Andi Zhou is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Along with playing piano for Yale’s musical improv troupe, Just Add Water, Zhou is this year’s drum leader for the Yale Precision Marching Band (YPMB), which will perform in Cambridge, Mass. this weekend when the Bulldogs finally break their losing streak against the Harvard Crimson. Win or lose, he and the YPMB have been working hard all week to put together a spectacular show that will at least remind Harvard that we know how to make fun of them. The Herald spoke to Zhou about the upcoming show, his musical talents, the history of the YPMB, and the tradition of The Game.
YH: How did you get involved with the Yale Precision Marching Band?
AZ: Well, in the beginning, I came to Yale just looking for something fun to do with music. I mostly played the piano, but on the side I also played the musical saw, which is an interesting instrument. I suppose some of you might not be familiar with that.
YH: True. Can you explain a little about what that is?
AZ: I got into the musical saw the summer before my senior year in high school. I saw it on YouTube, basically by chance. It turns out you can play just a normal hand saw that you get from Home Depot just by bowing it with a cello or a violin bow, and as a result, it’s a really cheap thing to get started. So, I watched some tutorials online, went to True Value Hardware, got a saw, and I started playing. Then, after I got to college, I looked around for some place that would take me. And, because the YPMB has an open admissions process, meaning we don’t turn anyone away, they were the only group that would take me with the musical saw! After that, I started writing some music with them, arranging songs. For a couple of years I was the head student arranger. Then I became production manager, in charge of shows, and now I am drum major.
YH: What does the role of drum major entail?
AZ: Ultimately, you are the top student leader in the band. The YPMB is very student-organized, student-led. I am basically the head of that operation, and I’m also sort of the public face of the marching band. Obviously, you’re very involved creatively, leading rehearsals, conducting the band, making sure everybody sounds good, leading performances on game day, telling the band when to play and when not to play. The drum major is ultimately in charge of what shows we make. We have a huge production team that is critical to the making of each show. But ultimately, the process of making sure all the pieces come together every week—the drum major does have a very big role to play in that. The drum major has to have a vision for the organization as a whole—the character of it, the feel, the atmosphere.
YH: Could you talk a little more about the atmosphere of the YPMB?
AZ: The really wonderful thing about the band is that it is a bunch of people who get together because they’re doing something that they love to do together, which is to play music and make shows, to create and perform these shows week in and week out. That is our job. That is also our passion. And we’re always looking for ways to enhance that. How do we make the process more fun for everyone, but at the same time, how do we make it so that we are constantly reaching higher, aspiring to more, pushing ourselves in all respects? And that’s something I’ve tried to emphasize as a drum major, really stretching ourselves in many ways.
YH: What’s the history of the YPMB?
AZ: In 1918, just after the First World War, and there was only one band. Today, we have three bands under that umbrella organization, [Yale Bands]. We have the Yale Concert Band, the Yale Jazz Ensemble, and the YPMB. In those days, everything was just one band. They would play concerts in concert halls and things like that, but at the same time, every week, they would play football games and do field shows, the same group of people. Over time, those roles diverged. For awhile, it was actually the Yale Concert Band, and what they called the Yale Football Band. I think it was around the ’50s or ’60s that finally they started calling it the Yale Precision Marching Band.
YH: How did the unique style of the YPMB come about?
AZ: This idea of what we do was sort of started in the ’60s. We all know how the ’60s were, with the upheaval and such at Yale. That also touched the band. There was one year when, as the story goes, the official director of bands at the time took a sabbatical, and the guy who was substituting [for him] for that year basically lost control of the marching band. That was the beginning of the student takeover of the organization. All the traditions, everything, got sort of dismantled and rebuilt, and this band became sort of a parody. It was meant to parody the straight-edged, big, state school bands of the Midwest and the South. The Yale band would just sort of run around, wearing crazy things, forming crazy shapes, and just doing things like that. It originally started out that way, and it became a kind of model for most of the Ivy League schools, which follow this “scatter band” method, as sort of a reaction to those old institutions.
YH: What are some of the shows you’ve put on this year?
AZ: Well, we kicked off the year with a video game show. We had music from Halo, from Super Mario Brothers, from Pokémon, and we had stuff happening on the field that was sort of evocative of all those things. We had a whole Mario Kart race. We had a big Pokémon battle. This year we actually have a fantastic twirler, and she was one of the Pokémon who fought in this battle. It was her against a former gymnast, so you can imagine that was some spectacle. Our show for Parents’ Weekend was just a big, big dance extravaganza. We brought the Yale Bhangra team on the field with us. We had parents out there dancing, and to top that off, we ended with a big Gangnam Style routine.
YH: With that in mind, how does the YPMB go about preparing for The Game?
AZ: The scale of the operation is much bigger. Everybody gets very amped up about The Game. We’re working on various aspects of it throughout the entire week. Every night, people are working late, fine-tuning various aspects, working on the script. Maybe some people are helping with the music. Some people are making the props. Every year, we have these giant, giant props. Last year, for instance, we made a 13-foot tall, papier-mâché bulldog, Patronus, that destroyed the Harvard Dementors on the field. It’s certainly a very big operation. Everybody loves doing it. It’s the biggest crowd of the year, and it’s a chance to really showcase ourselves and see what we can
YH: What can we expect from the YPMB at The Game this year?
AZ: You can expect heroics [pause], adventure [pause], the surmounting of great adversity [pause], and, of course, grand spectacle—all at the same time.
—This interview was condensed by the author.