Bend, but no snap: The logistics behind a successful Pitt Band show


By Shawn Cooke / A&E Editor

Right before every Pitt football game, a famous scene from “The Matrix” is duplicated — without any flying bullets or slow motion.

Stephen Ruzzini, the Pitt band’s drum major, slowly lowers his back until it’s nearly parallel to the ground, and the feathers of his plumed hat touch the 50-yard-line. The move looks like it might take years to perfect, but, for Ruzzini, it came naturally.

“You’ve got to build up some core strength. It’s a big trust issue,” Ruzzini said. “Once you kind of break that barrier of like, ‘I can trust myself to get myself back up’ — I would say it only took me a couple of weeks.”

The back bend tradition didn’t become a pregame fixture until 2002, when the drum major, Jason Donovan, started to perform the move before every game. Now, it’s one of the many components for a successful band show.

The Pitt Varsity Marching Band, which celebrated its 103rd birthday last week, practices four nights a week, two hours a night, to make sure everything goes smoothly for its pregame and halftime shows. Ruzzini, a senior computer engineering major, is the band’s chief student leader, along with assistant drum major Brian Urbaniak, a junior chemical engineering major. The band consists of brass, woodwinds, drumline, color guard and the Pitt Golden Girls — a group of eight twirlers that has been part of the marching band for 38 years. 

Urbaniak characterizes their practices as grueling, since every week brings a new routine to learn.

“I’d say our practices are pretty strictly run, just for the sake that we have a lot to do in just a two-hour time span, so we try to be as efficient as possible,” Urbaniak said. 

Ruzzini and Urbaniak relay director Dr. Brad Townsend’s instructions on the ground to individual sections, as he looks over the 260-member group from an elevated platform much like the one he stands on during the halftime performance at Heinz Field. 

Townsend writes all of the marching drill — or choreography — for performances, and associate band director Dr. Mel Orange arranges most all of the music that the band performs. Orange has been the associate band director for 29 years, but Townsend took over last season for long-time Director of Bands Jack Anderson, who had held the position since 1995.

Although it’s only his second season, the transition wasn’t overwhelming for Townsend, who previously directed a large band at Oregon State.

“One of the reasons my transition was easy was all those people were here before me,” Townsend said. “They kind of knew what to do, what the most important traditions were, but they were also open to any new ideas that I had.”

He compares his role as Director of Bands to the CEO of a company — by delegating specified choreography to certain people for color guard, drumline and the Golden Girls, while he covers the big-picture drill.

“My philosophy has always been ‘hire good people and let them do their job and stay out of their way,’” Townsend said.

Ruzzini, who Townsend describes as “very detail-oriented” and a strong leader, takes charge of several game day responsibilities, including conducting both on the field with Townsend and in the stands. But Ruzzini can’t see everything going on in the game or the band while he’s up in the stands, so Urbaniak has to keep a lookout and notify him when first downs and scoring plays occur, along with when the band should stop playing.

“Overall, I’m his eyes and ears, making sure he knows what’s going on with the rest of the band and seeing to do all the things that he can’t do,” Urbaniak said.

Combining the practice schedule with an average game day, Pitt Band can consume up to 18 hours per week — and that doesn’t include individual practice time. Ruzzini stresses that with firm time management skills, members don’t have to give up their entire lives to band.

“As a freshman, it was pretty easy. Now that I’m a drum major and I’m a senior and applying for jobs, this semester — my last semester — has been absolutely chaos,” Ruzzini said. “But, as an average bandsman, you really can do it.”