The Syracuse University Trumpet Section:An Ethnography
by Jessica Lux

Louise Wetherbee Phelps Award Winner-Lower Division

From the writer: The following ethnography was based on my observations as a member of the Syracuse University Marching Band trumpet section in the Fall of 1998. This piece explores the stereotypes surrounding trumpet players, and the role of women in this male dominated culture.

From the teacher: Jessica's ethnography came out of my first encounter with an Odyssey Studio 1- in Honors. Working with ethnographies, I was anxious about how to teach through the blind leap from voluminous exploratory field notes to a coherent examination of a campus subculture. At a late stage, I steered writers toward looking at how a community's practices enact its values, and combed early drafts to help identify unifying concepts, but finally it was the writers and their command of their subjects that pulled it together. Jessica exceeded expectations. She exposes, through cinematically thick detail, the culture that supports the SU trumpet image and invites us to revel in the colorful technicalities and language of trumpet life. There is an air here, too, of a trumpeter writing.

From the editors: Lux presents a solid and entertaining ethnography. The content keeps the interest level high. She maintains a sense of humor while examining the issues and politics of the marching band. She also puts the reader in touch with the presence of hidden cultures within the university community.

"What is the difference between a trumpet player and God? God knows he's not a trumpet player."

Some trumpet players might know that they are not God, but the stereotypical view of trumpeters is that they are arrogant, aggressive, and consistently overblowing every part. Deflating the well-known "trumpet ego" is a nearly impossible task, because trumpet players perceive themselves as masters of the instrument regardless of how well they truly play. A trumpet player is also usually eager to perform publicly. The Syracuse University marching band has a 40-strong trumpet section, the members of which both meet and defy these universal stereotypes. The SU trumpet personality, a type of sectional identity within the marching band, is based on compliance with and defiance of stereotypes.

The section meets at marching band practice between three and five times per week in the Carrier Dome. A typical weekday band rehearsal lasts for two hours. Trumpets are required, by their student section leaders, to be on the turf of the Dome at 6:15, fifteen minutes earlier than the rest of the band, for warm-ups. Many trumpet players arrive a half-hour or more before practice, to play football on the turf. Football is an artifact for the trumpet section, as a regularly enjoyed male bonding experience immediately before trumpet warm-ups.

Trumpet warm-ups are conducted in the "trumpet arc." The players make a semi-circle facing the bleachers, with the first players in the center of the arc, and the second and thirds on the sides. One of the section leaders conducts the section from the front of the arc. Regardless of where they are playing, from the Dome to the pre-game concert on the Quad to the woods outside the Buffalo Bills' stadium, the trumpets instantly form the arc. When leaving the arc, if the players will not be needing their instruments, all the trumpets are lined up in a row, facing the same direction. In the Dome, this row is usually set up on a yard line. The instruments are less likely to get accidentally damaged in this formation, and it is an aesthetically pleasing arrangement. Both the arc and the trumpet line are signature features of the SU trumpet line.

A typical practice begins on a whistle blow with ten minutes of drill practice. During this time, the band practices dressing the lines so that they are straight, maintaining good posture and form, and reacting properly to each call of the drum major. When the drill practice is over, the instrument sections retreat to their own corners of the Dome for fifteen to twenty minutes of sectional rehearsal. Trumpet players always run to their practice corner and at all other times, because walking is a waste of time. The trumpets complete their warm-up exercises during this time, before working on the pieces the band is currently performing. Trumpet music rehearsals are very serious, because music practice time is limited.

In fact, the trumpet section goes to extreme lengths to practice at times. During 1998 band camp, the football players displaced the band from the turf for an hour. While the rest of the band relaxed and watched the practice, the trumpets retreated to a corner of the stands to hold part auditions. Lacking a place for the auditioning rookies to warm up, the student music instructor told all them to play in the men's bathroom. As the only female rookie, I just tagged along and warmed up in the deafening acoustics of the men's bathroom. The section has also held warm-ups on the highest balcony of the Dome when football is taking up the normal early warm-up time. When the section is outside for practice, they always gather in a circular garden near a statue of Moses. The section calls the place "Zeus," because the statue of Moses has his finger extended threateningly, with long hair blowing back in the wind. The term "Zeus" is a code word within the trumpet section for that particular meeting place.

