For New Jersey siblings, Penn State Blue Band is a family affair

crosenbl@centredaily.comOctober 19, 2013 

— Few belong to society’s exclusive club, the 1 percent.

The Burke siblings can top that. They are the 1 percent of an already select group — the Penn State Blue Band.

And they’re leading a rich life together.

For the second fall, Krystina, Cara and Patrick are making the storied 300-member band, one of the finest collegiate marching outfits in the nation, a family affair.

Krystina, a senior, plays saxophone and serves as band librarian. Cara, a sophomore, performs in the Blue Band Silks. Her twin brother pounds snare drum cadences in the drumline.

On the practice field and inside football stadiums, the Somerville, N.J., residents seldom cross paths. Before a recent rehearsal, they warmed up several yards apart in their respective sections.

But off the grass, they’re as tight as one of the band’s formations. They prop each other up, meeting for pasta dinners, Chinese food or Sunday breakfasts — good friends who appreciate the rare opportunity life has given them to spend two more years together.

“It’s something special,” Patrick said. “It’ll always connect us not only to Penn State but to each other, too.”

Making the cut

Penn State wasn’t a Burke family tradition. Neither was marching band.

But at Immaculata High School, all three found a common niche in the band program, rising to be leaders. Because of that experience, the Blue Band immediately appealed to Krystina when she visited University Park.

“When I came here and saw what the Blue Band did, I thought there’s no way I can’t be part of a group with such tradition and such opportunity,” she said.

It didn’t happen at first. She tried out as a freshman but missed the cut. Joining the basketball and volleyball pep bands, she honed her chops and passed the second time around.

Her selection meant that, for two years, her siblings heard a lot about Penn State. Watching their older sister march onto Beaver Stadium in front of 100,000 roaring fans also made an impression.

But University Park was far from an automatic choice. They considered other schools.

“I knew I wanted to do music wherever I went,” Patrick said. “And I fell in love with this campus.”

He met senior percussionists, whose enthusiasm for the band and Penn State resonated with him.

That sealed the deal.

“It was like a brotherhood of the (drum)line in high school, and I wanted to try to find somewhere where I could fit in again,” he said.

Cara also didn’t plan to go to school with her siblings. It just happened that way.

“Once we came here, while visiting other schools, we were constantly comparing Penn State to them,” she said. “That was a big thing.”

As with her brother, a Blue Band game performance helped sway her. But she saw it from a different angle.

“I’m a dancer, so I like to perform. I’ve always loved to perform,” she said. “There’s no other group that lets you perform in front of a sold-out stadium.”

In the end, she made her own choice — but not without more than a little influence.

“What I usually tell people,” Cara said, smiling, “is that it’s all my sister’s fault.”

Following footsteps

Patrick and Cara arrived knowing they could draw on their own Penn State guide.

Their big sister came through. She briefed them about band auditions. She prepared a booklet explaining the ins and outs of campus life, down to details such as the benefits of stashing a water bottle in backpacks to slake thirst while walking between classes.

“I came into it completely blind and didn’t know anything about it, so I tried to tell them almost what to expect, things nobody had told me,” Krystina said.

Her siblings credit her for their smooth transition to the rigorous demands of college and an elite marching band.

“No one had ever gone to Penn State in our family,” Patrick said. “She was the one who kind of took the step into the unknown, and the way it worked out, we were really happy.

“Cara and I were grateful to know we were going to have her here just for those things, and our parents definitely were, too.”

Tori Lynn Burke said she and her husband love that the twins followed Krystina, even if it meant paying three out-of-state tuition bills. She jokes about mac and cheese being a new dinner staple, but that’s OK.

They save on gas to see their children. More importantly, they’re proud to see them march together on game days.

“We are very fortunate, very blessed that it has worked out this way, that they all made the band and have that to share,” she said.

Over meals at Krystina’s apartment, at home over Thanksgiving, they bring different perspectives to the table, giving each other a fuller picture of their beloved band.

“We just have stories,” Krystina said. “I have a piece. She has a piece. He has a piece. And then it all comes together.”

Like in band, they follow their own pursuits away from music.

Patrick studies crime, law and justice and participates on the university’s Mock Trial Team.

Cara, a film major, dances and choreographs in Volé, the Penn State Ballet Club.

Krystina, working toward a communications sciences and disorders degree, wants to study speech pathology in graduate school.

They agree that some separation brings them closer — in the band as well as in their daily lives.

“I feel that’s why it works with us,” Krystina said. “If we were all three of us, say, trumpet players, it’s almost like you’re too much on top of each other.

“I feel college is where you’re supposed to figure out yourself and kind of do your own thing and not have a sister breathing down your neck all the time, or vice versa.”

But when they need a shoulder after a hard day, when they just want to hang out and catch up, familiar company is only a text message and a few minutes away.

Krystina remembered that when many of her friends were heading back home one weekend.

“I almost wished I could go home,” she said. “And then I realized I could have home come to me.”

In the now

While standing in the entrance tunnel to Beaver Stadium’s field, waiting for the Blue Band to make its usual grand appearance, Patrick and Krystina share a ritual.

They exchange fist bumps as he passes her with his drums to reach his position in the line.

During rehearsals or shows, they rarely get as close, though it can happen with the right formation.

“I turn around and he’s right behind me, or she’s two people over, and I’m like, ‘Out of 300 people, what are the odds that we’ll stand next to each other?’ ” Krystina said.

Sometimes she can give her parents advance warning.

“That part’s cool, too,” she said. “I’ll be like, ‘Mom, when we make this shape, Patrick is three people over and one person back from me.’ ”

Many years from now, the Burkes hope, they’ll still be swapping memories and bringing their families to Penn State to listen to them play in the Alumni Band, another of the Blue Band’s cherished traditions the siblings know by heart.

“This will be something we can relate to for the rest of our lives,” Patrick said.

They know time marches on, and that in a few months, they’ll separate again. So they’re soaking up this fall, the crazy four-overtime Michigan victory, everything, because this is it.

But before the Blue Band 1 percent shrinks by a fraction, more memories await: performances, a road trip to Ohio State, surprises like the chance midnight meeting between Krystina and Patrick in downtown Indianapolis last year.

They’ll savor each shared highlight.

“People ask me, ‘How do you like being a twin?’ ” Cara said. “I say I can’t imagine my life being different. And that’s how I feel about all of this, being so close and doing the same thing.”

Patrick knew two special years were in store after his first official Blue Band practice.

“Krystina was giving Cara and me a ride home,” he said. “I just got in the car and I was like, ‘I’m in the right place. This is where I belong.’ ”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews.

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