Sounds like Team Spirit
by Dave Allen
Football fans always rejoice when their favorite college and professional teams return to the field. For a large group of Maryland-based musicians, though, the start of the NFL season brings an even bigger reason to cheer.
For members of the Baltimore Marching Ravens, the official marching band of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, the new season means new uniforms for the entire band, and marks a new era in the band’s illustrious history, dating back to when it was founded as the Baltimore Colts Band in 1947.
The Marching Ravens are one of only two marching bands in the NFL—the other belongs to the Washington Redskins, who play just 50 miles south of Baltimore in Landover, Maryland. Other smaller groups, pep bands, and drumlines, take the field in some cities, but at more than 400 members, including instrumentalists, flagline members, instructors, and staff, the Marching Ravens, are in another league.
The dedicated amateurs in the band arrive hours before game time and are often the last to leave the stadium in the evening. The intense dedication comes from years of struggling through adversity: the band survived without a team from 1951 to 1952, and again from 1984 until 1996, when the then-Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore to become the Ravens.
Marching Ravens President John Ziemann has been with the band since the Colts days, “A main goal of ours was to get a team back here and be their band,” he says. “We were very blessed by the Modell family [the team’s owners], who immediately adopted us as their band.”
Ziemann, 61, first joined the Colts band in 1962 as a percussionist and was responsible for keeping the band active during the years after the Colts left for Indianapolis. A native of Baltimore, Ziemann served as music librarian, property manager, percussion instructor, and public relations director before being named the band’s president in 1984. In Baltimore, “The band was the only thing for 61 years that was steadfast,” he says. Its history is preserved at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, where Ziemann is deputy director.
The Colts Band served as musical ambassador for the city of Baltimore during the teamless years, traveling to games throughout the East Coast and helping rally support for a new team. When the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens, the band spent two years playing in the old Colts band uniforms, while the Ravens played at the now-demolished Memorial Stadium, the Colts’ former home. The band’s roster now contains many lifetime residents of the Baltimore area, who grew up rooting for the Colts, and transplants from other areas who have grown into bleeding purple and black.
Peter Zirpolo, of Parkville, Maryland, moved to the Baltimore area from Long Island, New York, in 2003 and joined the Ravens Band soon after. Though he now works in electronic claims for Johns Hopkins HealthCare, he played drums in high school and initially joined the Marching Ravens as a cymbal player. During one rehearsal, Zirpolo, 44, was asked to take the spot of another musician in formation and to hold a sousaphone, the large marching tuba that encircles its player. Soon, he picked up the instrument and began receiving instruction from his son, then 11 years old.
Though he had never played a brass instrument, Zirpolo got up to speed quickly, with his son’s help, and passed the audition into the sousaphone section. “If you start a brass instrument in fourth or fifth grade, then I’m in about eight or ninth grade right now,” Zirpolo says about his skill level. “I’m not the best player in the section, I admit it.”
Marching with the Ravens band has become a family affair for Zirpolo: in addition to his son Patrick, 16, who taught him to play sousaphone, his daughter Marisa, 15, and older son Steven, 19, are also in the band.
“My favorite part is the friendships we’ve created there,” he says. “It’s an extended family, and we’ve been to graduations, weddings, baptisms—especially in the sousaphone section.”
Brass players in the band receive instruments to use during rehearsals and performances, so Zirpolo didn’t have to shell out for his own sousaphone. If his son continues to play tuba, though, he says they might buy one and share it.
After many years away from playing and from marching, his involvement in the Marching Ravens has put Zirpolo back in touch with his roots. “The faces of the kids in the parades, seeing the big tuba—it’s what marching band is really about,” he says.
