We Are Family

By Christopher Hann
Photography by Clarus Studios Inc. and Defining Studios

Tom Mayr, Mellophone Class of '19
Tom Mayr '19, Mellophone

While the Chargers marching band has grown dramatically over the past decade, its devoted musicians — now 270 strong — have formed a powerful bond.

Shannon Killough '18, Flute
Shannon Killough '18, Flute

It didn’t take long for Elyse Stanziale ’22 to feel the love. It swept over her during marching band camp last summer. Over long days beneath a merciless August sun, she and the other members of the University’s vaunted band played and marched (and marched some more) as they learned the new music and drills for the coming season.

Stanziale was learning to play a new instrument, the baritone horn. It was sweaty work, but she saw how every member of the band inspired every other member. She saw the love everywhere she looked, and she couldn’t get enough.

"It’s a huge family there — a family in every sense of the word," says Stanziale, a music and sound recording major from New Jersey. "Everybody really loves and supports each other.

There’s no way of avoiding the heat and being thirsty and holding up a really heavy instrument for a really long time. As much as I would complain about it, it’s so much fun, and I wouldn’t have it any other way."

"It ’s a huge family there, a family in every sense of the word, Everybody really loves and supports each other." Elyse Stanziale ’22 - Baritone Horn

That family atmosphere has become a hallmark of a musical ensemble that has grown dramatically, in both size and stature, over the past decade. But it was not always so. When Jason DeGroff was hired as marching band director in 2009, the band had only recently been revived, following the return of the Chargers’ football program a year earlier. That first year, the band’s 20 members wore uniforms — and, in some cases, played instruments borrowed from local high schools. It was, to put it gently, a modest start.

DeGroff was undeterred. He recruited student musicians on campus and high school students during campus events and off-campus performances in festivals and exhibitions. After two years, the band topped 100 members. Three years later, it topped 200. And, when the band took the field before the first home football game of 2018 against Southern Connecticut State University on September 15, it numbered some 270, with members from Alaska and Texas, from Florida and Washington State. One is from China, another from India.

In the Band graphic, 30 Trumpets, 28 Flutes, 22 Clarinets, 50 Drummers

As a six-year member of the band, Erin Snyder ’16, M.S. ’18 has enjoyed a front-row seat to its evolution. "More people coming to the University know about the band and how fast we’ve grown and how good we are," she says. "It’s amazing."

A Selection of Love Songs

DeGroff chooses the music for each marching band season and writes all the drills — the choreography that directs each musician on when and where to march. For this year’s program — "with all the craziness in the world," DeGroff says — he chose a selection of love songs, including Bob Marley’s "One Love" and Whitney Houston’s "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)."

"He’s kind of like the father figure of the band," Snyder says of DeGroff. "He’s the reason we are a family. He’s helped foster those relationships between the band members, and I think it’s awesome."

Kaelyn Passeri ’17
Kaelyn Passeri ’17

The band’s annual summer camp is vital to its solidarity. Over 10 grueling days in August, band members begin thrice-daily rehearsals over the course of 13-hour days. Stanziale recalls staying up late each night during last year’s band camp in conversation with her bandmates. "I didn’t sleep all week," she says.

Second-year graduate student Will Ciccone ’17, a percussionist and baritone horn player from New York, arrived at his first band camp with no prior marching band experience. "I saw how intense it was," Ciccone recalls. "I was like, ‘Oh boy, I hope I can do this.’ Everyone around me said, ‘Don’t worry, everything will all make sense.’ And it ended up all making sense. They helped me adjust very quickly." This season, for the second time, Ciccone is serving as drum major.

Tony Molina '17, Bass
Tony Molina '17, Bass

Each fall, the band rehearses for three hours on Mondays and Fridays, then another two hours on Saturdays before home football games. During those Saturday rehearsals, as many as 100 parents of band members prepare breakfast for the musicians — bacon, eggs, pancakes, home fries. DeGroff’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Lisa DeGroff, started the tradition five years ago when their son Thomas '17 played baritone horn in the band.

DeGroff’s devotion to the musicians inspires their reciprocal loyalty to him and to each other. "When you’re out on the field," says Phil Passante ’19, a trumpeter from Staten Island, New York, "and it’s so hot, and we’re all ready to pretty much drop dead, you still have that drop of motivation and positivity to finish up that phrase, to show Jason this band means as much to us as it does to him."

In September, for the third straight year, the group performed at the Collegiate Marching Band Festival in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a showcase of 20 college bands attended by more than 6,000 spectators. In 2020, to mark the University’s centennial, DeGroff hopes to see the band march in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

Kappa Kappa Psi
Jacob Eckert '17 and Chris Costantini '19, Front Ensemble Members
Jacob Eckert '17 and Chris Costantini '19, Front Ensemble Members

In 2016, the band created a campus chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi, the national, coeducational fraternity for college bands. Leah Myers ’18, a clarinetist from Connecticut (and a 2017 drum major), helped organize the chapter with tuba player Christopher Zygmunt ’17, the chapter’s founding president. Myers, a granddaughter of Samuel S. Bergami Jr. EMBA ’85, HON ’02, member of the University’s Board of Governors, and his wife Lois, says that the chapter, begun with 30 members, today has nearly 50. The members organize fundraisers for the band, recruit prospective band members, and perform service projects on campus. "When we became a chapter, we hit the ground running," Myers says.

Some students remain in the band even after graduating. Snyder was the first. A mellophone player from Pennsylvania, she was named one of three drum majors as a senior, then marched for two more years, including a second as drum major, while pursuing a master’s in forensic technology.

"It was a no-brainer. I’m not ready to leave this program. I want to see where it’s going the next two years."Erin Snyder ’16, M.S. ’18
Members of the Mellophone Section
Members of the Mellophone Section

More From the Alumni Magazine, Fall 2018