Penn State

Blue Band members from Centre County realize dream

Claudia Johnstonbaugh twirls a baton during a Blue Band practice on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014.
Claudia Johnstonbaugh twirls a baton during a Blue Band practice on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014. CDT photo

Sarah Lucas, Grace Kiver and Max English were standing around outside the Blue Band Building, just shooting the breeze, when their director, Richard Bundy, walked past them toward the practice field.

As Bundy strode away, their mood changed.

Kiver said they had 10 minutes before they had to be on the field to stretch for practice. All three quickly grabbed their instrument cases off the sidewalk. But not everything was serious business.

Lucas cracked a joke that she wasn’t prepared, because she didn’t get the memo to wear their alma mater’s colors. Kiver and English wore gray State College Area School District T-shirts with maroon lettering.

The freshmen trio are a few of several local high school graduates who made the Blue Band this past summer, joining a 315-member group — an accomplishment that they began to dream of at different points over time.

At least 18 members are from Centre County. Not everyone registers their hometown with the organization.

“It’s really great to have so many local students want to join the Blue Band, and it means so much to their families and friends, too,” Bundy said before he scaled his practice tower. “Of course, we have pipelines that come from all over.”

Bundy became the Blue Band director at about the same time that this year’s freshmen were born — 1996 — though this is his last year before retirement.

His high-step marching bands are the only ones they’ve watched. Some had siblings play before them under Bundy. Resoundingly, they said, there is nothing quite like performing inside Beaver Stadium.

“It’s terrifying in an exhilarating way, because all through band camp I heard about what the game would be like,” Kiver said. “Walking through the tunnel and being in the middle of all that energy, it has a huge impact on you.”

It’s sometimes difficult to focus on their performance.

“When you’re standing in the tunnel and you can see everyone you’re like, ‘Jesus, that’s a lot of people,’ ” Lucas said. “You really try to focus on your performance and not the crowd, but it’s hard to get them out of your head. I can never see the drum major flip, but you hear that roar of the crowd.”

Their journeys into the Blue Band intertwine, much like other local students.

Freshmen Claudia Johnstonbaugh and Karah Mothersbaugh practiced every day after school during their senior year at Bellefonte to be Blue Band majorettes.

Unlike the rest of the band, which holds tryouts in early August, the majorettes are chosen in April. Each aspirant is given a numbered ID before majorette roster numbers are posted.

“Karah and I sat together, and held each other’s hand, and walked up and saw it,” Johnstonbaugh said. “And it was instant tears in our eyes, and there was a huge relief and excitement all at once that our hard work paid off.”

For Mothersbaugh, it was an 11-year wait to realize her dream.

“I’ve wanted to do this since I was probably in first grade, because I’ve always watched them perform, probably first at Bandorama,” Mothersbaugh said, referring to the annual Penn State marching band and symphonic fall concert.

“I wanted to be a majorette from the start, and I’m extremely proud to be a part of it now and to represent my university wearing a Penn State uniform, which not too many students get to do.”

Instrumental sections are chosen about a week before school starts after two days of tryouts. Blue Band hopefuls play prepared music and sight read on day one, and then display their marching skills on day two. Bundy usually announces selections on day two, but a thunderstorm delayed picks this year.

Bellefonte graduate Nick Ramish’s wait was too long for comfort.

“I was waiting and waiting, and I was the last name read in the trumpet section,” Ramish said. “My spirits were dropping each time another name was read, and then I had the most gratifying feeling I’ve ever known. It’s also tough to know others that worked so hard didn’t make it.”

Some local freshmen, such as Bald Eagle Area graduate Luke Besong, have bloodlines in the band. Besong said he didn’t ask for his brother Max’s advice.

“I tried not to ask him, because I wanted to do it on my own like he did,” Besong said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, because it’s mind blowing I did this. I really can’t describe how awesome it is to be here and to put on that uniform for games.”

The challenges the band faces, particularly for the “rookies” in their first year of band, to perform at Bundy’s high standards are difficult.

The Blue Band learns a new halftime show, complete with different songs, routes and formations, for every home game. Rehearsals are fast-paced and last from about two to two and a half hours, five days a week.

“It’s tough, but Dr. Bundy is a confident director that keeps everyone on task,” English said. “He expects a lot of us every practice to put on our best performances every week. It’s a lot to take in, but he knows we can handle it.”