It’s a question few would ever consider: Could the secret of the University’s athletic successes lie with the Yale College dean?
Probably not, but Provost Peter Salovey thinks so and holds on to this one superstition. Ever since Yale won the football game at which Salovey appeared as a guest conductor of the Yale Precision Marching Band during his second year as Yale College dean, the deanship has included the role of “lucky conductor.” The tradition, carried on by Salovey’s successor Yale College Dean Mary Miller, puts the two amidst cheering masses of undergraduates, and shows students a different side of these usually distant administrators.
When the men’s hockey team takes the ice against Air Force Academy for the NCAA tournament Friday evening, Salovey will be watching, the band will be playing and — with any luck — Miller will be conducting.
The superstition began Nov. 12, 2005. It was the day of the annual Yale-Princeton football game, and the Bulldogs were trailing the Tigers heading into the final quarter. That’s when Salovey, who was sitting with University President Richard Levin in the stands, told the president that he was taking matters into his own hands.
“I said, ‘I’m going to do something to change our luck,’” Salovey recalled. “‘I’m going to go over to the band and ask them if they’ll let me conduct.’”
He led the band through a round of the Yale fight song between the third and fourth quarters. When play resumed, the Elis rallied with a furious effort to score two touchdowns in a span of 27 seconds as the quarter closed.
Yale won the game in dramatic fashion, 21–14, and Salovey’s superstitious faith in the dean’s ability to conduct the team to victory was born. When Salovey attended athletic events after that memorable day, he volunteered to conduct the band during the phase of the game equivalent to the third quarter: When the basketball team walked onto the court for the second half, or as the hockey team skated onto the ice to begin the third period.
What had begun as a superstition quickly found its place in Yale lore. When Salovey rose to the provostship in October 2008 and Mary Miller assumed the Yale College deanship that December, the role of third-period guest band conductor passed to her along with the dean’s other duties.
“Now I don’t think most people in the band would say it’s a superstition,” YPMB member Kebra Sedam ’13 said. “I feel like most people would just think it’s a tradition.”
Within the first month of stepping into the dean’s office, Miller was digging through drawers for a whistle and stepping in front of the band to conduct — a new role for the expert on ancient Mayan art. But her predecessor told her to persevere.
“[Salovey] said, ‘Just leap in, anyone can learn to do this,’” she said.
Indeed, Kate Kraft ’10, drum major of the band at the time, quickly showed Miller through the motions.
Though Miller honors the tradition, she is not the purist that Salovey was. At hockey games, she chooses between leading the fight song during the first or second intermission, a decision she said she weighs carefully.
“I try to gauge,” she said. “I try to go when we’re doing well.”
While Miller said she does not attach the level of superstition Salovey does to conducting, she has rituals of her own. She dons a lucky blue sweater for football games, though Miller added that this did not work too well at The Game last November. She also has a “good karma” hockey hat, which she plans to wear to Friday’s game.
The two unlikely conductors joined forces at the hockey team’s final home game against Cornell on Feb. 26 — combining two very different conducting styles.
“[Provost] Salovey did a bit more waving around and dancing,” said Tasia Smith ’12, a member of the band. “Dean Miller is more concerned about conducting well and on-beat.”
Indeed, Salovey — famous among band members for his emphatic, energetic gestures — once used a bit too much enthusiasm. At a 2006 football game, Salovey’s wild conducting hand collided with the face of an unfortunate drum major, leaving the band with a man down.
“At the end of ‘Bulldog,’ I gestured broadly with my arms to end the song and somehow managed to punch the drum major, standing next to me, in the mouth,” he said. “Luckily, the trainers were on hand to stitch him up!”
Members of the band say they appreciate that the dean of Yale College honors them by leading the song, especially since the band does not often receive much recognition.
Still, Elliot Eaton ’11 said the incident of the bloody mouth has ensured that the band keeps a watchful eye when an enthusiastic dean enters their midst.
“That’s been kind of the running joke among the band members,” he said. “Watch out for the dean conducting, because he might attack you.”
Miller said she will lead the band through a round of “Bulldog” on Friday night if the layout of the Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard permits it.
Levin and Salovey will join Miller in attendance at Friday night’s hockey game.
Correction: March 26, 2011
An earlier version of this article stated that Provost Peter Salovey accidentally hit a drummer while conducting the Yale Precision Marching Band. In fact, Salovey hit the drum major, who conducts the band. Also, Kate Kraft ’10 was the drum major, not the director, of the band when she taught Yale College Dean Mary Miller to conduct.