In his short-sleeved shirt, sunglasses, mounted microphone and cap atop close-cropped hair, Richard Bundy resembles a veteran football coach.
He could stand in for one, perched in a tower high above yard lines on a hot August afternoon as young people practice moves and formations below.
This day, Bundy’s got football on his mind all right — specifically a game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., home to the New York Jets and Giants.
As the award-winning Penn State Blue Band director, he has less than a week to mold the latest version of the beloved marching band before it takes the stadium field for the Nittany Lions’ season opener Saturday against Syracuse.
Under a relentless sun glinting off brass, Bundy’s mix of newcomers and savvy upperclassmen parade by him, dressed in shorts, tank tops and T-shirts instead of the snappy uniforms being tailored for them. From his platform, he booms out instruction.
“Don’t stop. Slide. Pendulum swing,” he says as the band, in neat columns, double-times its way across the rehearsal field to a light drum cadence. “Balls of the feet on the yard lines, keeping tempo.”
The clock’s ticking down, not yet the fourth quarter but cause enough for urgency.
Tens of thousands of Penn State fans are expecting the same crisp turns and notes they’ve enjoyed year after year. They’re waiting for smartly executed classics such as the band’s trademark Floating Lions Drill.
That might define pressure for some, but only the heat makes Bundy sweat. He has been through the preseason crush before — 33 times to be precise, since he returned to his alma mater in 1980 and became a band graduate assistant.
“It’s always exciting,” he said. “It’s always an interesting challenge. You hear the same thing from coaches when they’re talking about a new team and how it’s going to come together.”
In charge since 1996, Bundy, 65, is the only Blue Band director to experience the annual rebirth from the other side. He played trombone in the band from 1966 to 1970. As an alum, he treasures even more the heritage and customs dating back to the band’s 1899 start.
“I understand, or I appreciate, and we make sure that our students appreciate, the fact that there is a long tradition, and that they’re passing through an organization that’s bigger than them,” Bundy said.
“They’re going to be in there for a few years and be part of that tradition, but at the same time, they will do things that will move the program onward and upward for the next generation.”
During his tenure, Bundy has helped shape the Blue Band into a perennial crowd-pleaser, a well-oiled machine that hums every fall.
In 2005, it won the John Philip Sousa Foundation’s Sudler Trophy for the top collegiate marching band.
Assistant Director Greg Drane, with nine years at his post and 12 on the staff, said Bundy “has truly built a total program” with meticulous care.
“He has amazing patience. The one thing I always say about Dr. Bundy is he doesn’t take any shortcuts,” Drane said.
“He’s not going to cut any corners. If it takes a little bit extra time to do it, then he’s perfectly fine with that. That’s what he does. He does everything what you would call the right way.”
‘You can still achieve’
Bundy steps to the front of the Blue Band’s cavernous practice room. It’s 8 p.m., time for his traditional address to the rookies.
Mostly freshmen, they’re seated before him in rows, a dinner break removed from their afternoon auditions. They’ll continue their tryouts the next morning on the practice field, but for now, a 2-hour orientation awaits.
“Thank you for your interest in the Blue Band, and for being here to participate in the auditions and hopefully become members of the Blue Band this year,” Bundy says.
“You are, at this point in your life, about to embark on one of the most exciting times of your life. The next several years for you are going to be just fantastic. These are going to be years that you talk to your children and grandchildren about, years and years from now. I want to encourage you to take full advantage of all the opportunities that are present at Penn State University.”
Those include, as Bundy later mentions, the athletic and concert bands, both of which he oversees. But on this night, those are mere digressions.
Before turning over the talk to the elected student leaders, Bundy outlines the Blue Band program, explains the audition process and emphasizes that band participation doesn’t preclude academic success.
To illustrate his point, he notes the average grade point average for band members for the previous fall semester was 3.49. In addition, he says, the cumulative band GPA was 3.48 through the end of 2012.
“I’m very proud of these things,” he says. “That’s why I want to point it out. You can still achieve in Blue Band.”
No introduction to the band would be complete without mention of standards, and Bundy tosses in a few: no facial hair, unkempt hair styles, visible tattoos, flashy jewelry or anything else that would ruin the uniformity of the band during performances.
He also stresses band members are held to “a high level of conduct” off the field.
“We are part of the effort to show the world what Penn State is all about,” he says.
Katelyn Mixer, a senior mellophone player, said band members readily buy into the message out of pride in the program. For instance, students follow an unwritten rule of not wearing clothing with Blue Band logos to bars in order to avoid situations that reflect poorly on the organization.
They also carry themselves well in public for fear of disappointing their director, she said.
