By Curt Harler
Sometimes, small things grow into big deals. Such was the case for Dr. Ned C. Deihl, director emeritus of the Penn State Blue Band. Without Ned Deihl, for example, the Penn State Blue Band would not have its trademark “Floating Lions” presentation. He created it for a pregame show in 1965 and it remains nearly identical in execution (although not in number of marchers) today. It was first performed on November 20, 1965, at an away game versus Pitt.
Just how does one come up with an iconic idea like that? The key, it seems, is having little toy figurines to play with and a kitchen table to serve as a field.
“I’d seen the lighted ticker and floating announcement sign at Times Square in New York,” he recalls of his inspiration. “That is what I had in mind.”
Blue Band Director Jim Dunlop had put him in charge of developing a new pre-game routine and gave him free rein. Ned was determined to get away from the low-key East Coast band look and do something big, something spectacular. At the time, the Blue Band marched out in a block playing a classic march – not even a school song.
Originally, the Floating Lions pulled out of the end zone. “It only went one way and was not too effective,” he says. “Coming from midfield with contrary motion was much more dramatic.” Ned had no computers to help him with the design. In fact, throughout his career, he never designed a drill on a computer although his assistants did.
“I put little figurines on the kitchen table and then had to finagle to match the marching to the music,” he explains.
As the years went by, Ned spent many more hours redesigning the drill for larger and larger bands. But its essence is unchanged.
“The Blue Band is so large now we probably can spell out ‘Nittany Lions’,” he chuckles. “Maybe that’s something the Alumni Blue Band can put together with an hour or two practice!”
It was in July 1976 that Dr. Deihl became only the fourth director ever of the Blue Band (preceded by Tommy Thompson, Hum Fishburn and Jim Dunlop). Dr. Deihl stepped up after Dr. Dunlop died of a heart attack in 1975 at age 64 while at a band camp in Salt Lake City. After a short stint as acting director, Ned became director.
“The first game after Jim Dunlop died was something,” he recalls. The directorship became the gem in a long music career.
Dr. Deihl grew up near Mansfield, Ohio where his high school band was such small potatoes that they did not always have a band director. He started conducting and was permanently bitten by the music bug. Although he started his college career at the prestigious Miami University of Ohio, he soon switched to Indiana University in Bloomington where the music program was much stronger. He earned his degree, taught music for a bit and was drafted into the Army where he played clarinet and led the 9th Division band and choir. At that point, he knew he needed more academic credentials and went to the University of Michigan for a master’s degree in music under William Revelli. In a way, his early academic path presaged Penn State’s joining the Big Ten. Deihl saw himself as a short-timer at Penn State…get a Ph.D. and move on. When he earned his doctorate in 1962, Dr. Dunlop offered him a post as an assistant director based in part on his Big Ten experience.
Whether you were in the band in the 1960s or last year, you can be grateful for another one of Ned’s innovations: charts. In years past, drills were tacked up on a wall and all musicians had to write down their positions for each number. He started making charts for everyone (this was well before the current era of computerized layouts).
On the other hand, you have Dr. Deihl to thank for adding a strong emphasis on marching to the Blue Band’s requirement for musicianship. You can thank (or blame!) him for bringing the high-stepping “chair step” to the Blue Band. One’s thighs ache just thinking about it. He replaced 6-to-5 marching and instituted the 8-to-5 protocol partly because it better matches 4/4 music but mainly for the look.
Not all upperclassmen (and it was all men then) liked the changes. But he stuck to his guns. “It was pretty vigorous,” he says of the early days of fast, high-stepping. “Today’s Band still picks up their knees – just not as high. But the key is getting the knee high enough to point the toes.”
Ned increased the size of the Blue Band as Beaver Stadium grew. A bigger band is more capable of filling an ever-larger stadium with sound.
It will be difficult for many alums to believe that Dr. Deihl retired in 1996 – nearly a quarter of a century ago. While he rarely attends football games, he has been back to lead the Alumni Band at Homecoming without fail. Among his other honors are being named to the American Bandmasters’ Association (ABA), membership in Phi Mu Alpha and Pi Kappa Lambda, and the Citation of Excellence from the ABA. He has been a guest conductor at many events, perhaps topped by his stepping up for the U.S. Army Band as guest conductor.
Ned and his wife Janet are working on their 60th year of marriage. Her happiest days just may be those several when he is off on the golf course. Recent personal highlights include watching his grand-daughter Danielle Deihl march these past four years with the Blue Band. He’s looking forward to having his grandson Derek Deihl make the band this year on sax.