Other players have roots that go even deeper. Dave Ciofalo, a snare drummer from Gaithersburg, Maryland, joined the band on the fateful night that the Baltimore Colts left town. Ciofalo, 41, went to his first rehearsal on March 28, 1984, not long after spotting someone at a mall with a Baltimore Colts band jacket. He had previously marched during high school in New Jersey and, when his family moved to Maryland, he wanted to find a new place to play. After coming home from rehearsal and seeing the news about the team leaving, Ciofalo immediately phoned Ziemann. “I called him and said, ‘Are we going to practice next week?’” Ciofalo recalls. “He said, ‘Come Wednesday night as usual.’”
Through a stroke of luck, the band was able to keep its uniforms, which were at the dry cleaners, and its instruments; everything else associated with the Colts was packed into Mayflower moving vans on a snowy day and taken to Indianapolis, a sight that haunted Baltimore sports fans for years. Ciofalo stuck with the band, keeping up his playing skills, and he’s now delighted to see the band take on such a prominent role at games and entertaining fans. “The percussion section has been putting a lot of extra work in so we can play a bunch of pieces,” he says. “I look forward to the visibility. Getting out there where the band hasn’t been before is a big accomplishment.”
Ciofalo has been a stalwart member of the drumline, remaining a section player rather than a leader or instructor. He credits his fellow drummers for passing along tips, tricks, and visual elements. “I’m a better player for it, and I learned it all on the line,” he says. “I’m an old dog, but I’m still learning new tricks,” he says.
For John Fewer, 37, a trombonist and assistant drum major from Woodstock, Maryland, the Marching Ravens helped reignite his love of marching. Fewer began marching during high school in New Orleans. After moving to Maryland, he saw a co-worker wearing a jacket from the Ravens Band and immediately joined.
Fewer, a computer engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, quickly grew to love the camaraderie in the band’s trombone section. “For the longest time, we held the record for longevity in the band,” he says. “It’s a good core of people and a fun group. We’ll go to dinner together or get together outside the band.” He had such a positive initial experience with the band that he convinced his wife Michelle, who’d never marched before, to join the Marching Ravens’ flagline.
Like many in the band, Fewer was elated when the Marching Ravens were invited to perform at the 2007 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and he looks upon the event now as his favorite moment in 10 years with the band. “We were a little nervous about representing the city of Baltimore and the team,” he says. “I haven’t seen or played for crowds like that since New Orleans and Mardi Gras.”
After six years in the trombone section, Fewer tried out successfully for drum major. He now spends most of his rehearsal time conducting the band, and the time in between practices he’s looking over scores. He found the transition from regular band member to drum major was easy. “It’s about making sure you’ve got your rhythms in your head, and time signature changes,” he adds, “It’s the same thing a band member would do.” He does take his preparation a little further, though; he admits to testing out his conducting while working out at the gym on a treadmill and facing a wall or mirrors.
Fewer and his wife met years before joining the band, which puts them in the minority of couples in the Marching Ravens. Dozens of couples have met through the band over the years and gotten married, including Bill Turcan, the band’s vice president and a trombonist in the band since 1991. Turcan, 41, grew up as a Colts fan near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and marched through high school and college. When he moved to Baltimore to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he immediately sought out the Colts band. The first person he met at his first rehearsal later became his wife Karen, 40. Turcan, who now works as blood bank coordinator at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, says that meeting someone in a marching band comes easily. “You have plenty of opening lines, and you know where you’re going to find them every week,” he explains.
Ziemann has seen members of all ages come through the band over the years, but for older members who return to playing, he says it’s rejuvenation. “All of a sudden, when they walk out on that field, it’s like going back to their youth,” he says. He finds that adult members bring more spirit and energy to the band, as well as stamina. “They last longer in the heat and in the cold, because they know how to pace themselves,” he says.
The mixture of ages among sections of the band leads to a combination of what Ziemann calls the “old school” and the “new school” of marching band. “The old school is articulation in music and being more proficient in reading,” he says, “and the new school is the modern day music and how it’s played.” The more recent additions to the band’s repertoire—hard-rock songs by Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, and Green Day—has even excited the band’s most senior members.
“Every year refreshes me,” says Ziemann. “People in this community love this band.”