YPMB seniors make push for democracy

Once upon a time, long before computers and Xeroxed formation sheets, the Yale Precision Marching Band had no drum major, at least not in today’s sense of the word. Thomas Duffy, director of Yale Bands, swung his arms like a pendulum atop a tottering ladder, limbs outstretched, to conduct the YPMB during basketball and football games, and ran every script meeting.

Not so long ago, Seth Weinreb ’92 became the first drum major, chosen because he had the musical chops to replace Duffy on the ladder.

The floodgates were open. Soon, YPMB’s drum major was responsible for brokering a compromise among bickering scriptwriters, coming up with musical arrangements and choosing songs for the band members to play.

And — as the series of petitions, letters and proposed constitutional amendments that have been spamming the YPMB panlists of late demonstrate — things are continuing to change as the band tries to walk the line between technically being a Yale College entity and feeling like the most servile of student groups. At a March 28 meeting, the Yale Bands officer corps talked over a series of proposals originated by YPMB members that would change a number of YPMB leadership positions — including the drum major position — from appointed to elected positions.

The officer corps has solicited input from the 200-odd YPMB instrumentalists, arrangers and squids, the members responsible for the elaborate construction projects that are a hallmark of YPMB shows, Yale Bands President Alison Frazzini ’07 said. They have met with Duffy to find out which of the band members’ proposals could be put to a vote. And now, they are gearing up for next week’s vote on the remaining proposals, said Chris Rhie ’07, YPMB social chair.

The changes some students are advocating are potent as symbols, if nothing else: The quirky, anti-authority YPMB would be defying musical tradition by voting on its principals rather than having them chosen by fiat. Currently, Duffy appoints a number of the most public YPMB positions, including the drum major. A petition circulated at the first football game of this year suggested democratically electing the drum major and garnered some 60 signatures, though nobody had ever proposed such changes before.

But the changes had been a long time in the formulating, according to the trio of seniors who suggested. Though they waited until they had enough clout with the underclassmen and a countdown to graduation that guaranteed they would not be beneficiaries of the changes, Carlos Hann ’06, Shana Mlawski ’06 and James Rubin ’06 said they had been thinking about these changes for years.

Rubin is a flautist who was inspired to join the band by a YPMB pantomime of the stock market crash during his freshman year at Yale. Hann plays trumpet and drums and got involved with marching band because the all-American nature of it — having fun and going to football games — was so different from his Puerto Rican childhood. Mlawski likes the band’s sense of humor and the fact that she can de-stress on Saturday mornings while continuing to play an instrument. The three of them alternate answers, sometimes even words, as they discuss their proposal; bound by tales of re-enacting a “Muppet Show” with Elmo carrying an AK-47 and making a ruckus in the depths of Yale’s libraries during Bulldog Days, they are in agreement on the major things.

“We love the band, and we love democracy,” Rubin said.

What they are proposing isn’t all that radical, said Rudy Shekitka, a junior at Columbia University and head manager of the Columbia University Marching Band, though it may seem so for the YPMB, which, according to the CUMB’s Web site, “used to be really cool and get in trouble all the time” but was “bleached” into a “rather dull organization.” The CUMB has evolved in the opposite direction from the YPMB, beginning as a student club and then being incorporated into Columbia College, and there was a brief period during which the Managing “Bored” positions — which include the drum major — were appointed.

“That didn’t go over too well,” Shekitka said. “Now, we hold informal elections for all our Managing Board members.”

The petition drawn up by Mlawski, Hann and Rubin made it through James Cheseborough, the Yale Bands’ visiting conductor, to Duffy. Duffy said he was a little taken aback by the petition — after all, Yale students do not petition to be able to select their TAs — but figured that if he had been more accessible, they would not have had to resort to such a formal mechanism.

The trio received feedback on their petition in the form of a 2,000-word missive about the spirit of marching band penned by Duffy, who is currently ruling in absentia while he serves as acting dean of the School of Music.

“It seems as if the spirit of the petition equates the opportunities to have direct election of drum major with more fun for members,” Duffy wrote in the Feb. 28 letter. “I equate direct elections to an abdication of responsibility on the part of the director of bands. … So many things are truly up to the students; some things aren’t.”

Duffy refused to allow the students to elect their own drum major, telling them it was his job to choose a student who could be the public face of the Yale Bands, he said.

And some said the decision made perfect sense. Sean Jackowitz ’08, the popularly elected general manager of the Yale Bands, said a position as public as the drum major ought not to be left to chance or mob rule. Where Jackowitz’s job, like that of other administrative elected positions, is to make sure the band is set up for rehearsal, the drum major is charged with the nitty-gritty of the YPMB’s performance, designing the halftime show, picking music and ensuring that the band behaves.

“The drum major is like a general in the battlefield, whereas something like the band president is like the guy in the White House making policy,” Jackowitz said.

But Jay Schweikert ’08 wants a guarantee that at least those who appoint are democratically elected. As things stand, the committee that advises the band director on his selection of a drum major is composed entirely of members appointed by the band director himself. Schweikert wrote a letter to the officer corps proposing that some of the spots on that committee be reserved for students elected by the YPMB as a whole.

“I thought there were a lot of good ideas in the petition, but the authors went about it in an abrasive way that made people uncomfortable,” Schweikert said. “There are a lot of really worthy reasons why the ultimate authority should rest with the director, but my idea will eliminate the sense of frustration among the band members that can’t get in a say.”

Duffy’s letter to the band left several of the petitioners’ other suggestions open for discussion.

“Some of the suggestions are retroactive, things we considered in the past, and others I turned back to the students to decide amongst themselves,” Duffy said.

Even with the drum major option off the table, Frazzini said, the officer corps still has several other proposals to discuss at their April 12 meeting. The officer corps is composed of representatives from all three of Yale’s bands — the Yale Jazz Ensemble, the Yale Concert Band and the YPMB — meaning that the YPMB will have some, but not all, of the say in how these changes will occur, Ben Jorns ’07 said.

The proposals okayed by Duffy for officer corps vote include whether to elect democratically the Stud — YPMB lingo for the head student arranger — as well as section leaders and the proposed announcer. On one hand, as the members of the trio of petitioners explained, the section leaders tend to function as social chairs, and popular election would be a step toward making YPMB a little more bottom-up. On the other, Jorns, who, as drum major, chose the section leaders this year, said appointing section leaders allowed him to assemble a team whose members complemented one another.

Ultimately, the graduating trio insists, it does not matter whether they are the ones to implement their petition’s proposed changes or even whether their petition’s proposed changes are implemented at all. They wanted to open a dialogue and, based on feedback from the band members, they seem to have done so.

“We may seem kind of weird at times, but give us the benefit of the doubt and take us with a grain of salt,” Hann said.

As Rubin interjected, the amount that these three seniors and their fellow musicians have invested in YPMB may be “cultish,” but so are all Yale organizations.

After all, Jorns wrote in an e-mail, “In the big chaos that is the YPMB, these issues we are voting on are pretty routine.”

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