My Story, Part Three

A lot of people say that the years of high school are the best in their lives, but in my case high school had nothing on college.

I started off majoring in political science, devoting seven hours a week to being an invisible member of the Blue Thunder Marching Band under the direction of David A. Wells. It was nice to have the opportunity to lay low and acclimate to the ensemble with minimal responsibility, particularly when that “minimal responsibility” included good friends and band trips to Los Angeles and Hawaii.

My self-imposed anonymity was short-lived, however. Pep band season started, and one of the drum majors came up to a sax sectional with the message that David wanted to talk to the “red-headed kid from Meridian.” I reported to the band office and was asked if I could fill a vacancy in the pep band. He didn’t even have to get to the $20/game paycheck before I had eagerly accepted – and that, of course, was the beginning of the end.

The following year – now an English major – I was picked as a co-section leader, and on the first day of band camp I was faced with the daunting task of exerting authority over a large group of more seasoned college students. One of the scariest people in my new section was a 22-year-old transfer student from Cal Poly who mentioned he’d been that school’s former assistant drum major. (It’s funny how young 22 sounds to me now, and how old it seemed when I was 19.) His name was Ryan (“my friends call me Boise”), he had a small blue-and-white enamel bar fastened to his neckstrap, and as the season progressed, he’d periodically show up to rehearsal wearing a small gold pin over his heart.

I noticed, and asked him what it was. It turned out that Ryan was a member of a band fraternity called Kappa Kappa Psi, a co-ed organization devoted to service, recognition and development of leaders, and a familial bond among college band members. His explanation and stories – not to mention the obvious fondness he had for the organization – piqued my interest, but at first I didn’t give it a lot of thought.

Three things changed that spring. First, Ryan and I ended up seated next to one another in the community concert band, where we were able to spend a lot of time quietly “talking shop.” Second, I got disgusted with the marching band’s student leadership and made the decision to run for President. And third, someone made the mistake of telling me that I wasn’t a real musician and was unworthy of being a section leader or band officer because I wasn’t a music major.

I got mad. And the longer I thought about it, the longer I knew I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to give back to the bands that were such an enormous part of my life. I wanted to add a positive force to the political melee in my school’s music department. I wanted to create a more organized social network for people like me, people who loved band above all else. And I wanted to prove something to the haters and the doubters, wanted to prove that dedication to and leadership of the band weren’t the exlusive bailiwick of any one field of study. I talked to Ryan, I talked to two of my closest friends, I talked to Dave Wells, and the next thing I knew we were on a plane to the 2001 Kappa Kappa Psi/Tau Beta Sigma Western District Convention.

To make a long story marginally shorter, we spent the convention meeting with active members and national leadership and came up with a plan for bringing a chapter of Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity to Boise State University. When we returned home, we spent the summer drawing up a draft constitution and throwing casual recruitment meetings. I became the marching band’s President, and I knew that if I had anything to do with it that things were about to change.

Colonization (the term used to mean starting up a fraternity chapter) is a hard sell on a non-Greek campus. You have to convince people to join a group that doesn’t exist yet, with the promise that it will be a lot of work, will cost money, and will have periodic episodes of very foreign activity. In the end, though, we convinced twelve people to join us, and the chapter at Washington State came down to Boise and conducted our first induction ceremony. Without going into any detail, it was one of the most powerful and symbolic experiences of my life up to that point. There was my love of band, sure, but this confluence of like-minded people acknowledging one another’s passion felt almost like a spiritual force.

Ryan, as the only person experienced in the organization, became the colony president, and I was elected vice president. It was my responsibility to develop an education program to teach the other members everything about the fraternity, while learning the information myself. Ordinarily, another active chapter would have steered the membership education process, but our nearest chapter was eight hours away. The things I experienced during my years as vice president would have an enormous effect on my eventual decision to become a teacher.

We became prospective members of Kappa Kappa Psi, and official colonists, just in time to run the local high school marching competition. It was our first service project ever, and we were determined to make a big impression. Diagrams, charts, maps, handheld radios – and the end result was the most smoothly-operating, on-time festival the area had ever had. That marching competition, and the excellent work we did with it, became our first tradition.

That was a year of lessons. We learned about sacrifice and pride when we found the stadium’s American flag wadded in a black garbage bag between games and took it upon ourselves to raise, lower, and properly store the flag every day for that entire year following 9/11. (In that same vein, some of us learned how to correctly fold a seven-foot-flag with only two people when the rest of the colony couldn’t make it.) We learned about fear of the unknown, and about courage, and about trusting those who had gone before us. We learned how much people despise change – even positive change – and how low some people will go to fight change when a group of band members took it upon themselves to try to sabotage our colony. We learned about the influence of others – abusive fathers, controlling girlfriends, jealous buddies – on our members. We had brutal fights, heartwarming connections, hilarious parties. Five colonists dropped out midyear. One of them went home for Christmas break, caught some unidentifiable virus, and died. We found out about it as we were waiting in line at the printer’s to pick up our petitioning document.

