Next time you cheer on the Oregon State marching band as it lays down one of its precise, dynamic halftime drills, try to spot Robyn Wells. She’ll be playing one of the basses in the drumline — the beating heart that sets the foot-tapping rhythm for the 270-strong corps.
It’s hard work that requires stamina, steady concentration, and constant awareness. Practices are frequent and long. Game days are much longer, and a single misstep in the middle of a performance can cascade into a misadventure witnessed by thousands.
Wells wouldn’t have it any other way, because the refuge of music rejuvenates her. A mechanical engineering major and Honors College student, Wells has managed to merge her band activity with her academic program.
“For my Honors College thesis, I’m measuring how experience and role affect the workload for a member of the band, both physically and cognitively,” Wells said. “I’m combining two topics that I’m passionate about.”
In the first part of the project, 70 bandmates completed surveys to describe their workload and physical discomfort before and after a home game. With the help of Xinhui Zhu, assistant professor of industrial engineering, Wells submitted a conference paper about her work to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. That paper is currently under review, and a second is in the works.
In the upcoming lab phase of the study, designed and planned by Wells, trumpet and sousaphone players will march in place and perform both easy and difficult songs while sensors record their heart rates and muscle activity.
“That will give us quantitative data to add to the qualitative data,” Wells said.
A graduate student will supervise the lab work, because Wells will be working at Veris Industries in Tualatin, Oregon – the second internship she landed through the MECOP program. Her first, in 2017, was in the process engineering department at Silicon Forest Electronics in Vancouver, Washington.
Wells grew up in a Navy family. She has lived in Japan and Florida, and in Papillion, Nebraska, where she went to high school and played the bassoon, marimba, and vibraphone in the marching band “pit,” or stationary percussion section.
“I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to see different places,” she said. “I learned about different cultures, which gave me an open mind about diversity among people.”
She entered Oregon State as an Honors College student and became an Honors College ambassador and a mentor for incoming students. During her first two years on campus, Wells played the cymbals before switching to the bass drum, and she became a section leader as well. Wells also plays the bassoon with the campus band when time permits. Through it all, she has seen some notable changes: As a first-year student, Wells was one of only two women on the 23-person drumline; last season, women accounted for a quarter of the 32-person cadre.
The time commitment for her two internships means that Wells will spend a fifth year at Oregon State, which means she’ll also get a fifth season marching with the band.
“The band, and music in general, is a huge creative outlet for me,” she said. “I can’t do engineering work 24/7. If I don’t play music, I’m not as sharp and I feel down. And playing the drum is very satisfying when you’re having a bad day.”
It’s not just about the music, though, but commitment to a greater purpose. Every now and then, Wells says, there’s an unforgettable confluence of music, motion, and emotion.
“It happens when we all know we’re producing an amazing sound and an amazing visual, and it’s just an honor to be a part of it all,” she said.
One such moment materialized when the band played “Death of a Bachelor” during the halftime show at last season’s Stanford game.
“It was a really powerful show with a lot of bass drum runs. It was one of those chills-up-your-spine moments, and we could feel the energy of the crowd,” Wells said. “We’re all working together toward a single goal, and it’s an amazing feeling to be a part of something much bigger than yourself. Practices and rehearsals get long and tiring — sometimes frustrating — but in the end, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
by Steve Frandzel