State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Lunch with Mimi: Blue Band Director Gregory Drane Takes Pride in Challenging His Students While Entertaining Fans

by on October 30, 2019 8:00 AM

Gregory Drane became the sixth director of the Penn State Blue Band in July 2015. He took the helm after serving as assistant director from 2005-2015, leading the athletic pep bands as well as beginning the Penn State volleyball band. In his role as director, he works with more than 500 students between the marching band and the athletic bands to coordinate halftime shows, music rehearsals, as well as performances at athletic events such as football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, and men’s ice hockey.

A talented saxophone player, Drane designs and arranges some of the band's most memorable halftime performancesDrane has been part of the Blue Band staff since 2002, when he was a graduate assistant.

Originally from Miami, Florida, he earned a bachelor's degree in music education and music performance from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Coming to Penn State in 2002, he received his master's degree in music education and is nearing completion on his PhD.  

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Drane at Legends Restaurant at The Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center to discuss what happens behind the scenes with the marching band, the need for increased diversity, as well as scholarship funding for Blue Band students.

(The Blue Band's annual indoor show, Blue Bandorama, will take place at 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, in the Bryce Jordan Center.) 

Mimi: Well, I finally get to meet you. You have one of the most important jobs in the fall every year.

Gregory: I wouldn't say most important, but it's a significant piece, I guess.

Mimi: It's what helps to define “We Are … Penn State.” You're a guy that came here, how many years ago?

Gregory: Seventeen years now.

Mimi: Seventeen years ago, and you were sure you were going to get your education, be out of this place like a lot of us. You, like me, end up never finding your way out of town.

Gregory: Exactly.

Mimi: Tell us why that happened.

Gregory: I came here to get my master's degree, and like a lot of other people, you recognize this is a very special place. As I tell my students, they spend a majority of their time trying to graduate and get out of here and then they spend the rest of their life trying to come back.

Mimi: Well, I'm just moving to The Village at Penn State and I’m so impressed by the number of people from other places who came back because of that very point that you’re describing.

Gregory: I agree. It's a special place.

Mimi: So, tell me what it's like to work with a guy like Richard Bundy? 

Gregory: I came as a graduate student and worked directly with Dr. Bundy; he was my adviser. Dr. Bundy is such a man of integrity and kindness; he always cared about people's feelings. After I graduated with my degree, I was offered to be the assistant director. When Dr. Bundy became head director, I was just amazed at how he was able work with graduate students keeping this iconic program moving along and progressing with so little resources.

Mimi: For musicians, it's like making the starting lineup of the football team. And it seems to me that the members of the Blue Band also have a special nature in terms of team effort and performance. How do you sell that to young people?

Gregory: I think it’s inherent that people want to be a part of great teams. I’ve been lucky that that is so embedded in who we are that I don’t have to sell it. My biggest issue is showing it to those who don't have a chance to come to a Penn State game; students who may be halfway across the world or in California, who haven't had a chance to see it with their own eyes. There is something special about Penn State’s Blue Band, and once they see it, many of them recognize it.

Mimi: How competitive is it to be a member of the Blue Band?

Gregory: It's very competitive. On an annual basis, we probably turn away 80-100 students.

Mimi: And the total Blue Band has how many members in it?

Gregory: We fluctuate around 310-320. If you think about that as a football team, you're recruiting new students, so sometimes we might have a few more offensive linemen on the bench waiting for their turn.

Mimi: Are there backups? Do you have reserves?

Gregory: I don't think of them as reserves; everybody has a job. There may be a student who may not march a particular halftime show because there's only so many spots. They all still have a role, so I don't see them as backups, if you will. It gets more competitive when it comes to our pregame show, because that's written for an even smaller group, about 275 students. So yeah, the students compete more for those spots. It is all in good spirits that we are trying to put the best group, the best team, on the field that day.

Mimi: What does it take to produce the halftime shows, which are just phenomenal?

Gregory: It takes months of planning. The summer is dedicated to planning and organizing all those shows. The staff gets together in early May and we brainstorm. We try to create halftime shows that align with our philosophies. We want to provide our students with really strong musical challenges, while also entertaining the audience, and sometimes those two things don't align. We try to create these great musical experiences for our students while being entertaining.

Mimi: What in your mind is the very best halftime show that you and your team put together?

