In this episode of This Is Purdue, we’re highlighting the legacy of Purdue University’s Big Bass Drum, also known as The World's Largest Drum™, part of the “All-American” Marching Band, for the past 100 years.
Pamela Nave, Purdue Bands' percussion instructor and Associate Professor of Bands and Orchestras, joins us on the episode to discuss the AAMB community, Neil Armstrong’s support, and the iconic symbol of The World's Largest Drum™.
You’ll also hear from the co-captains of the Big Bass Drum Crew, Brandon Bledsoe and Hannah Pike, on what it takes – both physically and intellectually – to become part of this prestigious crew at Purdue.
Plus, host Kate Young goes behind the scenes at Band Camp and even runs through a few tricks with the crew and the 565-pound drum! It’s only on This Is Purdue, the official university podcast.
Kate Young: Hi, I'm Kate Young and you're listening to This Is Purdue, the official podcast for Purdue University. As a Purdue alum, and Indiana native, I know firsthand about the family of students and professors who are in it together. Persistently pursuing and relentlessly rethinking. Who are the next game- changers, difference makers, ceiling breakers, innovators? Who are these Boilermakers? Join me as we feature students, faculty, and alumni taking small steps toward their giant leaps and inspiring others to do the same.
Brandon Bledsoe: Drum Crew has become my family. I've gotten to experience so many cool things through here, grow as a person, and figure out who I am, while can I represent Purdue at the highest level. It's been unforgettable and a really once-in-a- lifetime experience. There's nothing else like this out there. There's other big drums, but they don't do anything near what we do. They don't go out there on game days, performing tricks, sprinting down the field at full gallop. That's unique to us and it's such a cool thing and such an honor to be a part of.
Kate Young: If you've ever been to a Purdue University home football game, it's hard to imagine that experience without the Purdue All- American Marching Band. Established in 1886, the Purdue All- American Marching Band has become an icon of the university. This world- renowned band performs at each home football game and travels to concerts and festivals around the country and internationally. And of course, if you're an Indy car fan, you've probably seen the band perform at the Indianapolis 500 as the official band of the Indy 500 since 1919. With more than 380 members, our band is the largest in the big 10 and one of the largest in the entire nation. And an integral part of the band is Purdue's big bass drum, also known as The World's Largest Drum. The drum recently celebrated its 100th birthday, and we caught up with Pam Nave. Pam's the associate professor of bands and orchestras and percussion instructor. She told us about what this iconic Purdue symbol means to her and the All- American Marching Band members.
Pam Nave: I think that because it's been around for a hundred years, and it truly is the original shell, which as a percussionist, who's got several degrees in this, I find that completely amazing. And if I ever looked at the inside of this, it's super thin, but it is strong. And so the drum itself is just iconic in itself. But the fact that the crew does what they do, we've developed a sort of my 22 years being here. Before they would, when I got here, it was just running up and down the field. Now we've added the physical training to it, all of these things that go incorporate to it because, to us, it speaks for the university, not just our band department. Everywhere we go, we represent Purdue. We want these kids to be absolutely stellar at what they do. Talking, meeting fans, meeting unruly fans, anything like that. We want them to be amazing and can take care of themselves and take care of the drum. I had to teach them everything, which is totally fine because that's my job, but it's a big deal. It really, really is. And after a hundred years, the hundred- year celebrating of this year, wow. To me as a percussionist, finding a drum that's a hundred years old, that is still in fantastic shape. That's actually really cool.
Kate Young: As I said, we recorded these interviews during band camp. So you may hear some of the band in the background of our audio during this episode, but I'm hoping it'll give you that authentic feeling. As if you're right there on- site with us. After seeing band camp firsthand on a 90- degree day, no less, I quickly realized how much time, effort, work, and dedication goes into being a member of the All- American Marching Band at Purdue.
Pam Nave: Right now we're in the midst of band camp. I'm sure people can hear it.
Kate Young: Yeah. It's loud.
Pam Nave: This is a lot of rehearsal time.
Kate Young: Yes.
Pam Nave: I mean, this is like a full- time job for these kids.
