I own a crimson wool jacket and a black necktie with little drums on it. I know all the words to the Harvard fight songs. Most people at this school can’t sing more than two lines of any Harvard song and wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a crimson wool anything. Owners of the jacket are generally members of the Harvard University Band (although once, while crashing the Screw Your Roommate Dance, I encountered a non-member wearing one in an attempt at “semi-formal.”)
My confession to membership in this organization generally draws one of the following responses:
a) “The what?”
b) “But you’re so normal!”
c) “Oh, that’s right, I keep forgetting.”
d) “That’s cool! What do you play?”
(For those interested: I play the saxophone, or as we like to say, the saxamaphone.) The above responses are in descending order according to frequency, which suggests that many of my peers subscribe to the view of the Band as a random, unintelligible collection of social misfits who follow the football team around in the vain hope of achieving significance. It also means that they have no idea why something that seems so silly would appeal to me, or how it could mean so much to me.
What most of my peers are missing out on: chicken fights and games of Red Rover on Saturday mornings, obscenities chanted in unison, trips on the raunch bus, drag parties, toga parties, no pants time (think about it...), stays at the Harvard Club of New York City (okay, on the floor), random trips to Florida and Minnesota, parades where kids dress up as ducks, great seats at official University events, alcohol, the love of the athletic department, the respect of the administration and the appreciation of my fellow undergraduates for all that we do to cheer on other Harvard students and contribute to a general sense of school spirit.
Well, maybe that last one isn’t quite right. It’s not exactly unqualified appreciation. More like puzzlement, or even worse, ridicule. The Band looks funny on the field, our formations are not exactly spectacular, it’s hard to hear what our announcer is saying, we don’t always sound that great, we constantly laugh at our own inside jokes and we make funny hand signals when we sing songs that most undergraduates can’t identify. We certainly don’t “march.” We’re at most sporting events, and although it’s not unusual for us to be the only (vocal) student contingent at many winter sporting events, that fact is either not known or not especially impressive in the eyes of the general student population.
Part of the problem is that the songs and cheers of the Band seem pretty irrelevant to the average Harvard student. Yes, we’re at football games, but few students know the words to Ten Thousand Men of Harvard. Does this actually mean that most Harvard undergraduates have no school spirit? Or is it simply that they aren’t comfortable expressing it in song? It’s no longer very common to show affection for Harvard through enthusiasm for the football team. It is more common to bemoan the lack of outward signs of pride in and love for Harvard. The sense of tradition, continuity and fellowship that feeds the myth of Harvard, Harvard the ancient and honorable, is most palpable in ceremonial events like Commencement or Opening Ceremonies. It’s very difficult to find anything as explicit in ordinary undergraduate life.
It’s interesting that the Band’s most enthusiastic audiences are often older alumni. They love us. The Harvard Alumni Association always hires the Band because Harvard fight songs are a great way to help alumni recall how fond they were and still are of their college experiences. Playing for these alumni, I often wonder how my class will publicly express its fondness for this place at the 25th or 50th reunions. Will we even be able to? Are we truly happy with our Harvard experience, as challenging as it is? Or, in the midst of all our academic and extracurricular demands, do we sometimes forget to hold on to what’s truly special about Harvard—our experiences with other Harvard students? If we do end up remembering our time at Harvard with fondness, will we be sure enough of ourselves to express it?
I am truly fond of my Harvard experience, and being in the Band has only contributed to this feeling. It’s not just that some of my closest friends are in the Band. For me, the Band’s preoccupation with celebrating all things Harvard only adds to its appeal. I am continually reminded of the sentiments my time at Harvard can inspire; singing about Harvard’s glories, triumphs and virtues while surrounded by a familiar and excited group will do that to you. What it comes down to is the simple fact of belonging to a group. The sense of community and belonging within the Band are reflective of what Harvard ideally engenders on a larger scale. Perhaps some of us don’t really feel connected to any of our peers in this way, and I’m not arguing that every member of the Band necessarily feels this connection either. It is a fairly vague and indefinite sensibility, but we should all be lucky enough to come across it in some form while we’re here.
In all of the important ways, the Band is like all other activities at Harvard, and not more or less honorable than any of them. It’s simply something that students choose to spend their valuable time on, something around which they create meaning and significance. If we are fortunate, we know what it’s like to give ourselves over to an endeavor, an idea or a group that demands our devotion and makes our lives richer and happier (although not always less stressful) in return. So much of what Harvard students get out of their activities is found in the process, in the experience, and not just in the final product. It’s hard to love a field show (or a newspaper or a play or a final score, for that matter) in and of itself. What I like about the Band is not limited to what everyone else can easily observe. They see the silly traditions, the noise, the excuses to drink and socialize, the self-absorption—but they don’t necessarily realize how happy I am to simply spend time with a group I have grown to love.
If it is true that you can’t understand what you don’t experience, perhaps many of the people who know me will never fully appreciate my affection for the Band. But I would hope that even if the Band seems bizarre to other students, they would still have some idea of what it means to be part of a group like that. The Band’s excitement might not be completely comprehensible or appreciated, but hopefully it’s still recognizable for what it is—an attempt to hold onto our friends while we still can.
P. Patty Li ‘02 is a Religion and History concentrator in Eliot house. She is arts chair of The Harvard Crimson.