Thankful for all things blue
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Drew Bonner, 19, Tamaqua, is shown before halftime at the PSU-Michigan football game at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 30. Bonner fulfilled a life-long dream by making the cut for the brass section of the 310-member Blue Band.
Drew Bonner is having a blue Thanksgiving.
He'll also have a blue Christmas.
But that's OK, because having blue holidays means he's fulfilled his lifelong dream.
The 19-year-old Tamaqua college student is grateful to have made the cut, a cut that has nothing to do with roast turkey.
Instead, Drew has been chosen to be part of the brass section of the renowned, 310-member Pennsylvania State University Blue Band.
The PSU freshman was chosen for the prestigious marching unit in August and is now proudly participating in the band's 111th season.
The PSU Blue Band is not just any musical organization.
The Marching Lions are recognized as one of the nation's finest college marching bands. They perform to capacity crowds in 107,232-seat Beaver Stadium, home of Penn State Nittany Lions football.
The band has an impressive history.
The Blue Band has performed at every major bowl game in the U.S., including the venerable Rose Bowl and Tournament of Roses Parade. And it is exactly that reputation that led Drew to color his goals blue.
In fact, his direction in music already was apparent at the tender age of 1.
"My brother got a drum for Christmas and I took it from him," says Drew, son of Joe and Sandy (Richards) Bonner, residents of Lafayette Street.
Mother Sandy recognized Drew's enthusiasm when he was just a child. She knew it was the start of something special.
"Yes, Drew was musical right from the start," she recalls. "He started taking lessons before kindergarten."
Drew took to the drum and showed unusual ability. He progressed quickly and was performing in public almost immediately. He routinely volunteered to be part of the entertainment for Tamaqua crowds at the annual Summerfest and Heritage Day celebrations.
By the time he reached fourth grade, Drew was part of a rock band comprised of high school juniors and seniors. He teamed with Jack Evans on guitar, Derek Jones on bass, and John Lombardi on vocals, to create a group called 21 Moonshine.
"We played at festivals, high school dances and parties for about a year," he recalls.
It's not every fourth grader who can say he's part of a high school rock band, but Drew wasn't the typical fourth grader.
By that time, he already was accomplished as a drummer, and turned his sights on his next goal - marching band. To help prepare, he decided to expand his repertoire and began taking lessons on the piano and baritone.
On Friday nights in autumn, he'd go to Tamaqua football games to watch the local high school band. Naturally, he was drawn to the percussion section.
"I'd sit next to the drums," says Drew. But in short time, his ongoing music lessons led him in the direction of the baritone.
By seventh grade, Drew and his baritone achieved a big goal. He was selected to join his first "big band," the Tamaqua Area High School Marching "Raiders," known as the Pride of Tamaqua.
"They were my local Blue Band," he says.
The Tamaqua Raider Band, under the direction of John Potlunas, is considered by many to be among the Commonwealth's best. They're known for earning superior ratings at yearly band adjudication events and their halftime shows routinely generate standing ovations.
Drew was delighted to be part of the hoopla, and played in the marching and concert bands for six years. He eventually became band president in his junior and senior years, and drum major in his senior year.
All along, Drew aspired for more. For instance, he enjoyed family trips to University Park at State College.
"We used to go to Penn State games and I'd watch the Blue Band enter through the tunnel."
Drew watched in awe at "the excitement, the sound ... and how excited the crowd got whenever the band comes out and the drum major does a flip." (Drew is referring to the trademark somersault performed by the PSU drum major as the band marches onto the field.)
Back home, Drew would pop a Penn State Blue Band documentary video into the VCR and imagine being part of the performance.
"I'd play the video and march around the living room."
Always aiming higher, Drew and his ambition seem to know no bounds.
Sandy grew accustomed to it. She always noticed "Drew's complete versatility regarding music. As a small child, he was exposed to all kinds. Everything from Lawrence Welk, to classic rock, to marching bands, Glenn Miller, Oldies, Big Bands, church hymms, barber-shopper. He loves it all."
Drew's chance of a lifetime happened after he graduated from Tamaqua Area High School in June and was accepted into PSU's College of Arts and Architecture, majoring in music education.
On August 21 of this year, Drew took part in a two-day tryout for the Blue Band.
He auditioned on the euphonium, playing before world-famous tuba player Velvet Brown.
The next day, he had to complete nine hours of marching tryouts.
"It was three sessions and each session was three hours. I had to learn the Blue Band's signature high step," he says. "It was physically draining. I had butterflies in my stomach the whole time because it was my lifelong dream."
Drew was told he made the cut as one of 15 baritones in the Blue Band. He reported to band camp the following day. The baritone corps, he says, is actually one of the smaller sections.
The Blue Band also includes 68 trumpets, 34 trombones and 30 drummers and percussionists.
How excited was he to be named to the Blue Band? Drew says he couldn't wait to find the nearest phone.
"I called everyone I knew. I'm pretty sure the whole planet knew," he says, laughing.
The rest is history.
But for Drew, it's been a series of new beginnings.
"The first time I marched through the tunnel and onto the field was overwhelming. It's quite an experience. It was at the Michigan game at 8 p.m., under lights. The crowd was so loud that I couldn't hear myself playing. I could hear the one in back of me, the horn marching behind me, but I couldn't hear myself."
Drew has appeared at every PSU home game and away at the PSU-Ohio State game.
"The band usually goes to one away game each year in addition to whatever bowl games are played," he says.
One of the most difficult parts of being in the Blue Band is staying completely focused - something mandatory due to the grueling schedule, he says.
For instance, the band performs a completely new field show for every game, and there's always a challenge.
"It's different music, different patterns. We rehearse nine hours a week. We had two home games in a row, which meant we had to learn two different shows simultaneously."
As for additional stress ... there's always the occasion at a big game when national television cameras zoom in on the band. You simply need to be your best at all times.
Chances are that Drew will have a blue Christmas as the band prepares to accompany the football team in a college bowl appearance.
And that's fine.
Drew has adjusted to his new surroundings and his new routine, and says he couldn't be happier.
He's part of the marching Blue Band, where being blue is plenty to smile about.
And he's giving thanks, not only at Thanksgiving, but every single day.