Kate Young: It is.
Pam Nave: So tell us about what all goes into, not only band camp, but the rehearsals all throughout the fall?
Kate Young: At band camp right now, what's happening is, is all these students are auditioning all week. The freshmen came in on Sunday. This past Sunday. The upperclassmen came in on Tuesday. Basically, it's just training them what the Purdue way is. This is the Purdue way, the way we march. This is the Purdue way of our technique. This is the Purdue way we've played music. And so this whole week is that process. You got to be able to play music and march at the same time. We're looking for attitude, making sure that they got a great attitude. We're looking for representation. We're looking for a willingness to work hard. And in this weather right now, today, it's very humid today, and they're on a blacktop right now and they're sweating and it's hot, but they're there. At band camp we're spending probably nine to 10 hours out here a day.
Pam Nave: Every day?
Kate Young: Every day. And then during the school year, it's two hours a day, 3: 30 to 5: 20, and then game days are maybe eight hours on a game day.
Pam Nave: For sure.
Kate Young: 10 times eight is 18, so that's a part- time job. And plus they have to practice their music. They have to learn the drill. They have to be able to march the drill, play the music, watch the conductor... It's massive multitasking for every student out here. And not to mention the academics.
Pam Nave: Correct. I know that we have a slightly above- average GPA on campus. I will say that these students are using their artistic side of their brains, as well as their academic side and the math and all those things. It makes for a great combination. So when they leave here, we hope that they can converse with people, have a conversation, talk about music. We want them to be on school boards. We want them to go all over, wherever they go. Play in the community band, be on school boards, promote music, all these things. That's what we want. We know they're not going to be music majors. We want them to be projecting the arts into their communities and protecting them and making sure that it still happens.
Kate Young: And speaking of the balance between academics and extracurriculars, one of the students within the All- American Marching Band, balancing it all, is Purdue senior, Brandon Bledsoe. Drum Crew Captain of the Big Bass Drum Crew.
Brandon Bledsoe: My title is Drum Crew Captain, or The One. It means I'm responsible for the drum crew and the worlds largest drum. The reason why it's One is because the rest of the marching band they have ranks and there's 10 people on a rank. Normally the people who are the student leaders are on the ends. So The One is the person on the left end and the 10 is on the right. The One and the 10 are the captain and co- captain, so I'm The One.
Kate Young: And who's the 10? Meet Hannah Pike, a junior aeronautical and astronautical engineering major who is also the only female on the Big Bass Drum Crew.
Hannah Pike: It's nice to represent the female community within the drumline because there's more of us, but we're definitely lesser in numbers. So it's really nice to get to do that in such a public space. All the guys on the crew are like my brothers. We're all best friends. We're one big family, even on the drumline. We're one big family. These are the people I go to when I need homework, help, or somebody to talk to. And these are my best friends that I'll probably stick with for a really, really long time after college. Specifically being a girl on the drumline and the drum crew, I really like having the opportunity to inspire other women to do things like this. Male dominant things. I'm also an engineering student so I have that going for me as well. I've always found myself in male- dominated things and I find it as a really nice opportunity to inspire other women to do things like that.
Kate Young: As I watched the hopeful students March across the hot black top. That day I could tell they all really wanted to make the cut. And all of this rehearsing was no walk in the park. Getting the opportunity to be a member of the prestigious All- American Marching Band is one thing, but the trials for the Big Bass Drum Crew, that's a whole different level. Okay. Brandon, you were telling me earlier about this process. It's super physical. It's super rigorous. This is not a joke. It takes some serious physical endurance to handle this drum. Tell us about the process of being in the drumline and this drum overall.
Brandon Bledsoe: We take it very seriously. I mean, this drum is an icon for Purdue. It's been around for a hundred years and it's kind of an unofficial mascot. A lot of people think we're the actual mascot. We're not. So as a representative of Purdue, we go through a very rigorous process. There's a PR test. There's a history test. There's a physical audition, which is the same as the air forces. So it is a mile and a half run, a hundred- meter dash, 40- meter dash, a push- up test, a sit- up test, and finally a drum handling test. That's actually working with the drum, learning the positions, how well can you move it, how well can you control it.
