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Digitizing the Band: New Technology Means More Time for Music with the Penn State Blue Band

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It’s Saturday morning on the University Park campus. The Penn State Blue Band marches from the O. Richard Bundy Blue Band Building to Beaver Stadium, and crowds line the streets, cheering as they pass. “We love the Blue Band!”

For many a Penn State Football fan, the Blue Band is a crucial part of game-day spirit, but for director Gregory Drane (’06 M.Ed. Music Education), the band also plays an important role in the lives of its students. “This is an academic unit, so we’re trying to improve the educational environment…to take things to the next level, to move out of the nineteenth century,” he joked, noting the Blue Band has existed for more than 115 years.

Drane is working with Arts and Architecture Information Technology (AAIT) director Scott Lindsay to streamline the process of managing the band by implementing technology such as a digital inventory system, iPads with drill-writing apps, and a web database of student information. “What we’ve been doing for so long is tried-and-true,” he shared. “Put it down on paper; write it down. We’ve perfected that method, and it worked so well. But it was so time consuming. So I’m not necessarily trying to change that process, just the tools we’re using.”

BBandiPads2Thanks to an endowment from Penn State Athletics, and funds raised by the Floating Lions Club (the band’s official booster organization), Blue Band directors and staff are able to utilize iPads loaded with Pyware drill-writing software. “In the past, I would tell students to look at something when they got home, before the next rehearsal. Now, I can send someone over with an iPad and they can work it out right away,” said Drane. “Our pre-game show is very individualized. We have a booklet with twenty pages of instructions per person. We’re going to digitize that so we’re not carrying these books with us wherever we go.”

The band currently has ten iPads, but by digitizing drill and data, students and staff are able to pull up valuable information on their smartphones as well. Drane said he hopes that eventually the Floating Lions Club will be able to help the band acquire ten to twenty more iPads, in order to maximize their potential by putting them in the hands of student leaders in the band.

“My approach is always to put these things in place to save time, to make it easier, to be more accurate, but also, it’s so I can increase instructional time,” said Drane. “That’s the number-one goal. The less time we have to spend on inventory or attendance, those two or three minutes saved translate directly into time the staff and I can spend making the band a better musical group.”

Additionally, technology creates opportunities for students to come to auditions and rehearsals prepared to work at a higher level. When videos are shared online, students can conduct self-assessments and practice maneuvers on their own time. As a result, Drane “can bring the band to the next level. Not only do we have more time with the students, but the time we have is more valuable.”

Lindsay pointed out that for this generation of students, working from their smartphones is simply what they do. “This is their technology; it’s their life. They can adapt to working this way.”

Drane observed that across Penn State, students are incredibly engaged with technology, and it’s important to him that when they come to the Blue Band Building, they utilize that familiarity to take the band to a higher level of performance.

iPads and digital databases are just some of the latest technological advancements in a recent push by the Blue Band to bring the program’s operations up to twenty-first-century standard procedures. Several years ago, AAIT partnered with the band to set up computers for registration during auditions, and in fall of 2015, they implemented online registration. “I think AAIT saw how much room we had for growth, and I’m grateful to them for sharing their expertise,” said Drane. “Thanks to their support, things have become seamless.”

Lindsay acknowledged the impact of the initiatives, sharing, “The new things we’ve implemented are really exciting. I like to see somebody benefit from the work we do.”

In addition to making the daily operations of the band more efficient, the new technology has also made the band more sustainable. “For a half-time show, we use approximately twenty-five to thirty pages for a drill. We hand that out, and make approximately 180 copies, and we do that for seven shows, which works out to be over 30,000 pieces of paper,” said Drane. By digitizing drill, the band is able to make drastic cuts in the amount of paper used each marching band season.

“We’re taking small steps, but they have huge implications for us,” said Drane.


Photos by Alex Bush