Gregory: I don't know if I would say best, but I guess memorable for me would have to be a show we did in 2017. We called it our opera show. We performed classic opera tunes, but with a different take. We opened with Pagliacci, but it was a jazz version of it. And honestly, putting that show music together was satisfying for me, but I was not sure the students would be as appreciative of it. I was also concerned if the audience would like it. But that turned out to be one of the students’ favorites that year. Also, I got emails from fans saying, “What was the name of that tune?” And, “Oh my gosh, I really enjoyed that.”

It was honestly one of the most musically challenging shows I feel we had done in a while. The students just jumped right on it; they really liked to be challenged in that way.

Mimi: Do many of your members of the Blue Band go on to do some of the same work moving forward?

Gregory: There are not many; they don't get to go pro in band. This is kind of the last step. Those who do move on probably move on as public-school band directors, or some go on to the collegiate level, but that's very few. So, for many of them this will probably be the highest level they’ll perform at in their life. It is a transformative experience if you ask me.

Mimi: With the amount of time that a job like this takes, especially in the big season, how do you make time for your family?

Gregory: Honestly, making time for the family is a challenge, particularly in the fall. I have young kids and I'm so grateful for my wife, who sometimes has to carry the load. She works too and it can be a very big juggling act. Sometimes things come up and it's not like I can't be at the game; that's not an option for me to not go to work. She just takes care of things, so I'm very grateful. We try to schedule things because I'm very organized and putting it on the calendar helps me to make sure we have that time. You have to be organized, because it's about 350 people that you're working with on a daily basis and they have 350 different personalities.

Mimi: How much time does it take to prepare for one show?

Gregory: We meet as a staff in March to brainstorm a show. We come up with ideas for music and students submit suggestions and show ideas. We review all of that; we look at the schedule and try to decide which shows would go best on which weeks. For example, if a show is more musically challenging, maybe we need two weeks to prepare for that. Or, it may not be the best set for a one-week show. We have those football games that are back-to-back, and we do a new show for each one.

But after we decide on the tunes, we send them out to arrangers, who have to write the music in order for the band to play it. Each arrangement is different. That probably happens in mid-May. Our chief arranger is Rick Hirsch. He is a phenomenal musician and has been writing music for the Blue Band for more than 18 years now. He has to write out the parts for each different instrument to play and put that all together. And that takes a few weeks.

Once the music gets back, the directors share the drill and write the formations. So, I'll probably write three shows. And they'll write one or two and we pass that around. To write a drill takes about 60 hours. You have to do the formations and writing the maneuvers for each student to know exactly where to go. That's all separate from the performance.

(Photo by Steve Tressler/Vista Professional Studios) Gregory Drane leads the Blue Band at Beaver Stadium.

Mimi: It’s difficult to envision how it ultimately all goes together.

Gregory: It is, but it’s a process that starts in May. It literally sometimes doesn't come together until a day or two before the performance.

Mimi: For some reason my perception of the people I've known within the Blue Band are high-class people. They are authentic people who want to do good. Is that a fair description?

Gregory: I think being a part of the Blue Band is addictive. It gives them purpose. I have so many students who have these long, challenging days and they are happy to be at practice working hard. That just blows my mind. I know they're mentally exhausted from academic work. They show up to be in practice every day, ready to work. Last fall, the average GPA of the band was a 3.37, and 40 students made a 4.0. Over half the band was a 3.4 and above. It’s phenomenal.

Mimi: They have a special goal; they get to perform for 100,000 people.

Gregory: By the end of the year, they have performed for almost a million people.

Mimi: How diverse is the Blue Band?

Gregory: Not as diverse as I would like it.

Mimi: How do we fix it?

Gregory: We continue to show that we are open to diversity and inclusion. I think we have to do some work to show students of color that the Penn State Blue Band is an option for them. I went to a historically black college, Bethune-Cookman University, and I was recruited to be in the band. I was also given a full scholarship to march in the band. So, students of color are being recruited to go to a lot of these historically black colleges, and they're being provided full scholarships to do so. That's a challenge that we have now, where a student is saying, “Hey, I can major in engineering at Howard University or Morgan State, and they're also going to give me a full scholarship to be in the band.” That's very difficult to compete with, where I'm saying, “Hey, come to Penn State. I can provide you a great experience.” Those are the inherent challenges. Even when you're talking to a parent who says, “OK, my child can go here and go to school for free for being in the band or can come to Penn State and may have school loans at the end.”

Mimi: Well, maybe that’s something we can make a request with this interview. The public can help finance Blue Band scholarships for people of color.

Gregory: The bigger picture is that many of my students do not receive scholarships. I would like all my students to receive scholarships because they're all putting in that same sweat equity. It's just a challenge if I’m not able to give it to all of them, because they are all doing the best that they can to make the Blue Band.