Kate Young: And if you flunk any portion of it, you're out.
Pam Nave: You cannot flunk anything.
Kate Young: No pressure. Hannah tells us about her audition process and claps back at anyone who may even hint that she can't keep up with the guys.
Hannah Pike: Yes, it has happened. I've had people come up to me at football games and just like randomly on the sidewalk. They'll sometimes say things like," Oh, you're the only girl. How'd you get the spot? Must have been interesting." But honestly, I deserve to be here as much as anybody else because we do the same physical tests. I completed them. I passed. I actually was a record- setter for the females in our sit- up test. The record I think was about 88 and I beat it at 94 my freshman year.
Pam Nave: Nice.
Hannah Pike: I love to slide that in there whenever I can. Very proud of it, got to say.
Kate Young: And, as Brandon explains band practice, doesn't always just mean rehearsing your instrument for shows. It's a lot of physical work that's put in in the gym, and appearances and gigs outside of football games as well.
Brandon Bledsoe: So we have rehearsal every day, Monday through Friday from 3: 30 to 5:30, and during that time we do a lot of physical training. So we're doing a lot of running, a lot of push- ups, a lot of sit- ups. We go work out in the gym, make sure we're lifting heavy weights, able to deal with the drum, spend time learning tricks. And on top of that, we also have game days on Saturdays, which take about 12 hours. Anytime there's a game. That takes up a good amount of time, but on top of all the other marching band commitments with that, we also have outside gigs. We'll go and we'll be there for student life and take pictures with people or go to a preschool. You'll have all the little kids come up and hit the drum, give them high fives. We're an icon university. We're mascots.
Kate Young: With a rich history of band first, innovation is key for our band. Purdue was the first marching band in the nation to break military ranks on the football field to form a letter. The block P back in 1907. Our band was also the first marching band to play the opposing school's fight song, wear their hats backwards after a conference victory, perform at Radio City Music Hall, receive an official performance invitation from China and lead the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade from the big 10. Among other firsts, Pam discusses one of her favorite moments with the All- American Marching Band, which highlights the very first trick with the world's largest drum.
Pam Nave: The first time I put someone on top of the drum with the American flag. There was an idea I had a long time ago. I tested it out with a lot of the departments on campus. I actually had someone come in and test if it can handle weight. I don't know exactly what that test is, but I had them check it. I put my smallest member up there and I was like,'cool'. Then we added a rope so they felt more stable, kind of like they're riding a horse or something. And then I thought... So what we did is, we put an American flag with them and I had them, before pre- game started our show, I had him start at the south end zone and just walk real slow across the field. And you could hear people finally seeing it happen and it was the ripple... Slow ripple of roar like,'wow'. They'd never seen that before. It was amazing. The crowd was on their feet. They were cheering. And all we did was walk across the field. But it was proud, strong. That was touching when we did that after 9/ 11. That was the first show after 9/ 11. we really did that full- blown, flag everywhere. Then we did that again. That was surreal. That was even more touching that we could give something like that back just a little bit.
Kate Young: And there's no shortage of tricks with the big bass drum.
Brandon Bledsoe: Yeah. There's a lot more that we do. I mean, we consider ourselves showman so we try to put on a good show. The drum weighs 565 pounds, so it's a lot of mass we're throwing around, but you can do a lot of cool tricks with it. One of the cool tricks we do are called aerials. We'll have people on the front bar, they'll go and jump up and do a flip over in the front with people in the back are kicking them up, or times where we run over other people, the drumline, with the drum where it looks like we actually just hit them with the wheel, but they're perfectly fine. We'll do pull- ups off the side of the drum. There's this whole laundry list of tricks that we do.
Kate Young: A whole laundry list? Hmm. This gave me an idea. Queue roadkill. This trick consists of a crew of four people running over a person with the 565 pound drum at full speed. And this time that person was me. I seriously don't think my heart rate returned to normal for about an hour after that trick. Be sure to check out our Big Bass Drum videos on Purdue's YouTube page for more of all of these tricks. I've always wondered; How was Purdue's big bass drum officially dubbed with the title of the World's Largest Drum? Well, luckily Brandon had to pass that PR history test we discussed previously, so he knows everything about it.
