Strike up the Band

Duke alumni relive their student days and fill in for the student pep band

The dizziness had faded when Tim Pyatt woke up the morning after the Duke-Bucknell basketball game. But he couldn't figure out why his ribs were sore.

"Then I thought, ‘Oh, yeah. I had someone standing on a plywood board on my back,' " said Pyatt, a 1981 Duke graduate who now works as the university archivist. "I got to live out my fantasy of having the Blue Devil surf on me."

Pyatt fulfilled his Blue Devil dream and relived his student days as a member of the alumni pep band When Duke's regular student band is unable to play during exams and breaks, the alumni band fills the gap, dressed in the same blue-and-white-striped ruby shirts. Members come from as far away as Wisconsin, Connecticut, Florida and Oregon, and range in age from recent grads to an 81-year-old graduate of the class of ‘49.

Fans streaming into Cameron Stadium may see the older-than-college-age band members warming up by rolling like human cigarettes on the lobby floor – proof that there's no time limit on being a Cameron Crazy. As band members, they can take part in the Duke tradition of the surfing Blue Devil, lining up side by side and rolling underneath the plywood surfboard that serves as the "waves" for the mascot.

Though many universities have alumni bands, Duke's is relatively new. It began when Nick Superina '03 sent an e-mail to former band members shortly after graduation. Superina had been band president his junior and senior years, and the band was a big part of his life at Duke. He saw an alumni band as "a continuation of an incredible four years at Duke" and a way to support Duke athletics when members of the student band were scattered or studying.

The listserv Superina got from the alumni office included about 1,500 alums who had played an instrument at Duke. Mike Rosen '84, a physician in New York who hadn't picked up his trombone in more than 20 years, was one of the first to respond.

Rosen had long felt that Duke should have a band that matched the success of his alma mater's athletics teams. The student band, with about 75 members, was small compared to other Atlantic Coast Conference schools that have bands of 200 or more and Big 10 school bands with 400 musicians.

Jeffrey Au, who was hired last year to direct Duke's athletics bands, leads the alumni band as well. The number of returning band alums is growing, and their involvement has the potential to aid the student band, too, he said.

"They will be a part of a family they can always come back to and enjoy a legacy at Duke," Rosen said.

When Lin Davidson '49, retired and living in Norfolk, Va., got the word about the band, he initially couldn't remember where he'd stored his marching band clarinet 55 years earlier. But he was eager to join the pep band, which didn't exist when he was a student, and to get one of the bold blue-and-white-striped shirts.

"I wanted to get one of those rugbys they wear," Davidson said. "You have to be a band member to get one."

Davidson downloaded the music from the Internet and enlarged the song sheets to full size to make them easier to read. His daughter drove him to Durham for the day to play for the men's basketball game against Valparaiso in December. His only problem, Davidson recalled, was that the band section had no seats. By half-time, the 81-year-old had to sit on the steps for awhile to rest.

A few months before football season begins, Superina, a management consultant in Washington, D.C., emails former band members and puts the music and a schedule on the alumni band website. Alumni pay their own expenses to attend games at Cameron and tournament games in New York's MadisonSquareGarden or The Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey. Usually the alumni association sponsors a lunch or informal reception before the game.

"We want to open this up to any Duke alum who plays an instrument and wants to support Duke athletics," Superina said.

On average, about 30 to 40 band alumni show up for each event and the instrumentation is surprisingly balanced, given that it's "luck of the draw" as far as who shows up, Superina said.

Melanie Burkett '01, coordinator of alumni events at Duke Law School, played quints (a set of five tom-toms) in the marching band as a student. The pep band usually uses a drum set inside Cameron, but director Au brought in a set of quints for her to play, something she had no opportunity to do elsewhere.

Over winter break, she played four women's and three men's basketball games at Cameron.

"It was almost like a time warp," she said. "It was just like I was back in school again. People I hadn't seen in years, it felt like I'd seen them yesterday."

And some college experiences are better the second time around, Rosen found.

"I lived through the worst two years of Duke basketball," he said of his student band days. "I never got to experience what these kids who go to the Final Four are experiencing. Now I'm able to get a little taste of that."