turf! AAAAAHHHHH!!!"
And even more obscurely, the "Pi" or "Calculus" cheer:
Hundreds of favorite crazy band stories can be elicited from NUMB members or NUMB Alums just by mentioning such words or phrases as Spam; the NUMB Dating Game; cow-tipping time; George Williams ravioli; Purdue walks; or the songs "Hey, Bill Bailey" and "March of the Steelmen."
Current head drum major David Garst, a senior in engineering, elaborates. "The spirit leader [an elected member of the band's two-person spirit team, which is responsible for many of the band's crazy antics] chews an entire six feet of 'Bubble Tape,' then lets others rip off their own pieces to chew through a mouth-to-mouth exchange," he says. "It's disgusting, hilarious and so surprising to new members that I can't get enough of watching it."
NUMB Alum Michael Diesenhof (S91) had trouble narrowing down his memories to just one favorite. "Hmmm...where to start?" he wonders. "Let's just say, Kirk Anderson buried for more than an hour in a Wisconsin cornfield."
To explain: In the 1980s corn became a tradition at NUMB's annual band camp at George Williams College on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. The band's practice field is carved out of one of the many cornfields dotting southern Wisconsin. One day Dale Lonis (GMu82), marching band director at the time, thought NUMB needed a break from marching around and around on the same patch of trampled grass.
So he called out commands that led the band directly toward the corn on the north side of the field. When band members saw what was happening, they begin to chant, "Corn! Corn! Corn!" and collapsed in laughter as row after row of students and instruments disappeared into the prickly labyrinth. "Marching into the corn" quickly became a favorite band camp tradition in the years that followed.
However, one year later in that decade NUMB arrived at camp to find its favorite cornfield mowed down. The band was despondent, but the spirit team of Fred Hemke (Mu89, GMu93) and Kirk Anderson (Mu91) took matters into their own hands. One day, the two grabbed a stalk of corn from another nearby cornfield and completely buried Anderson and the stalk in the field. A few hours later, when the band arrived for afternoon practice, Hemke drew the entire group to the spot, threw three corn kernels onto the mound where Anderson was buried and began to lead the band in chanting, "Corn! Corn! Corn!"
While band members exchanged mystified looks, the earth slowly parted, and one lone cornstalk began to rise from the ground. The cheering could be heard for miles.
Ed Swanson (S59, GS60), the band's field announcer from 1958 to 1960, recalls a poignant story from the band's earlier days. "Just before the Ohio State game in 1959, I believe, Northwestern was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country under coach Ara Parseghian. [Director of bands] John Paynter [Mu50, GMu51] knew a lot about the psychology of the game. After a big win the week before, Parseghian was worried that the team was not focused for the upcoming game against Ohio State.
"So, unbeknownst to anyone even Ara at the end of marching practice one Friday night John called the band together in the dark and in a whisper he told all 165 men (there were no women in those days) to take their instruments and 'tiptoe' into Dyche Stadium, where the team was practicing, and assemble on the track at the 20-yard line."
Amazingly enough, "very few folks saw us slip in, and right at the end of football practice John gave the downbeat, and the band played 'Go U' and then the alma mater. The team stood awestruck and then ran into the locker rooms. The next day we beat OSU 21-0, and Parseghian credited John and the band on his Sunday morning TV show."
Pride on the Field
In recent years the Northwestern University Marching Band has had more than 180 students, including brass and woodwind instrumentalists, percussionists and the color guard. Led by Thompson, the director of bands, and director of athletic bands Dan Farris, the ensemble performs pregame and halftime drills at each home football game and takes one trip each season to an away game.
Unlike those in many other college bands, NUMB members receive no payment or music-related scholarships. Students from all areas of the University can be found in the band, which practices three days and one evening each week rain or shine at Ryan Field. The golden rule, according to the organization's Web site (www.northwestern.edu/numb), is "never assume that a rehearsal or performance is canceled due to inclement weather." In fact, the word "rain" does not exist in band vernacular the proper term is "heavy dew."
When game day arrives, sleepy-eyed band members arise and don their deep purple uniforms before boarding campus shuttle buses bound for Ryan Field. NUMB practices its show, then assembles in Welsh-Ryan Arena for lunch, which may be served at 9:30 a.m. if the kickoff is at 11:10.
After a pregame concert in Welsh-Ryan, it's off to the field. The band marches around the stadium before beginning its pregame field show, using the traditional "chair step," a high-stepping Big Ten-style marching technique that harks back to the earliest days of the band.