Brandon Bledsoe: In 1961 Kappa Kappa Psi, which is the marching band fraternity, they held a convention, they do it every year. During this year, we decided to hold a competition between us and the other drum that people thought was the world's largest drum, which was Big Bertha, down at the university of Texas. And both drums agreed to go to this competition. So we drove out all the way to Wichita, Kansas for it. And we got there and they never showed. Because of that, we got the title of World's Largest Drum and have proudly worn it since.
Kate Young: And, as Pam mentioned, this drum is in incredible condition for being 100 years old. Brandon tells us more about this historic drum.
Brandon Bledsoe: It's officially a hundred years old. Its birthday was celebrated this past August 14th. So in 1921, August 14th, that officially was debuted out in Indianapolis. Then she made his trip back over here to Purdue, where it's rightfully been for the past hundred years. It's a solid wooden shell. There's no internal supports, which is amazing for a drum of this size. The shell is completely original all the way from a hundred years ago. The heads we change a couple of times a year. So four heads a year. The rims we'll change occasionally. There has been damage done to the drum before when it's been traveling internationally. So we've had to replace some of the lugs on the outside, but other than that we have six lugs that are original. The carriage that it is driven around on, it's fully original as well. It uses a Ford Model A racing tires, as you can see from the spokes there. Steel frame. It's as authentic as it gets.
Kate Young: As the wonderful co- captains of the Big Bass Drum Crew that they are, the more I spoke with Hannah and Brandon, the more I learned about this drum. The head of the drum is actually painted by a local Lafayette man named Dave. And he does everything right at home in his garage. Brandon explains Dave's painting process.
Brandon Bledsoe: That's really interesting the way he does it. He has one of those old- time projectors that a inaudible have back in preschool, and he just puts a little pencil up on there and just puts it up on his garage wall and just goes through the outline. And that's how he paints the heads.
Kate Young: Another interesting thing I learned during this interview was that several notable Purdue alumni were in the All- American Marching Band. Orville Redenbacher. You may know his name from Orville Redenbacher is gourmet popcorn and R. Slater, the inventor of fiberglass. The Slater Center of Performing Arts, the site of the band's Thrill on a Hill football pep rallies is actually a gift from Slater and his wife. And another prominent Purdue alum, who is also part of the All- American Marching Band? Neil Armstrong. Pam details, Neil's involvement and passion for the band.
Pam Nave: ...The march baritone. He was also in Kappa Kappa PSI, which is one of our music fraternities. He took his actual membership pin to the moon when he went. We still have it. He gave it to us. When he was around, he would come to our rehearsals. He would just sneak in. Nobody around him all of a sudden you'd look over and there's some guy standing there with his hat down and it was Neil Armstrong.
Kate Young: What a little, cool tidbit. Thank you.
Pam Nave: I know. I know. And it was so funny because we're looking at, we watch people on the sidelines just to make sure everybody's okay, he's just by himself, just watching. And we noticed who it was. And of course, I want to go meet Neil Armstrong. So I got to meet Neil Armstrong. That was, for me, that was super cool. He was a member of our band and he still came back after years
Kate Young: It just shows how close- knit this family is.
Pam Nave: It goes back over a hundred years. It's always a link. You know, you meet people in the world and you say,'I'm from Purdue'. And then somehow they'll say," Well, I was in band.""Well I was in band.""What year were you in band?" Dah, dah, dah, dah. And then it forms a relationship where they were different generations. And so when we have alumni band, we put them inside with a... Could be a current member, alumni member, current member... So the alumni can meet the new kids and the kids can meet the alumni and form those relationships. To us it's also about networking. We want these kids to get jobs. so we have our alumni out there who are, by the way, alumni, if you ever need kids for jobs, let us know, but you know, the alumni out there are doing some great things and they come back to us," Hey, you got anybody in chemistry?"" I know someone who's really talented." It's not just about music. In fact, music is just a by- product of what we do. It's important to us. Don't get me wrong. We want to be very good, marching, playing, everything. But it's also the relationships that we form as the faculty and the student, and as a staff and using this as a vehicle and what they do out there as a vehicle to bring us all together,
Kate Young: It was clear to me that the All- American Marching Band is truly a family for all those involved.
