“I don’t want to be a dick, but I don’t think that Yalies can relate to other Americans,” says Ian Hamilton, a junior at the University of Illinois. “Most of you guys don’t even watch sports. And you listen to country music for the sake of being ironic. I don’t know why you’d ever do this. You do everything to be ironic. Your idea of fun is so different from normal college students’. College is a time to be stupid and idiotic; it’s like a coming-of-age ritual. You guys can’t even hold your liquor.”

Hamilton may typify the outside world’s view of Yale students: Armed with No. 2 pencils and TI-89s, we journey through dusty deserts, traverse vast plains, soar over swirling seas, and arrive at our venerable New Haven nerd-Mecca by the thousand — mathletes, bookworms, chess masters and, perhaps the most patently uncool of all, band geeks.

But as the newest members of the Yale Precision Marching Band unpack their clarinets and tune their tubas, they begin to wonder: How can there be band geeks in a school full of geeks?

Standing on the cutting edge of textbook nerdiness, band geeks live out a microcosm of the Yale experience. Yet they are often labeled as nerds by the people who are themselves pigeonholed by those outside the Yale Bubble. Bandies remind us of the irony of cool: being really good at something often automatically qualifies people as nerds.

The YPMB is much more than a bunch of background dorks at a sports game. It is a way of life — one that its members are loudly proud of, that they vigorously enjoy and defend, and that inspires an almost filial devotion. Undaunted by their leering peers, they proudly proclaim their adoration of Yale and have a great time doing it. And like other Yalies, they stand as examples that defy the external world’s stereotypes.

Deconstructing cool

Nerd. Dork. Geek. All are insults that have been hurled since grade school, all are meant as antitheses of that elusive distinction: cool. And yet there is no universal definition of “cool.” While everyone purports to know the difference between being cool and uncool, the distinction is a vague concept ensconced in preconceived notions. All the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the word is that it is “used loosely as a general term of approval.”

But the use of cool’s antitheses does not necessarily imply disapproval. Yalies outside of the YPMB acknowledge the inherent geekiness of the band, but see it as a positive attribute in many cases.

“The band is wonderfully dorky,” Olivia Haesloop ’06 said. “And that’s why I love them.”

While many Yalies describe bandies with a similar sort of bemused affection, there are others who subscribe to the high school mentality and relegate bandies to the depths of dorkdom.

“Musicians tend to be nerds in general,” Marcus Leonard ’07 said. “But the YPMB is even nerdier than usual.”

Truth be told, at Yale, nerdy is a relative term and cool is a malleable abstract. Just as competition raises all boats, floating in such a talented marina normalizes nerdiness. Everybody has to be good at something in order to get in, and in most cases this skill can identify its possessor as a geek. To many in the real world, there is no one less cool than a person who goes to an Ivy League school.

“You guys are pretty nerdy, I’m not going to lie,” Hamilton said. “Harvard-Yale is your biggest party night of the year, and it’s like any night of the week at a public school.”

Some Elis try to hide their inner egghead; others greet it with open arms. The band seems to fall into the latter group.

“The average Yalie, in my opinion, is always secretly dorky,” self-proclaimed music nerd Rebecca Blum ’07 said. “People in the YPMB just embrace it instead of trying to hide it like so many people here.”

And embrace it they do. The YPMB has earned a reputation for using that trademark of witty dorkdom — the pun — at every sporting event it attends. Band members often reach into their pockets or lanyards and shake their keys to signal a “key play.” When a Bulldog basketball player makes a particularly good steal or an enemy quarterback throws an interception, the band roars to life with a rendition of the “Lord of the Rings” theme and shouts, “Thou shalt not pass!” Various band members have also been known to shout chants that range from wry (“Give me a B! Give me an R! Give me an A! Hold ‘Em, Hold ‘Em, Hold ‘Em!”) to raunchy (“Give me a C-U-N-N-I-L-I-N-G-U-S … eat up the clock!”).

With all this spirit, it seems that the YPMB has its own humorous, extroverted ethos, a departure from the band geek standard. This unapologetic confidence — refreshingly contrary to the detached irony that many Yalies espouse – could itself be considered the antithesis of nerdiness, thus underscoring the nebulous nature of cool.

“You might say that it takes a certain type of personality to want to be in the YPMB,” Drum Major Ben Jorns ’07 said in an e-mail. “But I wouldn’t call that a geeky one. Sure, I think we take more pride in Yale than your average Yalie, or at least we show it more, but does that make us geeks?”

In a league of their own

A fixture of football, basketball and hockey games, the YPMB has developed a habit of friendly competition with other schools’ bands. Sometimes this rivalry gets fierce.