The percussion section begins the show by marching onto the field to the lively drum cadence "Salsation." Seemingly out of nowhere, the rest of the band bursts onto the gridiron with its signature Wildcat growl (AAAAAHHHHH!!!).
After stopping at midfield to honor the opposing team by playing its fight song, the band then launches into "America the Beautiful" as a prelude to "The Star-Spangled Banner," led each week by Thompson. Pregame's grand finale comes with the playing of "Go! U Northwestern!" as the crowd rises to its feet and the band marches downfield in its trademark "sculpted N" to greet the football team.
"One of the most amazing experiences in NUMB for me is the feeling of excitement and pride I get from marching pregame, carrying a huge Big Ten flagpole," says engineering sophomore Sarah Schmidt. "There is nothing like presenting the flags as the color guard marches through the band while they play 'Fanfare.'"
Halftime shows are marched in a completely different style, the glide step, a more modern technique with roots in drum and bugle corps. Drills are much less rigid than the block-style formations of pregame, as various curvilinear shapes are formed, disappear and reform again. Halftime music usually has a unifying theme and often consists of hot jazz arrangements that have included Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" or crowd-pleasing classical pieces such as Shostakovich's Festive Overture.
After the game, the band takes to the field for its post-game show. The performance always includes "Go! U Northwestern!" and the opposing school's fight song and ends with the alma mater.
For all the hard work that these presentations demand, it may be that the most effective and fun part of the marching band's job on game day is cheering on the Wildcats from the stands. Led by the spirit team, the band helps keep the crowd in the game with its creative cheers and its songs about the opposing school ("Moo, Moo, Moo, Purdue," sung to the tune of "Home on the Range" is but one example).
The spirit team was created in the 1960s to lead the band in cheering the football team, no matter what the score. The pair also has the grave and highly coveted responsibility of passing down long-standing band traditions and inventing new ones. At band camp and after each Thursday night rehearsal during the season, it leads "spirit sessions," which embody much of the NUMB heritage and serve to inspire the band for the upcoming game.
"The spirit team is the essence of NUMB," says NUMB Alum Dave Weiner (WCAS80). "They are a representation of their respective band generations, but they carry on the life and veritable spirit of all the bands."
The spirit team includes a spirit leader and a grinder. The origin of the name "grinder" is something of a mystery in band lore. "Whenever I am asked a question about the history of NUMB that I don't know, I usually say, 'The answer is as old as NUMB itself; the tradition began before the existence of time,'" says last year's spirit leader, Kellie MacDonald (S00). "I believe, though, that the word comes from the 'magic thumb o' spirit,' as the grinder spins his arm around in a circle before each spirit session." This circular motion the grinder makes with his or her arm and thumb has been likened in various band histories to the motion of a coffee grinder or the winding up of a Model T Ford; hence, the name "grinder."
In any event, many a NUMB Alum can recount game after miserable game when the weather was awful, the team was getting mauled, the stands were virtually empty and the only solace could be found in the band chanting, "We won the toss!"
But all that changed in 1995, when the Wildcats took college football by storm and made it to the Rose Bowl against the University of Southern California. During that season of greatness (and the one that followed, taking the team to the Citrus Bowl), the spirit team's job was a lot easier.
"After all those years for a lot of us it was something we never thought would happen," says Pete Friedmann (S79), president of the NUMB Alum organization and the band's announcer for the past two decades. "The way the band performed and carried itself with dignity and class to be able to participate in that event exceeded our wildest dreams."
Traditions Past, Present and Future
Beyond all the traditions and craziness, however, NUMB has many laurels on which to rest. The Louis Sudler Trophy, the greatest honor for a college band, is an annual award given by the John Philip Sousa Foundation for a superior marching program, based on votes of college band directors nationwide. In 1992 NUMB won the Sudler trophy.
"It's not an overstatement to say that Northwestern has one of the most respected band programs in the country," says director of bands Thompson. "It is a well-rounded program that displays excellence in all areas."
According to Betsy Gutstein (SESP87, WCAS88), a current Northwestern graduate student who is writing a history of NUMB, the marching band has existed in various forms since the late 1800s. However, the modern band was not formally organized until 1926, when University funds were provided to hire Glenn Cliffe "Rusty" Bainum as a full-time director of bands. Since that time, only two others have held the title: John Paynter and Thompson.
During the Bainum years the band became nationally known for its musical achievements and for Bainum's innovative halftime drills. In one famous move from Bainum's first season, he charted a drill that had band members forming an arrow being shot down the field.
"Bainum was full of nervous energy and slept only a few hours a night," Gutstein says. "He really lived for the band: the men of the band, his network [of other band directors], the music itself. They became his family."