Then, on April 5, 2002, standing in a ballroom in a Flagstaff hotel room in front of two hundred or so Brothers, I became a Brother of Kappa Kappa Psi and our little colony became the Iota Kappa chapter.

I was always one of those people who swore I’d never “go Greek,” and I honestly can’t say that I’d enjoy the traditional sorority scene much. But I can tell you that there is nothing quite like the sensation of abruptly adding hundreds of people to your family, hundreds of people who may not share your genes but who all have the same love of music pumping through their veins. If you know what I’m talking about, then there’s no need to explain it, and if you don’t, I’m not sure how to make it sound any less corny. Words like “extraordinary” have been overused to the point of impotence, but extraordinary is what this was.

“Extraordinary” describes the effect the little chapter had on its members and its bands, too. Retention – in the band program and the university – improved. We began recruiting more music majors and became more neatly integrated into the department as a whole. Our projects had a real impact on the community and the campus. The chapter helped people survive rough times in their life. It coaxed people out of their shells, ruts, and closets… brought hearts together… inspired people to fly. I felt like a mama duck, watching an egg become a duckling and that duckling become a swan. For the first time that I can remember, I felt overwhelming, heartbreaking pride of other people. Every time we inducted new members into the chapter, every time we sang the song or recited the creed, I knew that we were all in the presence of something bigger. The whole had exceeded – and was exceeding – the sum of its parts. Needless to say, I’d drunk the kool-aid.

Ryan and I made a really good team, in the band and in the chapter, and seemed to share an unspoken language that no one else knew. It was, then, probably only natural that we’d end up engaged to be married. He proposed in May before my last year of college. That was a big summer; in July we traveled to Norfolk for National Convention, and I had the indescribable honor of giving the keynote address to the national assembly of Kappa Kappa Psi.

Writing that speech required me to sit down and really consider what the fraternity meant to my Brothers and to me. I talked about what our responsibilities were as members of Kappa Kappa Psi – about our duty to help others, to sacrifice our own self-interest in the service of the things we loved, to support musical education, to keep a song in our hearts. Of great importance to me was the fact that not every Brother was a first-chair player, a music major, a section leader. I thought about the people we’d had in our bands who were lousy musicians, hopeless marchers, tone-deaf, inexperienced, but who had given everything they had to continue striving for improvement, to continue contributing to the process, to continue bringing joy to the ensembles. I thought about people who did the impossible: blind section leaders, one-armed trumpeters, deaf baritone players, immigrants whose love of the band trumped their lack of musical background. I thought about duty. I thought about agape.

The thing is that Kappa Kappa Psi urges us to embrace and support music, but not everyone will do that through music. There are, let’s face it, few true musical geniuses in our world, and if the only way we could serve our bands was through mastery of concertos there would be no Kappa Kappa Psi (heck, there’d be no bands). We all have different gifts. Some Brothers can draw and paint. Some can program websites. Some are reliable long-distance drivers. Some are born motivators, and some are born salesmen. Some Brothers keep meticulous records, and some Brothers always have the perfect joke ready to reduce a meeting to giggles. Some Brothers can teach, some Brothers can lead, some Brothers can follow, and some Brothers give the best damn hugs you can imagine. Some Brothers are writers. We each can take those gifts, musical or not, and use them to serve our bands.

By the time I graduated, in the spring of 2004, the chapter had blossomed into something robust and self-perpetuating. Ryan and I looked at the chapter and realized that for all the stress, trouble, and sacrifice it had brought, it had rendered great good. Peoples’ lives had been changed, and each new generation of Brothers was empowered to change the lives of those who would follow. The things we’d learned and the promises we made had only gained potency with the years – each induction ceremony still gave me chills, still brought tears to my eyes. Kappa Kappa Psi hadn’t been a passing fancy that I’d helped to impose upon my school: it was a living entity, a catalyst. 

Ryan and I left the chapter feeling satisfied and content, got married, and began living happily ever after.

As time passed, however, the organization didn’t pass from my consciousness. They talk about the “irrevocable bond” to which we’re commiting when we join Kappa Kappa Psi, but for the first time I truly felt that. With a little bit of perspective I was able to see that love for music, band, and fraternity didn’t stay the same but matured and evolved with us. At first we crave it, and then we immerse ourselves in it; finally we reach a place where we want to nourish and support it, want to give ourselves back to it in a way that will help others have the same experience we’ve enjoyed so much.

For a while there I wasn’t sure how best to do that. I served in a few capacities as an alumni leader, but my interests lay closer to the welfare of the active and prospective membership. I tried working with my local chapter on a few projects, but didn’t want to interfere with their natural growth. I conducted research on the fraternal/sororal experience in bands, flew to Atlanta, and presented it to a fairly skeptical roomful of ethnomusicologists. I tried writing about my philosophy of Brotherhood and ended up with reams of unshareable drivel.

I didn’t give it a lot of thought – I gave it years of thought. I took into account all of the reasons why and all of the reasons why not. I wrestled with fear and doubt (a fight which has yet to end) and I consulted those I trusted most. And finally, after the initiation of my chapter’s Eta class, I made the scariest announcement of my life.


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