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Inside the Princeton University Band… and their plastic Santa

<h5>Princeton Band at a tailgate in New Haven prior to a Princeton-Yale football game.</h5>
<h6>“Princeton Band At The Tailgate” by Joe Shlabotnik / <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik/49993216733" target="_self">CC-SA 2.0</a></h6>
Princeton Band at a tailgate in New Haven prior to a Princeton-Yale football game.
“Princeton Band At The Tailgate” by Joe Shlabotnik / CC-SA 2.0

Adorned in flamboyant plaid orange and black suits and topped with their characteristic boaters, the Princeton University Band is not hard to spot on Princeton’s campus. Whether they are storming the athletic fields, clustered in a dining hall, or performing their traditional song set across campus on Dean’s Date Eve, the Band pops up everywhere. 

Amidst the University’s intense intellectual environment, the Band provides an outlet for entertainment and comedic relief — a sentiment so critical to the Band’s identity that it is echoed in their constitution. As Article 0: The Purpose of the Band states, “The Princeton University Band exists primarily for the enjoyment of its members and for the entertainment of the University community.”

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At an Ivy League institution where student groups often maintain high barriers to entry and demand significant commitment from its members, the Band stands apart.

Inherent to the Princeton University Band’s mission is inclusivity and, perhaps ironically for Princeton, low expectations — something that band members believe is more easily achieved as a result of its identity as an untraditional marching band.

Unlike a typical marching band, the Princeton Band doesn’t march at all. As a ‘scramble band,’ instead of marching between songs, “we will run around and literally scramble around either doing jumping jacks or running around chasing each other,” explained Thomas Hontz ’22, the band’s conductor.

According to the Band’s Drum Major, Henry Erdman ’23, scrambling is “a cross between a fire drill, a Black Friday sale at Macy’s, and a final bell of school all on the field in front of the fans. It’s just a really fun time.”

This movement gives the student body a fun, happy-go-lucky image of the band. Christian Hernandez ’22, who enjoys watching the Band at football games, thinks that these performances “represent the quirkiness of Princeton.”

Colby McArthur ’24, a member of the Band, said that compared to his high school’s competitive marching band, the Princeton Band is “a lot more chill.” Even for students who have other time intensive campus commitments — be it extracurriculars, research, campus jobs, or other activities — “the Band will always have time for you,” according to Hontz. 

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McArthur echoed this sentiment. “[The Band is] very fun and it’s kind of liberating in a way that a lot of clubs at Princeton aren’t,” he said.

The Band’s flexibility with students’ other obligations is reflected in the time commitment expected from its members. While the Band practices twice a week, rehearsals are always optional, and Band members can perform at games regardless of their attendance at rehearsals. 

Hontz recalls how he was welcomed into the Band with open arms even before he matriculated into the University. 

“My brother, who was a year older than me at the time, was already here … he had joined the Band,” he said. Hontz explained that when Band members found out he was coming to visit, they said to his older brother, “Oh, your brother is coming down for a game? Cool. Give him a uniform.” 

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He continued, “I got to play trombone with the Band before I was even officially a student here.”

“I personally am a champion of groups that have low commitment, don’t have auditions, or aren’t extremely selective,” said Hontz. “And I love the inclusive nature of [the Band].” 

Part of what makes the Princeton Band so inclusive is that there is no expectation of musical talent from members. Anyone is welcome. As Erdman says, to become a part of the band, all you have to do is “show up!” 

“Even if you’re at a football game … you walk over to us and we’ll throw you a plaid jacket and a piece of trash and you can bang on it, or an instrument,” Erdman added.

And the Band practices what they preach. In early October, the Band emailed the campus community inviting anyone — with or without musical experience — to join them on an all-expenses-paid trip to Brown University for a football game. Alaina Joby ’24 was one of the students who took advantage of this opportunity, even though she’d never played with any band before. 

“I was in their ‘Garbussion’ section hitting a plastic flamingo with a drumstick,” Joby recalled. “I loved the weird looks we got from people.”

The Band’s “Garbussion” section – a playful combination of the words garbage and percussion – is designed for those who either choose not to or can’t play instruments. Members of the section play what Erdman calls “non-traditional percussion instruments,” and often bang on stop signs, street signs, and toilet seats. One of the most iconic “Garbussion” instruments is the famous plastic Santa. 

While the Santa’s true origin story is a mystery to Band members, McArthur explained the presumed origins of the Santa. “I think at some point, someone donated a plastic Santa, and it’s really loud when you hit it with a baseball bat. So they started using it as an instrument and I guess it caught on and now it's just become a very iconic thing about the Band.”

“It’s kind of a meme at this point,” said Chloe Holland ’22, President of the Band. She also shared that Band members and the broader student body alike enjoy hitting it. “It makes a really satisfying sound … It’s cathartic.”

Creative elements — like the now-iconic plastic Santa — are decided upon by the Band as a whole. “It’s very much a group effort from all the band members,” Erdman said. “Wed have a couple meetings where we get together and we’re like ‘alright what do we think is funny?’”

Beyond sports game appearances, the Band has held flash mobs in the dining halls this semester. Leaders have also hinted at a potential April Fools and Valentine’s Day march for the spring semester. 

Recently, the Band reinstated its famed tradition of playing across campus on Dean’s Date Eve, the night before most final papers are due, after a pause during three semesters of virtual finals. For Hernandez, the tradition motivates him not to procrastinate. 

“I do appreciate when they go around on Dean’s Date and make noise,” Hernandez said. “I make sure to finish my Dean’s Date assignments because of the Band — I don’t want to hear them while I’m trying to submit something!”

Holland has a message for all Dean’s Date crammers. “If you’re choosing to be in Firestone when we’re there,” says Holland, “that's your own fault. We’re not trying to bother anyone. We’re just trying to spread a little bit of cheer to the campus.” 

And indeed, both Band members and non-members alike report that the Band does succeed in staying true to its constitution. Through its comedic performances, appearances at games and around campus, and inclusive membership policy, the Band strives to infuse Princeton’s culture with a dash of humor and fun. 

As Hontz says, “That’s how I think music should be.”

Julie Levey is an assistant Features editor for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at jlevey@princeton.edu.

Tori Tinsley is an assistant Features editor and a staff copyeditor for The Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at ett2@princeton.edu.

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