"Bainum was a natural," adds Jerome Kochka (S50), who played snare drum under Bainum's baton. "He would go 'Zip, zip, clickety-click,' and we'd start playing. There were no formalities."
In 1949 the band accompanied the Wildcats to Pasadena, Calif., to cheer the football team at its first-ever Rose Bowl appearance. The band staff manager at that time was John Paynter, a clarinetist who went on to become an assistant to Bainum in 1951 and director of bands in 1953.
That appointment set the stage for a legacy at Northwestern that would continue until Paynter's death in 1996. A pioneer of the grid system of charting drills, which became a national band model, Paynter also promoted lifelong participation in music among his students, and he integrated women into an all-male culture in the 1970s.
Although Paynter relinquished day-to-day control in the later years, his influence on the marching band was felt far and wide. He is responsible for many of the band's present-day traditions, including the singing of the alma mater, the creation of the spirit team, the reunion of the NUMB Alums at Homecoming and the invention of the Wildcat growl.
Before his death Paynter told this story about how the growl a fierce, sustained shout (AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!) used by the band as a signature punctuation mark came to be. "I asked the band to come out of the stands like 'a bunch of growling Wildcats,'" he said. "I'm not even sure a Wildcat growls, but that was what I said, and with that they just ... you know how witty the Northwestern band can be. They spontaneously came up with a growl, and of course it's grown and taken on new dimensions of spectacular array. But basically it's the same growl that we used 35 years ago."
Known fondly to his students as JPP, Paynter was widely considered one of the preeminent band conductors of his time, but he was better known at Northwestern for his intense loyalty to his alma mater and for the gruff warmth and affection he held for each of his students.
"'Pride and Guts' [a band phrase that has evolved through the years into a mantra for loyalty and hard work] was at the heart of John Paynter's philosophy for Northwestern bands and Wildcat spirit," says Al Dugar (McC50), a NUMB Alum and longtime Paynter friend.
Paynter accompanied the band to the 1996 Rose Bowl, 47 years after he had attended the Rose Bowl as a band member. At a banquet in Pasadena he made an impassioned speech about the meaning of the Northwestern tradition, becoming emotional several times as he elaborated on how much it meant to him to return to the Rose Bowl with the band after so many years.
"It was Paynter at his best the way all of us remember him," recalls Friedmann. "He was Northwestern. He was the band." No one knew it at the time, but the 1996 Rose Bowl would be Paynter's last hurrah as director of bands in a poignant symbol of closure, he died in January 1996, just weeks after returning from Pasadena.
A new era was ushered in with the appointment of Thompson, a NUMB Alum with an impressive background, as director of bands in 1996. Thompson received undergraduate and master's degrees from Northwestern and her doctorate from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. She came to the University after appointments at Alma College, Bucknell University and the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.
Although Thompson deeply respects Paynter's legacy, she is undaunted by his reputation. "I never thought of it as 'trying to fill his shoes,'" Thompson says. "I was going to do a job. I knew I was well prepared, and I wasn't afraid of the traditions, because they were mine."
Thompson, who also directs the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and oversees the entire instrumental band program at Northwestern, believes that her access to NUMB students is an important part of her job. "I want to have a steady visibility with them so that they feel a connection to me so that they will always have a reason to come back as NUMB Alums," she says.
"I would like to do everything possible to infuse the students with a love of and a loyalty to the University and a sense for how their performance and discipline reflects their attachment to it. I would also like to lead the group in preserving and treasuring the traditions we have and instill an openness for moving forward."
Yet no matter how the future of the band evolves, what remains for current students and alumni alike are friendships and a loyalty to Northwestern that are everlasting.
"After each game is over," MacDonald says, "the band troops under the east-side stands, where Dr. Thompson leads us in an a cappella singing of the alma mater the final performance of the day. It's an experience that I can only describe as the best reason to love Northwestern. It's what I miss most about graduating I will never again stand inside that fence; I will forever be on the outside looking in.
"As the last notes of the alma mater reverberate under the stands, it is so eerily beautiful that more often than not I've ended up in tears. There is a hesitation to move, to disrupt this perfect moment those who hear it feel a connection to Northwestern that can never be broken." Aaaaahhhhh. (To find out more about the Northwestern University Marching Band, visit their website at www.northwestern.edu/numb)
Patty Dowd Schmitz (J89, GJ90) is a freelance writer and editor and former director of publications for Northwestern University. Also an alto saxophonist, she loved her four years in NUMB, where she met her husband, Ray (WCAS89), and many of her closest friends.