“People don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of Dr. Bundy,” said Mixer, the band public relations chairwoman. “People hold him in high respect. You don’t want to let him down.”
Bundy’s Blue Band ties stretch back to even before his first Penn State class.
As a teenager from Beaver, he attended a university summer band camp led by Jim Dunlop, then the Penn State band director. Dunlop made such a favorable impression that the young trombonist returned a year later.
After graduating, Bundy enlisted in the Army and played for the United States Continental Army Band. In 1976, he took a job with the Iroquois School District in Erie as a band director and music teacher.
“I thought this was where I was going to be forever,” Bundy said.
A music education master’s degree from the University of Michigan changed his course. Both Dunlop and Ned Deihl, who served as Dunlop’s assistant and then succeeded him, earned Michigan graduate degrees, which motivated Bundy.
“I had been so impressed by my directors,” Bundy said. “You kind of follow in the footsteps of the folks who have mentored you and you look up to.”
A chance to pursue a doctorate at Michigan didn’t pan out, so Bundy revisited Penn State for a second time. In 1980, he and his wife, Chris, moved their four children to State College, and he joined Diehl’s staff as a graduate assistant.
“When I came back, at that point, it was just a huge thrill,” Bundy said.
The Blue Band had changed from his undergraduate days, when it had 120 members, all male. Over the years of learning the ropes from Diehl and then taking over, Bundy has seen the band continue to evolve. Today, it’s about three times the size of the 1960s band, and roughly 45 percent female.
But the growth has been carefully managed.
“My goal has always been to keep the sound of the band the same,” Bundy said. “It may be a little bigger sound than it was in 1970, but the proportions should be the same.”
Too many piccolos and woodwinds too fast, he said, and the band would have lost its brassy sonic identity.
“We could have been bigger sooner, but we had to build the foundation of the sound, which is the sousaphones and the baritones and trombones, those instruments,” he said. “We had to get our numbers up and be consistent in those sections in order then to be able to add in some other sections and still keep those proportions of sound.”
One constant has been student leadership, from the president and drum major down to squad members responsible for helping teach pregame and halftime shows to three peers. The band bills itself as the largest student organization at University Park.
“The cream rises, and we’re very fortunate to work with an awful lot of really good kids — really good students,” Bundy said. “I keep calling them kids. That’s what happens when you get to be 65 and they’re coming in looking like babies.”
Mixer, the mellophone player, said the admiration is mutual. Bundy will deliver his pet phrase “Carpe the heck out of the diem” that he saves for pep talks before big games, she said, and the band pours out of stadium tunnels extra-jazzed.
“I think the band is always motivated and energized by hearing Dr. Bundy speak,” Mixer said.
Bundy, a professor of music education since 1983, holds a crash course in marching every year.
It’s called “Band Camp,” but “boot camp” is more like it. After the rookie cuts and final assignments — all returning members have to re-audition — the band moves to three practice sessions a day, about nine hours and equivalent to a week’s worth of practice during the season.
“It’s very intensive, both in terms of energy and time on kids,” he said. “But we’ve gotten a system that allows us to get ourselves up and running.”
As quickly as possible, the band hones fundamentals, such as the high step featured in traditional pregame shows. For halftimes, the band switches to more contemporary styles and musical choices.
“I’m not going to say we’re cutting edge, because we’re still steeped in tradition and fairly conservative in what we do,” Bundy said.
“But there’s a responsibility I feel to students who are going through the band who are also music education majors, and are going out to be band directors, that we should also help prepare them with experiences and the opportunities to learn about the styles that are used more consistently at the high school levels.”
Assistant Director Drane said he has always been amazed by Bundy’s commitment to his musicians and program. Usually, Drane said, “Dr. B,” as he sometimes calls his boss, is the last to go home.
“We’re leaving the band room and the day is done — we’ve just put in 10 hours on a game day — and you’ll see Dr. Bundy in the back picking up trash,” Drane said. “You cannot help but get back there and pick up trash with him, because he’ll never ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do.”
Drane said he jokes about “Bundy algorithms” — precise, if not always simple, methods for taking care of band matters. He’s learned to have faith in them.
“When you’re at the end of the season, you realize why you’ve done it that way,” Drane said.
As he embarks on another autumn of adventures, Bundy once again is following his own wisdom and carpe-ing the heck out of the diem.
“For the average fan or listener, they may not notice or hear differences from one year to the next,” he said, “which is great, because that’s what we want, essentially, for them to think: that the Blue Band that comes out the first day in September is as good and the same sound as the one they heard in the last game of December the year before.
“To us as a staff, however, we’re always excited about the possibilities.”