Another trumpet artifact exists in the form of the "DO ME" bucket, which is frequently dragged out to center field rehearsal by a member of the trumpet section. This large orange trashcan has been stenciled as the property of the Carrier Dome, but whoever did the stenciling made a separation in the word "DOME," so that it appears to read "DO ME." The innuendo suggested on this bucket appeals to the trumpet sense of humor. The bucket is often dragged down from the balcony for trumpet sectionals, and a player will stand inside it for sectionals on occasion. This artifact, like "Zeus," adds to the distinct trumpet identity, which is both serious and off-beat.

Trumpets often display an attitude of superiority during band practices, which are mostly spent with the whole band working in the center of the turf. During this section of practice, the band might learn a new drill for a halftime show or practice the existing halftime and pre-game shows. The trumpet players frequently express displeasure and frustration with other sections during show practice. Many assume that no other section can master drill as well as the trumpets, with the clarinets and flutes especially prone to trumpet complaints. On many occasions, the trumpet players are in fact better at marching due to their seriousness, but no one enjoys recognizing this fact.

During the concert block, the trumpets are serious about music while maintaining the trumpet bravado. They have all the required music memorized and prepared, but they do not always have the sheet music in a lyre. The band does not play with sheet music during shows, but players are supposed to use it during concert blocks and recording sessions, so that every single note can be played correctly, and the piece can be polished. The trumpet players could probably not play every single note of a piece perfectly from memory, so their decision not to use music is questionable. Some players, especially in the first section, are also overconfident about their ability to play each song. The resulting glissandos and screaming high notes incorporated where they do not belong are quick to spark negative comments from the director. A trumpet is more likely to be reprimanded for overplaying a part than for not practicing and memorizing a piece.

When the band gathers on the S in the middle of the turf for announcements at the conclusion of practice, most of the band sits, but trumpets are only allowed to rest on one knee. Trumpets do not generally sit on the turf during a practice, unless the trumpet section leaders specifically allow sitting. This requirement is a self-imposed tradition, one that contributes to the focused trumpet attitude. After announcements, the band is dismissed from the Dome. Trumpets, however, do not leave the Dome until they are dismissed from their own section. They are required to stay after band dismissal to warm down and hear trumpet announcements.

The trumpet practices of running at all times and never resting in a sitting position have been long-standing section traditions. The rest of the band mocks the trumpets at times, but many members do grant a grudging respect to the trumpet section, who are very dedicated to both music quality and to the effective use of rehearsal time. Nearly every one of the trumpet practices and traditions embodies the trumpet attitude.

The t-shirts worn at practice also frequently embody this attitude. At a recent practice, one trumpeter was wearing a shirt from high school that read, "L. Bird Trumpet Line. You can't mess with perfection." Another shirt read, "The football players will be on the field before and after tonight's featured performance of the marching band's halftime show." During shows and performances, trumpet players conform to the band uniform requirements of polyester pants and jacket with the issued hat, shoes, and gloves. For all games, the trumpet players wear a single black grease paint stripe under one eye. This stripe is applied by the player called "Crazy Joe," who goes from player to player in the arc to paint the stripe. No time is wasted in the application of trumpet grease paint.

Trumpet discourse, also indicative of the trumpet bravado and off-beat sense of humor, includes musical terminology known only to the Syracuse trumpet section. One of the favored trumpet dynamic levels, one a notch higher than "23 fortissimos," is RFL (really fucking loud). Parts are frequently marked with "RFL," and the conducting section leader will jump up and down in excitement when forty trumpets play in tune at this dynamic level. The only higher dynamic level is another SU trumpet creation, "ballsando," which is as much an approach as a dynamic level. It is also referred to as "balls to the wall."

