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Dispatches From The War On Marching Bands

Illustration by Angelica Alzona

America’s War on Marching Bands continues apace. The Rice MOB angered Baylor fans with a Title IX-themed show. The Stanford Band was suspended for the semester, which they maintain is about the school prioritizing its image over student life. And now the Columbia University Marching Band, of which I am an alum, is being told it can’t perform in the library the night before finals, as it has done every semester for over 40 years.

All these bands have something in common. Rice, Stanford, and the Ivy League (minus Cornell, for some reason) are all scramble bands, marching bands more concerned with telling jokes than with precise formations or, often, musicianship. Are their jokes always, or usually, or even occasionally in good taste? No, they’re written by college students. But the goal is to be entertaining, to have fun, to poke fun at overly serious and seriously flawed institutions, and to support their fellow students. In the Ivy League especially, the bands supplement some of the worst college football you will ever see in your life.

The Columbia University Marching Band is more famous for Orgo Night than any Columbia Lions football player, save maybe the one that was charged with a hate crime, is for anything. Orgo Night, started in the ‘70s, consists of the band performing an uncensored show in the library the night before finals start. It’s supposed to “lower the curve” for the hardest final, organic chemistry, hence the name. Mostly, it’s an event for blowing off steam and generating a feeling of school spirit in a school stuffed full of stressed, type-A students too busy to really notice that there’s no campus life.


This year, a week before the event, the band was informed that they would not be allowed into the library. The school claims that the use of one room in a library for 45 minutes is a “disruption” right before finals, which is obviously the entire point of the thing. They want to move the band, even though the location is the heart of Orgo Night—which, it should be noted, is used by the school on its campus tours to entice prospective students. (Barred entry to the library, the band performed out front in sub-freezing temperatures on Thursday night.)

While I graduated years ago, all of this sounds really familiar. Columbia was my first-choice school. I fell in love with it and I worked my ass off to go there. I joined the band because I wanted to play a part in its traditions. I had to love the school to volunteer almost every one of my weekends—football games in the fall, women’s and men’s basketball in the spring—to watch them lose. And lose. And lose. But what almost killed my love for the school was trying to work with the athletic department.


I was in the Columbia University Marching Band all four years I was in college. I was the head writer and the head manager. Here’s how things worked: The script had to be submitted to our athletics department and, if it was an away game, to the athletics department of the school we were playing. Our athletics department demanded the script be turned in by noon on the Wednesday before a Saturday game. We’d then get the script back with a list of things to remove or replace.

I was told that religion was completely off-limits. So was the entirety of Roman history, as it touched on Catholic history—a particular sore spot because of a 2002 joke that had offended Catholics. (The Roman history reference that got flagged? A mention of “bread and circuses.” That 2008 email from an assistant AD then immediately segues to a warning that “the reference to two teams and one cup cannot be in guys should’ve known that.”) I was told never to mention Barack Obama’s race; I hadn’t asked to bring it up, nor had it appeared in any script, and the edict was delivered out of nowhere in a meeting. A reference to the university president’s salary, the highest of any private university president in the country, was cut. A reference to donations was cut from the halftime show where Robert K. Kraft got the field named after him. And, yes, as the band announcer I was required to say the whole “Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at the Baker Athletics Complex” name at every home game. To this day I cannot call him Bob Kraft; it’s Robert K. Kraft.


I asked people from the band, both before and after my time there, for other examples. A joke about Chris Christie was cut because “there might be Republicans in the crowd.” Courteney Cox Arquette had to just be Courteney Arquette. A reference to watching cat videos on the internet was assumed to be about porn. And, my personal favorite, forbidden from talking about non-Ivy League opponents, the band wrote a script about Tucson for the Towson game, because they sounded similar. That was cut.

Then there was the school’s frantic, never-ending fear of penises. I do understand that, actually. For a long time, the band could make about three formations: a “C” for Columbia, an amorph, and a penis. My freshman year came at the tail end of the golden age of penises, when the university finally cracked down. But even after the band retired the dick formations, it was assumed every single formation we wrote into a script was secretly a penis. They weren’t, but for years, we were asked if something was secretly a penis. France? Penis. Arrow? Penis. Lee C. Bollinger, President of the University? Big penis!


Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at the Baker Athletics Complex sits 100 blocks north of Columbia’s campus. It’s a beautiful place to watch football, with a view of the river from the stands—not that most Columbia students know that. Save for Homecoming, no one but the band, the other “spirit groups,” and some parents of the football players make the trek.


And, at least while I was a student, only the band accompanied the team to away games. The athletics department refused to pay for the cheerleaders to travel. When I was on the managing board of the band, the band got into an hour-long argument with our point person in athletics because they wanted us to cancel our trip to the last football game of the season. Why? Because it was an away game, and there were two non-conference home basketball games that same weekend they would rather we play at. (The school doesn’t make money on away games, you see.) Our rebuttal was that it was the last game of the season, that it was the last league game of the season, that if we didn’t go to Rhode Island no one would be there for the team, and that it would be physically impossible to play instruments for that long. We ended up playing all three games in exchange for pizza.


We were also denied the opportunity to play for the fencing team—a sport where Columbia fields actual Olympians—because we were told that it wasn’t a “marketed” sport. (That is to say, again, they couldn’t make money on it.)

You’d think that a school that can’t lure people with scholarships, winning records, or a school sports culture would at least try to make the experience of attending a game not miserable. You would be wrong. M. Dianne Murphy, who was athletic director until 2014, alienated everyone she could. She canceled the one night football game of the season, which people actually attended and even tailgated for. She prevented the student government from putting a lion on a class shirt because the university owned the rights to the lion mascot.


The student government hated her, the student press hated her, the spirit groups hated her, and the athletes hated her. And since her focus was money, she loathed the band, a group that could anger sensitive donors very easily. I had always been told that the first thing Murphy said to the band’s leadership when she started at Columbia was “If I had my way, you wouldn’t exist.”

She once banned the band from attending the last football game of the season, saying they “embarrassed” the team when they were overheard singing a version of the fight song that included the words “We always lose, lose, lose.” At that time, the team was 0-9. This was a few years after the university president invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at the school and defended his right to say there were no gays in Iran. Once this was pointed out, Murphy had to rescind the band’s ban—for noting that a winless football team hadn’t won—on “free speech” grounds.


She’s gone now. But the rest of the administration, which I experienced as on spectrum ranging from “neglectful” to “scolding,” is picking up her baton and approaching “actively hostile.” Like Murphy, and like Stanford, they’re concerned with image and money and not the student experience. This appears to just be the way of the world—administrations forever at odds with scramble bands, donor-minded adults trying to rein in the organized musical id of too-smart-for-their-own-good college students. Dialogue and compromise are obviously preferable to all-out war, but the role of underdog and outlaw suits marching bands just fine.

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About the author

Katharine Trendacosta

Katharine is the former managing editor of io9.