John Dunphy, Director of the Villanova Band, arrives at The Pavilion, Villanova University’s basketball arena that more closely resembles a ski lodge than the home of the beloved Wildcats, forty-five minutes before tonight’s tipoff against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The Pavilion has barely started filling up by the time the Villanova Pep Band is in position, ready to play. The musicians all stand up, a phalanx of light blue with a large "Villanova Band" logo across each member’s chest. Dunphy climbs the bleachers until he reaches the last row of the band, sits down, and puts on a pair of oversized sunglasses. A student leader stands in front of the band, raises his hands in anticipation of the downbeat, and they begin to play.
This is exactly the way that Dunphy prefers to run the Villanova Band. "I want to be in charge and out of control," Dunphy says. "I prefer a more bottom-up than top-down approach." His deep wrinkles reveal his immense experience; the shine from the stadium lights reflects off of his bald head. "I think it’s God’s sick joke for helping my mom work as a hairdresser," Dunphy says. Dunphy, who the students call Aldo because of his resemblance to a character in an advertisement by that name, intends to let the students be the face of the band, only imparting wisdom when he thinks it’s necessary. "As long as the world doesn’t end," Senior Chris Bell, president of the band, says, "he lets his student leaders make their own decisions."
Most of that wisdom comes out in wacky, quotable phrases, original or not. "If you’re a one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, everyone thinks you’re nuts," or, "Damn everything but the circus," or, "Drummers, do you have your music?" As much as he claims to be disenchanted with collegiate and professional sports, he still keeps a special relic. Attached to his key ring is a plastic cardholder. On one side is plain white paper with "KEYS" written in big, black letters. On the other side is a ticket stub from the National Championship Game between Georgetown and Villanova in 1985.
The millions of sports fans who tune into games see and hear pop tunes that appear to be entirely student run. What they don’t see is Dunphy’s attempts to educate the students beyond the popular music of the time. "Music is time travel," Dunphy explains. "It’s about connecting the dots. Connecting the dots is what makes life interesting." The goal of his efforts with this student group is to lead them to appreciate music, in all styles and time periods. It may not happen right away, but he believes that with enough time, the appreciation will come. "In the battle between a drop of water and a rock, the drop of water will win every time because it’s persistent."
There are plenty of battles between water droplets and rocks during the bands biweekly rehearsals. "I think we’d be better served practicing the music that’s going to be heard by the most people," Senior Frank Baratta, Vice President of the band, says. "Spending the majority of time at rehearsals practicing random music that a handful of people will hear at the end of the semester doesn’t seem like the best use of our time." But this is the type of thinking that Dunphy strives to change. Drip, drip, drip. When he is finally able to break through, he can smile that squinty smile, knowing that he has truly educated his students.
Dunphy’s own music education began in South Philadelphia, where he was born and raised. Aldo must have gotten his humor from his mother, who wrote to him on his fiftieth birthday that she remembered the day he was born vividly because it was "such a lousy day". It wasn’t until high school that Dunphy began to learn his instrument, the trombone. Before that, like most young children who learn music, he started out on the piano. "My father played the tenor sax, but I was learning piano with the nuns," Dunphy says. "They were there beating the shit out of us."
Dunphy’s start at Villanova came when his friend and mentor Joe Colantonio, the band director at Villanova at the time, asked Dunphy to cover a rehearsal for him. Dunphy agreed, and didn’t think anything of it. Over 10 years later, Aldo was informed of an opening at Villanova. One meeting was all it took. Since taking the position, Villanova’s Department of Music Activities has grown to 23 different student groups, ranging from A Capella groups to orchestra and jazz band.
At the 12-minute media time out, the Villanova student section is asked to participate in the filming of a bizarre music video called the "Harlem Shake". Several band members are dressed in costumes and dance wildly. They have drawn comparisons to the infamous Stanford band, known for its antics and offensive behavior. But Dunphy believes that criticism is unwarranted. "Being a group that stands out is easy to be," Dunphy says. "These are college kids, they are going to be wacky. It’s not unusual. I think the notoriety is a bit overblown."
"Come on Wright, pick it up!" screams a member of the student section to the Wildcats’ head coach. Villanova is down ten after a poorly played first half; Aldo’s expression remains unmoved. The recent commercialization of collegiate athletics doesn’t sit well with Dunphy. Instead, he is drawn to the true amateurism of student groups on campus. For Dunphy, "amateur" –a person who engages in a pursuit without payment and for sheer love of that pursuit- is one of the greatest compliments you can give to a performer. Because Villanova doesn’t have a dedicated music program, all of the band members are true amateurs.
In the waning minutes of the contest, Villanova takes the lead in front of a now deafening crowd. While most of the crowd is on its feet, Aldo continues to stay seated. Dunphy’s career is now in a decrescendo. "I’m at a point where I can retire tomorrow and be happy with my decision," he says.
Just then, a staff member from athletics approaches the student pep band conductor and confronts him for playing at the wrong time. Dunphy looks on, unsure of the appropriate course of action. "I don’t know whether I should get up, or let my student leaders handle it." The man and the pep band conductor nod heads in agreement, the issue resolved. Dunphy smiles, knowing that his system works: He is in charge, but comfortably out of control.