The trumpet signature song, "Magical Mystery Tour," was arranged by student music instructor Pete. The practice and performance of "Tour," as the section refers to it, call for some of Pete's strictest conducting attitudes. He is extremely particular about the sound quality and various cut-offs within the piece. The piece always starts with his call to the audience and the section: "Step right this way. Everyone roll up for the magical mystery tour!" Two beats later, the entire forty trumpets play the opening notes of the song at a volume of RFL. The older trumpet players always greet the new rookies with "Tour" RFL during the beginning of band camp. The rookie stand against a wall and feels the force of thirty trumpets playing their signature song as loud as possible. For the New York State field band championships, as part of a standing tradition, the trumpets play "Tour" to the trumpet section of the winning high school band.

The trumpet section hierarchy is organized around four student section leaders. In theory, the section leader is the top person within the group. The trumpet section leader, Mike, is a graduate student with many outside commitments. He is frequently absent from practice, so section interaction with him is minimal. The trumpets see assistant section leaders Dave and Beth, and the music instructor, on a more regular basis.

In practice, though not as the hierarchy is laid out, the music instructor, Pete, is the definite leader of the section. He is an outstanding musician and a very strict conductor. At times, he has pushed the section too hard and later apologizes, but the section as a whole respects his competence as a leader and a musician. His high expectations contribute to the quality of the trumpet section.

Pete reprimands the players on musical and behavioral aspects of marching band. He refuses to allow the screaming leads to play the loud and sloppy notes trumpet players are so famed for. If he does not like the way the section plays a piece, he does not hesitate to stop in the middle and insist that it be repeated until he is satisfied. Pete also demands that all music rehearsal time be utilized effectively. The section has very limited rehearsal time, usually less than twenty minutes, so all players must be seriously devoted to learning and improving the music during this time.

While he is very strict about the musical aspects of the band, Pete is not an ogre in the eyes of the trumpet players. He is viewed as an extremely talented musician, and the players are willing to work to meet his musical demands. Praise is meted out when it is deserved, but Pete does not hesitate to holler about poor quality in both the music and the drill. He can be quite vulgar when he is upset with the sound of the section. Like any trumpet player, Pete enjoys hearing the section play loud, but he is quick to emphasize sound quality along with dynamic level.

The section's respect for Pete often appears higher than that for the band director, Dr. Ethington. Dr. Ethington will assign a drill a certain way, only to have all the older members of the band point out how he did it last year. He changes it back when corrected, but the players then see him as less knowledgeable than their own section leaders. The trumpet section, in particular, disagrees with the time he allocates for music practice during a rehearsal. He spends much more time on drill than on sectional music rehearsal. With only about fifteen minutes of rehearsal devoted to both warm ups and music instruction, the trumpets feel they must get to practice earlier to warm up. Dr. Ethington also runs the shows that need less work more often, and lets the band run the shows that need improvements.

During the weekend of the Cincinnati game, Dr. Ethington held full music rehearsals four times that week, in which all shows were run with music, causing embouchure fatigue for the players. On game day, an alumni morning concert was added to the normal schedule of an early morning practice, pre-game pep rally, playing pep tunes in the stands, and the two shows for the game. The section respected Pete for, at least, asking Dr. Ethington to cut out some of the playing, because his players would be worn out after such a long week.

The assistant section leaders each have a unique position within the band. Beth, a music major, is talented at running drill within the section and conducting music. She is not as highly respected as Pete, and many of the players do not hesitate to tell her that she is not warming them up properly or conducting a piece correctly. Dave, a senior in civil engineering, always comes to practice with an abundance of energy. He is friendly and very social with every person in the section. He doubts his conducting ability, so he will clap or just play along with the section when he is holding a sectional rehearsal. The section as a whole respects Dave as a friend and leader. No one would feel uncomfortable about going to him with a problem, whether personal or band-related.

The trumpet section has both an egalitarian and hierarchical nature. The four section leaders, and especially Pete, have clear control at certain times. If, while Pete is conducting, he stops to rant about the sound of the section, all members take him very seriously and work to correct the mistakes. When he reprimands players for poor behavior or excessive talking during a drill, the players at fault are quick to take the blame and own up to their mistakes. In general, though, no leader is treated any differently from the other players within in the section. None of the section leaders are above receiving criticism about both playing and conducting. When the group interacts socially before practice or at weekend parties, no differences between the section leaders and players are visible.

