Bundy Prepares for Last Season Leading Penn State Blue Band
Richard Bundy, the longtime director of the Penn State Marching Blue Band, who joined the Penn State faculty in 1983, recently announced that he'll retire at the end of this academic year.
A two-time graduate of Penn State, Bundy recently talked about the growth of the Blue Band, the excitement of game days at Beaver Stadium and how the band has adapted to technological changes over the years.
CENTRE COUNTY GAZETTE: When you're on the field with the band, how often do you think about your days as a student?
RICHARD BUNDY: That pops up in my mind periodically. Certainly, it's popped up a little more recently because I'm closing in on the end of things, so you start to think a little more about that stuff. I don't think about it a whole lot; I think the biggest thing is not so much thinking about it personally from my standpoint, but it is helpful to have a perspective over the years of where the band has been, what the band has been and how it was organized, how the growth has occurred and to have been a part of that.
When I was a student, the band was 120 people and all male at that point. And to be at the point now toward the end of my career where we field a band of 310 and still maintain an even higher quality level when I was in the band — and I say that will all due respect to the folks who were running the program at the time because they were inspirations to me and choosing my career — but you can look and see the difference between the band now and then and it has progressed. I think the same way of looking at the Penn State football team of 2014 and comparing them to one of the great teams of the past, they're still going to look like things have progressed.
CCG: What is the game day experience like for you and the Blue Band, and how special are the moments when the band comes onto the field before the game?
RB: The great importance of that is the crowd reaction, particularly for the band at pregame when the band comes out of the tunnel. That surge of energy from the crowd invigorates the students, and the staff and everybody, and carries them a long way for the rest of the game.
I think as we talk to the students during the course of the season, one of the things we try to impress upon them is that there are six or seven games but they're going to go by very quickly. Before you know it, you will have done four seasons and you'll graduate and you won't have this experience again.
So we do try to help them remember to enjoy and seize the moment that they're passing through the program and be part of the program, so hopefully they take the time to enjoy the experience that they're having because a season goes by pretty quickly — in my case, 35 seasons have gone by and I'm looking at the last one. I think the crowd and the reaction of people to the students is extremely gratifying and extremely energizing to the kids.
CCG: The Blue Band obviously resonates with many Penn Staters. Do you talk about this with the students and how they're more than a band member when they're in the Blue Band?
RB: One of the things that's important in the way we work with the students is to help them understand that they are representing Penn State at all times. If you ask most Penn Staters to list 10 things that remind them of Penn State, I suspect that Blue Band might make the list in most instances.
It's one of those things that's an oral and visible symbol of the university, and it goes along with the Nittany Lion and the Old Main Bell Tower, a football player in uniform, those sorts of things are somewhat iconic for the university. So students at this point embrace that opportunity to be representatives of the university.
CCG: In the summer months, how do you prepare for the upcoming season and everything that entails?
RB: This time of year, what we do is have meetings to discuss and brainstorm possible show ideas for fall, try to select music and themes that might work, a way to tie the music together, to tie into special events, those kinds of things. Then there's a lot of digging around that needs to be done to make sure we have the permission to use the music, and the various musical arrangers we use need to be contacted and assigned tunes that they're going to do.
We'll spend the middle part of the summer doing some of the drill writing that's necessary for the movements on the field, and then in the middle of August when the students start coming back, we start working with them and getting things ready for the fall.
CCG: Considering that the Blue Band has been around for so long, how do you find a balance between doing what you know works really well and trying new things?
RB: That is a challenge, and we find that there's a certain format to the shows that works well for us over the years. But with integrating new ideas, what we try to do every year is to think of ways that we can do something new and can do something different.
We're hoping to do some things this year that we haven't been able to do before and hopefully incorporate this new hi-definition scoreboard in what we're doing with the band. There's a balance there to be made because we need to try to balance having people's attention on the scoreboard versus peoples' attention on our students who are performing.
CCG: How much planning goes into each show, and what can impact the preparation during the week?
RB: We have to take into account a lot of things. One of the factors is how much time do we have to prepare the show, because a halftime show for a home game, there are times when we have only a week to prepare the show and there are times when we have two weeks to prepare the show.
You never know how the weather is going to effect things. The worst thing for us is to have bad weather during the week and great weather on game day, because bad weather during the week impacts our preparations and then on game day, people wonder why the band doesn't sound or look as good.
CCG: How much of a role does musical education play with students in the Blue Band?
RB: One of our challenges is trying to balance the educational experience for students who are in the band. While a lot of times from the audience's standpoint, their perception is that the students are just there to entertain, but they're also taking Blue Band as a class.
There's a certain amount of educational value we're trying to have in the experiences and trying to expose the students to different music and music that we hope that they will enjoy playing and they'll find challenging to play, and yet balancing it with trying to make sure we're as entertaining as possible when we get our halftime shows.
CCG: Outside of the musical education aspect, what do you hope students in the Blue Band gain from their experience?
RB: I hope that they've learned a number of things. I hope that they've been exposed to some music that they may not have played or listened to or heard before. I hope that they have grown as an individual musician, in terms of their performing ability and their acceptance and reaction to a wider range of music.
I think that along with that, we're hoping to make them more aware of a variety of musical artists and styles and genres. Beyond that, there are also the opportunities of leadership possibilities. It's particularly challenging to be a leader in a peer organization, but the opportunity to develop some of those leadership skills, I think, is another thing that we hope many students will get.
We hope that they are also learning all the good things that make for success: responsibility and being able to be counted on, and being able to complete a job or an assignment in a timely fashion and all those kinds of non-musical things are important life lessons for the students to learn.
CCG: How has technology impacted the Blue Band's preparation and performance over the years?
RB: The technology has been challenging for all bands, everywhere. A band in a college football arena, I don't care if it's as big as Penn State or a small school someplace else, the band cannot compete acoustically with the huge scoreboards and the huge speakers and sound systems. There, it just takes one person hitting a notch or a dial — and boom! — you get a bigger sound.
There's only so loud a group of students as big as our band can get. With our size, we cannot compete at the same level, so there's a visceral reaction to an audience there, between the impact of the big speakers and what we're trying to do. Over the years, there's been more and more media and popular music and everything that's pumped into the game; through sponsorships and advertisements and announcements and popular songs, all these things have created challenges for us, in terms of how often we get to perform.
One of the things that most people don't think about a lot of times, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about this: Our society nowadays is so oriented to seeing the screen, whether it be the screen on your personal device or your computer or at the stadium, that's what they want to see. There are so many things that can be so grand in terms of how those media can produce entertainment, in terms of the excitement that they can generate and be visual, that it's very difficult anymore to create that same kind of level of excitement with a live performance of a marching band, as good as we might be.
I think everybody is trying to find, from a marching band standpoint, to find ways to entertain audiences in a day and age when over-the-top-entertainment is the norm; it's very difficult for marching bands to go over the top, from the impact standpoint and the expense standpoint. It's a challenge to provide the right type of experience for the students that is something that they are gaining from the experience and that they feel it's valuable, while providing that entertainment for an audience in a specific functional setting in a football game or any sporting event.