Brandon Bledsoe: It's an amazing family. Every professor here is just so awesome. And they've been with me through the best of times and the worst of times, and they've truly been more than professors for me, they've been family. I've really enjoyed every minute I've been with this band and had so many great opportunities through it. Gone through so many cool things, meet so many celebrities and just so many cool events. It's just been such a great time. I really appreciate being part of this family.
Hannah Pike: It really means to me that I get to represent the university that I'm so proud to be at. I take great pride in being on the drumline and specifically on the World's Largest Drum group. I worked really hard to be here, especially to be a co- captain. And I just really like representing my university and showing what Purdue is all about through the marching band. Honestly, I love marching band. So this was a great opportunity to get to do that.
Kate Young: Within the All- American Marching Band, within the drumline itself, within this big bass drum, what does that mean to you, this family, and this community?
Pam Nave: When I look at, back on my career, I trained to teach at a school of music and this was my first position right out of college. I fell in love with the students. I fell in love with the fact that they did this because they volunteer. They can get a credit for it, but it doesn't last for very long if they're volunteering. They want to be here. They want to learn. They want to get better. And I fell in love with that. And so I stayed. What that taught me over the first several years was; I'm trying to adapt to this. I'm trying to adapt to all these really smart kids. Here I am a musician around all these smart kids. And eventually what it turned into is, when Professor Jay Gephart took over, it started to become closer. The students were understanding that this is a family in the sense of; we are going to take care of you. We are going to make sure that you're safe. We are going to make sure you're doing well in classes. We are going to make sure you're successful in life. So I tell people, I use music as a vehicle to teach life skills, life things. This goes beyond music. This is our laboratory. So if kids fail here, it's okay. But if they fail out there in the real world, they could lose a job family, member, who knows. So what we do is we try to teach these students what life is about with music.
Kate Young: What would you say the rewarding thing about leading this drumline and the big bass drum is for you?
Pam Nave: The students. No hesitation. That's the best reward. You meet new students every year. You form relationships with them. 18 hours together in a week, you do get to know them. And by the end of their time here, they want my recommendation letter. And I always ask," Hey, do you know me as well as you know your Chem prof or you know, physics prof. And they're like," You know what? I know them pretty well, but I really connect with you because of music." And so to me, it's the students. That's why I stayed at Purdue. They're my focus. They're the reason I teach music. They're reason I'm here in the hot, 53 years old, sweating, dressed like a kid because I feel like I'm in gym class. This is why I'm still here. Because of the students. And our faculty is spot on. I mean, our faculty and staff in our department, just fantastic people. They're families too. We rely on each other outside of our work. We're all very close. And I actually think the students see that. They see that we're close. They see that we work together well. And we're hoping that they do that too. But the best thing about what I do is the students.
Kate Young: What is it about the All- American Marching Band that seems to just exude the Boilermaker spirit and that sense of community? I ask Hannah, who is involved in many different clubs and organizations throughout the university, why this Purdue community is so incredibly special to her. It's so special to me that you're so well- balanced.
Hannah Pike: Oh, thank you.
Kate Young: You're majoring in engineering or minoring in engineer.
Hannah Pike: Nerd.
Kate Young: You're the only girl as part of the big bass drum crew.
Hannah Pike: Yeah.
Kate Young: How does this Boilermaker community, and this Boilermaker spirit, how does that impact you day- to- day?