Within the section, players are divided into three seats: first, second, and third. Within the first section, there are four screaming leads, the players who play the highest and can scream each part. The second and third sections, which play in a lower range of an octave and a half, are both larger than the first, to provide balance. In many bands, including mine in high school, the firsts were all the good players, the ones with a higher range, technical ability, and a healthy trumpet ego. The main problem with putting the weaker and less talented players on the second and third parts is a complete lack of balance. The high notes sound no good without the lower ranges to build them up. At Syracuse, some of the best players are in the first section, but there are many very talented players in the second and third sections, too.

The SU trumpet section not only has talented players on the three parts, they have an excellent attitude about the division of players. In many bands, the firsts are the only ones who matter to the music instructor. The seconds and thirds are quite clearly lower on the trumpet hierarchy. At Syracuse, one of the assistant section leaders, Beth, is a third trumpet. All the trumpets are recognized as valuable and worthwhile players, and the musical quality of each section is addressed. No section leader would ever just worry about the tone quality of the firsts and ignore the lower sections. The sections with lower ranges are needed to keep the beat for the faster lead parts and build the quality of the sound.

The trumpet personality leads to distinct interactions between the section and the other sections in the band. The trumpets are of the opinion that clarinets and flutes are inherently lazy and given to playing silly games like duck-duck-goose. The contrasts between the personalities of the clarinet players and the trumpets are very sharp. The two sections practice near one another on the turf, so the possibility for interaction is high. On the first day of band camp, while the older trumpet players were blasting the rookies with "Tour" RFL and then settling into music practice, the clarinets were playing a name game with a ball. On game day, several sections wear face paint as a symbol of section unity. The clarinets spend all the warm-up time on the quad painting elaborate "SU" symbols on every member's face. The trumpets, by contrast, wear their single black grease paint stripe under one eye, applied by Crazy Joe while the group is warming up in the arc.

Other brass sections, like the mellophone and baritone sections, are largely ignored by the trumpets as inferior. When the mellophone section leader tried to recruit from the trumpet section over the summer, Mike Kobasa responded with a letter to the entire section, in which he wrote, "It is totally up to you on what instrument you want to play, but if I were you, I wouldn't want to miss out on all the fun in the best section in the Northeast." Trumpet players, in general, are extremely proud of their section.

The baritone section leader has also taken issue with several trumpet players at times. Crazy Joe and others occasionally sing the Syracuse fight song incorrectly, inserting the phrase, "Syracuse will lose" in place of the line about the opposite team losing. When the baritone section leader complained to both the offending players and to the trumpet section leaders, Pete was quick to reprimand the entire section. He was upset that several players were ruining the reputation of the entire trumpet line and prompting complaints from another section leader. As soon as Pete started his tirade against singing the fight song incorrectly, the two offending players owned up to their actions so that the entire section would not shoulder the blame.

The only section the trumpets regularly interact positively with is the tuba section, who also practice right next to the trumpets in the Dome. The tubas do not have the trumpet work ethic, and can frequently be found napping on the turf, but their personalities make up for it. During the first meeting between the rookies and veteran players, when the trumpets were playing "Tour" and the clarinets were playing a name game, the tubas climbed to the press box and chanted "Tu-ba . . . Tu-ba . . . Tu-ba . . ." very softly over the loudspeaker. They regularly show up to practice in outlandish outfits, whether togas made out of bed sheets or Spandex shorts with knee-length athletic socks. During practice, the trumpets and tubas frequently collaborate in playing pep tunes. The trumpets and tubas do not share musical attitudes, but they do have a common eccentric sense of humor.

Although the trumpets do not interact with the drum line very often, the trumpet section has an extremely high opinion of the percussion section. They arrive at every rehearsal even earlier than the trumpets and take practice very seriously. The trumpet section respects and admires the work ethic of the percussion section. During the pre-game sectional warm-ups on the Quad, the trumpets know that they are competing with the drum line for the attention of the crowd, because both sections put on a good show. Both are the earliest sections to assemble on the Quad, usually a full half-hour before it is necessary in the 250-member Syracuse University marching band. The trumpets are courteous to the drum line, by waiting for a break in their set to play a RFL trumpet piece.

