Staff Q&A/Greer Cheeseman

Penn Band Director Greer Cheeseman Photo credit: Mark Stehle

Greer Cheeseman’s rather unique name first became associated with the Penn Band in 1973.

Over the course of the ensuing decades, it’s become synonymous with it.

A tuba player with the group during his freshman and sophomore years at Penn, Cheeseman played the role of drum major as a junior and senior.

When he graduated in 1977 with a degree in engineering, he stayed on with the Band as assistant director.

He’s never left.

Since 1994 Cheeseman has served as the Band’s director, a part-time job that demands he play the role of musical leader, fundraiser, father figure and friend.

“I like to think of myself as a coach,” says Cheeseman, whose full-time position is Director of Information Technology for Development and Alumni Relations at Penn. “I make sure everything’s prepared. But on game day, the kids run the show.”

It’s an important show, too. As anyone who has been to a Quakers game at Franklin Field or The Palestra knows, game day wouldn’t be game day without “Fight On Penn,” “Cheer Penn,” “Drink A Highball” or “The Red and Blue.” The Band is an integral part of the Penn fan experience.

But for the Band members, it’s a labor of love.

“Band at Penn is not a course. You don’t get credit, you don’t get a grade,” Cheeseman says. “It’s an extracurricular activity. You can’t make it work; it’s got to be fun. I like to say the Penn Band is equal parts music, fraternity and service. It’s like an extended family.”

Cheeseman recently sat down with the Current to discuss that family—a family he’s been part of for 36 years.

Q. When did you first start playing music?
I started playing the trumpet when it was offered in elementary school. I learned the French horn, and then when I got to high school, my band director said, ‘Trumpet is very competitive, why don’t you try tuba?’ I made All-District and All-State because no one else played it.
Tuba is my main instrument, but I can play pretty much all brass. I’m entirely self-taught. I can read a score, I can tell what’s going on, but you don’t need someone with a musical degree to do this job.

Q. Tell me a little bit about the Band.
We have 100 people on the books, but how many people we get for an event varies from day to day, week to week, month to month. For Homecoming I’ll have everyone on the field. If it’s an away game that’s not Ivy, I may have four people. You play with the hand you’re dealt.
We rehearse once a week. Our venues are football stadiums and basketball arenas, so the nuances are lost on the crowd. They go to hear loud music. We have about 30 or 40 songs in the repertoire. The kids pick the songs because, what do I know? I listen to talk radio.
We rehearse every Monday, but if some kid has a big workload, I tell them to stay home.
The kids are not here to be in the Band. They’re here for an education. Academics come first, because it has to. If you’re drilling them all the time, they’re not going to come back.

Q. At what events does the band perform?
Every home and away football game. Every home basketball game. Every away Ivy League basketball game. We’re part of Athletics and part of Vice Provost for University Life, so we try to help out whenever we’re asked. We’ve done lacrosse games, the Penn Relays, swimming meets. We did a wrestling match once.
We do Commencement and Convocation. We’re the first thing you hear when you get here, and the last when you leave. We’re cradle to grave.

Q. What role do you play at football games?
We’re the marching band, but we don’t march. We go on the field, and we do something called a scramble. All the bands in the Ivy League do it, except Cornell.
The intent is, you write a show, hopefully it’s funny, there’s a script being read, you run around and form something on the field, usually a three- or four-letter word that’s clean. All of those words together are the punch line. It’s organized chaos, but it works.
The kids write the shows. They’re pretty smart kids, they can figure it out.
Unlike big marching bands, it’s a different show every week.

Q. What’s the biggest challenge of being director?
Working with the kids is great fun. The challenge I have, the challenge bands have countrywide, is funding. I’m part-time director, part-time fundraiser. Penn helps me out a lot, but I need to raise the lion’s share, between $15,000 and $20,000 a year. I’ve been pretty good about hitting up my alumni, and they’re pretty good about supporting us.

Q. Have you played any special events?
I was at the Final Four in 1979, and I’ve been to every NCAA Tournament Penn has made since 1973. We’ve been to Disney World a couple of times.
We got hired one summer to play an alum’s surprise wedding anniversary party. Walt Gallagher ’37 was a great alum. Whenever he showed up at any event, he asked if he could play a drum. When he passed away, his wife or daughter asked if we would play. We played at the gravesite.

Q. What’s kept you at Penn all this time?
I must go to three or four weddings a year of kids that meet in the Band and get married. I’ve had four or five kids whose parent was in the Band while I was here. You don’t do this for money, you do it for fun.
We’ve made our mark here. I’m proud of all we’ve done. I won’t take credit; it’s all the students, but I try to guide them. I think we’re a positive force on campus. I like to think I’ve done a good job. The kids keep coming back.
For good or bad, I’m the one constant here for the last three-and-a-half decades. They’ll bury me here.

Originally published on March 26, 2009