Hannah Pike: Purdue... The Boilermaker community at Purdue has been amazing. I could have gone to school in Michigan, but honestly I just really liked the Purdue atmosphere and everything here. Especially the marching band that was a big pull for me, because I really wanted to get involved on campus and that sort of thing. And I thought this would be probably one of the best opportunities to do so. Purdue is an amazing campus, great community. It's really, compared to schools in Michigan, it's really quiet, which I really liked. Especially being an engineering student. It gives me a lot of time to study, but then also have time to hang out with friends and that sort of thing. Purdue's just been great. And they've given me so many opportunities regarding I'm a part of the minority engineering department, so they've given me that. And I've done a lot of volunteering for them. They gave me band. I've done a lot of volunteering with the volunteer management teams in band. I'm part of the clothing team. So we do the uniforms and we give uniforms to the band. I'm also part of the idea team, which is a new one as of last year. It's the Inclusion Diversity Equity and Awareness team. So we focus on the diversity within the band department, as well as scholarships and that sort of thing. I've gotten a couple of band scholarships, a couple of engineering scholarships. So Purdue has given me so many opportunities to do such great things and they really care about the students, that I also really like. There's a lot of study opportunities, help opportunities within all these different departments. And I really like that.
Kate Young: Have we mentioned how impressive Hannah is?
Hannah Pike: Oh my gosh. No, no, no. Thank you.
Kate Young: Pam explains why music is so universal and how the band is able to share their gift with hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world every year.
Pam Nave: Purdue's spirit to me means basically, family. Even the youngest kid, two or three- year- old, we hand them a mallet and they come up and they can barely swing the mallet, in fact, we have a kid mallet made for little kids so it's a lighter, so they hit it and it shakes. And they're just like. You know, they're amazed. I have drumsticks with me all the time and if I see a little kid I pass them out along the way. I'm recruiting really, for drummers, but I'm passing sticks out and you know, the parents are really appreciative. We're hitting kids little, we're hitting adults, you name it. We've got the range. Music is a universal language without a question. And it hits every age level. Every age level. You know, everybody likes sports too, but you know, maybe you can't play basketball at 95. I don't know. You're awesome if you can, but actually you can still play music. If you're at 95. If you're physically capable. You can't do this. I wouldn't suggest anything like this. But to me, I think that that makes it a collective whole for the whole university. Is that we have a gift to give. Athletics has a gift to give.. ROTC has a gift to give PMO has a gift to give. I think we all incorporate that and we give students a place to be and makes the university seem a little smaller. We know it's big, but it also, as a collective whole, can bring joy to those students who aren't involved in any of these things. And they can like it, appreciate it, enjoy it, dance with it, yell at it, scream for it, cheer for it. You name it. I think that's what makes it like a family gathering or something. There's so many dynamics going on with everybody there. That's kind of what this is. And it's with everybody on campus, not just what we do.
Kate Young: I loved hearing how much pride Pam, Hannah and Brandon have for the All- American Marching Band and for Purdue.
Brandon Bledsoe: Oh yeah. I mean a drum crew has become my family. That's why I'm so happy to be a student leader and be able to give back to them because they've really taken me in ever since I was a freshman and part of it. This is such a wonderful experience. I've gotten to experience so many cool things through here, grow as a person, kind of figure out who I am while I represent Purdue at the highest level. It's been unforgettable and a really once last lifetime experience. I mean there's nothing else like this out there. There's other big drums but they don't do anything near what we do. They don't go out there on game days, performing tricks, sprinting down the field at full Gallop. That's unique to us and it's such a cool thing and such an honor to be a part of.
Pam Nave: The one thing I want to say is how proud we are to be a part of Purdue and how proud we are as the faculty and staff and students, to be able to do this in this setting and at a great university. I never thought I would ever work at a place where it looks something like this. I'm just really happy that I have the position I have to meet the people, like you Kate. Just met you today. How cool is that? That I get to meet all these people and travel all around the world. There's no complaints here. I think it's awesome.
Kate Young: Don't forget to head to our YouTube channel; youtube. com/ purdueuniversity to see videos of the Big Bass Drum Crew in action. And you don't want to miss seeing me scared out of my mind as I got run over by this massive drum. Plus we're featuring the big bass drum on TikTok. You can find us on TikTok at @ lifeatpurdue. Thanks for listening to This Is Purdue. For more information on this episode, visit our website at purdue. edu/ podcasts. There, you can head over to your favorite podcast app to subscribe and leave us a review and, as always, Boiler Up.