Mimi: Let’s talk just a little more, locally, on the diversity issue. It’s been up front and center ever since the tragic death of the young man of color. As a fortunate, accomplished man of color, who lives a dream job every day of the year, how do we spread the diversity of the community and the campus so that there are more Greg Dranes to help us stretch out, reach up, and forward?

Gregory: I came [here] in 2002. Prior to coming I had looked up what was going on at Penn State and there had just been a racial demonstration from the students the year before. So, even for me to make the decision to come here was difficult at first because I come from Miami, which is extremely diverse. When I got here there were some challenges and some of them were simple. I had long dreadlocks for a while and that was because it was very difficult to get a haircut. But I will say, I had the Blue Band that was this intact family unit. I was also fortunate to also be part of a fraternity and I had a few fraternity brothers here. I was from 1,400 miles away, so it was a culture shock for me.

Mimi: You had to do some work and we had to do some work. How do we get more of that?

Gregory: It has to come from both ends, from the top and the bottom. I'm doing my dissertation right now on the first all-black Navy band for World War II. I’m looking at the situation and there’s so many parallels, but what makes it different is that the Navy was very resistant to allowing blacks to come in and serve in any job other than as cooks or stewards. The change came from the top. The president worked with the local governments. It also came from African-American leaders at the time. They came together to break down these racial barriers by creating a band of musicians. The Navy was very resistant to it, but all of these folks were working together and this group was created. They quickly tore down those racial barriers. It took a great deal of effort, but it also took a great deal of personal sacrifice from those first black Navy band members.

I think that's the part that most people don't understand. For me to be here has taken a great deal of personal sacrifice. There are sacrifices that my family has had to make because there are certain things that are just not afforded to us because we are here in State College. A small but simple example is that my wife can’t as easily go get her hair done; often she has to make time to travel somewhere else, so that she can do those types of personal things. I also struggled with finding a dermatologist who has the expertise to work with African Americans. There are places here now, but there aren’t as many options. I think that's the part where some of the breakdowns occur, that understanding for those diverse people to come here, they do have to make significant personal sacrifices, knowing that they can go to any of these other places and automatically be accepted, have a community, and not have to deal with those barriers.

Mimi: That’s a big hurdle that requires both sides of the equation making sacrifices from their perspective, but we have to keep working at it. We breathe the same air. We have the same things to offer. What do you enjoy most about your job?

Gregory: The people and the students. They keep you going. Penn State students are extremely bright and they are always challenging one another. I enjoy that part because it helps my thoughts evolve. While I'm working with them, I'm also learning from them.

Mimi: Do they have officers in the Blue Band?

Gregory: Yes, we do. We have an officer corps – president, vice president, and treasurer. We have a public relations chair and recruiting chair. The majority of their responsibilities are with their peers and making sure that we're continuing to have the environment that we want.

Mimi: I imagine there’s a lot of camaraderie in the Blue Band?

Gregory: There's a lot of camaraderie. But there are still some personalities that are not going to mesh; you have so many different learning styles. They're all motivated by different things and I have to find a way to move this entire volunteer group.

Mimi: How has the band changed or not through the years? Do you think the band is perceived today pretty much as it was even 50 years ago?

Gregory: Well, I don't know how it was perceived 50 years ago. I do know how it was 17 years ago. It's always seemed to have been a gem of Penn State. People in the community always light up with pride when they say, “Are you with the Blue Band? I love the Blue Band.” I hope that we’re still viewed the same way.

Mimi: The Blue Band is the secret weapon to the overall quality that Penn State seeks to achieve.

Gregory: That's the biggest thing that I think now, in my fifth year, it's not just the music and marching. It’s all the other stuff, trying to guide the students as they’re developing into the men and women that they're going to be and giving them the tools that they're going to need to be successful beyond Penn State. That’s really what I see my job as.

Mimi: Let me congratulate you on a great show, on and off the field, and wish you a great season and a big-time bowl game.

Gregory: Yes, please (laughs). Thank you for your time and thank you for all you do for our community and sharing your love with all of us. I greatly appreciate that.

Town & Gown is a monthly publication in State College, PA. If it's happening in Happy Valley, it's in Town & Gown.
Next Article
Happy Valley Cruise Prepares to Set Sail in March
October 30, 2019 6:00 AM
by Centre County Gazette by Karen Walker
Happy Valley Cruise Prepares to Set Sail in March
Disclaimer: Copyright © 2020 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

order food online