“If you want to talk about a really geeky band, talk about Princeton’s band,” band manager Jenny Reisner ’07 said. “They’re ugly. If you look at what they wear, they look ugly. They’re just big tools, even more toolish than Harvard.”

Personality and good looks aside, the YPMB has a very different style from that of most other bands. As the YPMB’s Web site points out, “Most marching bands spend their time on field spelling their name in script or making a swirly line formation while playing the complete works of Andrew Lloyd Webber. We perform halftime shows composed of comedy segments, during which we spell witty things on the field and play really cool rock music.” Featured artists have included everyone from Led Zeppelin and Sean Paul to Ace of Base and Chumbawumba. “One time we kidnapped Dr. Dre and forced him to arrange ‘California Love’ at gunpoint,” the YPMB Web site claims, but most of the band’s music is actually whipped up by its arranging corps, also known as the YPMB Junta.

Yale’s band also takes pride in its outlandish and original skits. The Elis always seek to outdo their stodgier Ivy League peers in the production and humor departments — although that’s not terribly difficult. Princeton’s idea of comedy involves dressing its drum major in a tiger-striped tuxedo with a tail, and Harvard’s annual halftime show revolves around beating up a stuffed bulldog. The YPMB considers itself above such trite displays.

“We make a huge tank that blows things up while we play songs by Journey,” Jorns said in an e-mail. “I think relative to other bands (and most groups on Yale’s campus), we have the monopoly on avoiding geekiness.”

Band substances

The dim room sizzles with sweat. Writhing masses grind and bump to the thump of the bass. In the front of the room, three people stand poised to slam flaming shots down into their guts; to the left, a girl waits eagerly for the next drop of alcohol from the ice-luge; in the back, the darkness shrouds a faceless pair locked in a passionate embrace.

This is not a description of some wild frat house event; it is the scene at a typical YPMB party. According to a 1998 report from the Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse, “Secondary students who participated in band or orchestra reported the lowest lifetime and current use of all substances (alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs).” The YPMB members must not have gotten this memo, as they have successfully avoided the straightedge tradition often attributed to their kind.

Some band members believe the
ir parties bring out the cool in every geek.

“I think we’re less geeky than average Yalies, especially when we’re in our element at band parties and stuff,” said Ned Waller ’09, a tuba player. “We know how to have fun, and we’re a little goofy at the same time.”

Waller said police shut down a particularly rowdy band gathering two weeks ago.

Most band parties sport creative themes and exotic drinks, and each class throws a party — last year’s was called ’07 Deadly Sins.

“We were really playing up lust,” Reisner said. “Basically everybody was just making out with each other. We had different things we passed around, like a blindfold, and if you’re wearing the blindfold, anyone can kiss you.”

Despite the band’s insular reputation, there are a number of non-band members who frequent YPMB parties and say they enjoy them immensely.

“The band attracts a bunch of fun, crazy people who all know each other well, so it’s always a good time,” Sang Lee ’07 said. “However, if you don’t know anybody in the band and you’re at their party without knowing the semi-craziness it will entail, you might think it’s just a weird party on campus, and not have a good time.”

It also turns out that the one-time-at-band-camp archetype isn’t too far from the truth. YPMB members admit that “bandcest” occurs frequently.

“It happens,” Jorns said. “A lot. But it’s probably to be expected. The band becomes your circle of friends, and that’s usually the group in which people date. Dead Week is usually the culmination of all those hidden desires bandies have been harboring for each other. The band is allocated a number of beds for the people staying for Dead Week. But we probably only need about half of that.”

Much of this rampant incest can be attributed to convenience.

“It’s hard if you really love the band to have an outside relationship because we do all our stuff on the weekends,” Reisner said. “It depends on how into the band you are, but it’s just so much easier to date within it.”

But the romantic trysts of YPMB members are not limited to other bandies.

“We’re good with our mouths and lips and are generally coordinated,” Diana Liao ’07 said. “What more can you ask for?”

One campy band

For all the fun poked at band geeks, the band seems to come closest to defining exactly what outsiders believe Yalies are not — YPMB members spend most of their time watching sporting events, pulling idiotic pranks and imbibing heartily. More than most groups of students, the band engages in what Hamilton and most Americans call “normal” college activities.

In order to see the YPMB more clearly, perhaps everyone just needs a little perspective. Jeremiah Quinlan ’03, Yale’s current assistant director of undergraduate admissions and a former YPMB drum major, offered a retrospective view informed by a few added years of maturity.

“The Yale Precision Marching Band is one of the most open and accepting organizations on this campus,” Quinlan said. “No matter their height, weight, race, area of academic interest or love of sports, every student will find a group of high-energy, hilarious and talented friends in the YPMB. At its core, the YPMB is a bunch of people who come together to have a good time, root for [the team] and play a little rock-and-roll on weekends.”

And there’s little fault to be found in that.