While nearly every section in the band has stereotypes about the other sections, there is a great deal of personal interaction among band members. When two sections are frequently in conflict, individual players from these instrumental sections do not necessarily dislike one another. Sectional unity, obtained by staking an individual section identity, is necessary in the 250-member marching band. The ensuing conflict between sections is unavoidable and almost necessary to maintain section identity. By identifying with the traits and behaviors of his or her own instrumental section, a player avoids becoming a lost face in the crowd of the band. The trumpet section has one of the most clearly defined sectional identities.

All members of the SU trumpet line grapple with their position in the trumpet stereotype/identity, but females have extra difficulties defining their own position within the section. The behaviors of the typical trumpet-aggression, bravado, a strong willingness and desire to perform publicly, occasional defiance of authority- are readily identifiable as typically male.1 The trumpet has always been a male-dominated instrument, so this correlation makes perfect sense. In the "balls to the wall" style of playing, the male dominance of the instrument is readily visible. In my eight years of pre-college experience, I was always a solo female in the trumpet section. At Syracuse, six of the forty trumpets are females. This is not only the largest section I have ever played in, it is also the one with the heaviest percentage of female players.

During band camp, I was the only female rookie trumpet player. Many females from other sections came to express their support and tell me how much they admired me as the only female among fifteen other rookie trumpet players. To me, participating for several days as the only female trumpet player was insignificant. I barely noticed the difference, probably because I am a trumpet player. I have been well adjusted to all the characteristics that define trumpet players, so coming to SU and playing as the only female for a couple of days did not faze me in the least. For a member of another section, the gender imbalance would have meant more, I am sure.

The females of the SU trumpet section also have many patterns and traditions for the maintenance of female unity. Every year, they have a night out for ice cream during band camp. This serves as a time for the older female players to interact with the rookies without the male presence. The female trumpet players also maintain a "girl line" in the parade formation. This year, with six female trumpet players, the girl line is a complete row in the parade block. In the past, honorary girls (a male trumpet player willing to brave females on either side of him) have been used to fill the empty spots in the line. The "girl line" also receives an excellent spot in the trumpet formation. Seniors insist on having the first marching line, followed by the lead players. The "girl line" is always the third line of trumpets, well above the rest of the section. This is one of the few instances where a trumpet hierarchy between players really exists, and the females actually rank quite high.

The female players are also exempt from some of the male traditions. On a trumpet player's birthday, he receives a wedgie from the rest of the section. Females do not participate in the giving or receiving of this tradition, and all are appreciative of this fact. If a male lies down on the turf for a nap before practice, he is always subject to being tackled by a slew of other players. Females, on the other hand, can lie down without risk of being jumped.

For the most part, however, females do not ask to be treated any differently from the male players. I willingly trotted along into the men's bathroom for warm-ups during band camp. None of the guys even commented on my presence. When the guys all wanted to play "Hey Baby" to the Buffalo Bills' cheerleading squad, the six female players happily participated. The female players are not generally as vulgar as the rest of the section, but most are more prone to using trumpet slang (RFL, ballsando) and vulgarities than the rest of the women in band. If a female trumpet player were to insist on being treated differently from the guys, the entire section, both male and female, would find that odd. By choosing to play the trumpet, a female chooses to participate in the general mood of the section.

The Syracuse University trumpet section, both male and female, grapples with forging a trumpet identity that both meets and defies the universal trumpet stereotypes. The trumpet players certainly are loud, aggressive, and confident about their ability to play. However, the SU trumpet section is unique it its devotion to the musical, not just dynamic, qualities of playing the trumpet. Pete, with his strict leadership and high expectations , is largely responsible for this attitude within the section. Trumpet players are also the first to admit that they have large egos, but the Syracuse players work hard and deserve to be confident about showing off and correcting other band members both musically and in drill. The true worth of a trumpet player's criticism is debatable, and a trumpet player's praise is always meted out sparingly. For the most part, maintaining a section identity, regardless of what it is, makes the band a diverse community with dynamic interactions.


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