In just two years, the University of South Carolina’s newest director of athletic bands has made a big difference in the size, look and performances of the ensemble. Dr. Rebecca Phillips discusses the recent changes and highlights.
By Samuel Sweetnam
Photos courtesy of University of South Carolina Bands
In her short time as the University of South Carolina (USC) director of athletic bands, Dr. Rebecca Phillips has revolutionized the “Mighty Sound of the Southeast.” Under her leadership, the marching band proudly supports the South Carolina Gamecocks and provides the biggest, most visible source of school spirit both on and off campus.
Halftime: Why did you decide to become a band director?
Phillips: My father and grandfather were solo trombonists with the United States Navy Band in D.C., and I grew up watching bands like this. I loved the wonderful kinds of things they did to promote a great nation and bands in general. So I started out playing trombone myself, and when I got to college and had the opportunity to see how a college marching band works, it was something that I thought was really unique and a fun experience and something that I would like to do for a living.
Halftime: What is your marching band background?
Phillips: I went to Florida State University as an undergraduate music education major, and I marched in the Marching Chiefs there. I taught marching bands in several different high schools in Florida, and I was a graduate assistant with both the University of South Florida (USF) Marching Band and the Louisiana State University (LSU) Tiger Marching Band. Finally I went to the University of South Carolina, and I took over as director of athletic bands in March 2011. [Phillips earned Master of Music degrees in conducting and trombone performance from USF, and a Doctorate of Musical Arts in conducting from LSU.]
Halftime: How has the USC band developed under your direction?
Phillips: When I took over the job in March 2011, I was tasked with five specific things to do with the band. First I was asked to expand the band to the SEC (Southeastern Conference) requirement of 325 members, and we’ve actually gone beyond that to 360.
The second task was to make sure that we have a different halftime show every week, and we needed to perform part to each side of the stadium.
Number three: new uniforms. The band was wearing red and black, which are also Georgia colors, so it was hard for people to recognize the band when we traveled. Starting last August, we had new uniforms with our school colors of garnet and white.
Number four: We were tasked with making a more exciting game day atmosphere in the stands for our fans. We needed to look and sound more like an SEC school in the stands, meaning different cheers for different downs in the game. Since our first game of 2011, this has really started to catch on, and fans started being more vocal in support of the team.
The fifth task was a complete overhaul and redesign of our pregame show. It was time to have something that was updated, yet full of tradition and school logos. We performed it for the first time in 2011.
Halftime: A few years ago, the former director of bands gave the USC School of Music a $1 million donation. How has that impacted the marching band?
Phillips: The director of bands emeritus, James Copenhaver, has donated $1 million to the band program and to the School of Music. His specific donation was for scholarships within the School of Music, so it remains to be seen how it will affect the marching band specifically. But it will definitely be something wonderful for the School of Music and for the music majors.
Halftime: What are some of the Carolina Band’s recent highlights?
Phillips: Two years ago we went to the Capital One Bowl and had a wonderful time performing both pregame and halftime shows, and that was a great game for us. This year we went to the Outback Bowl and performed there with the University of Michigan, a time-honored tradition band, and it was just a great experience for our students and our fans to be in such nationally highlighted games.
Halftime: What has been your favorite memory as a band director?
Phillips: There have been many great experiences, so I’ll give a couple. One moment that was really special was in 2011, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when we were at the University of Georgia. We combined with the Georgia band to perform a patriotic salute to those who had fallen during that terrible event in 2001. It was very touching; I’ve never heard that many people be so quiet in a stadium before. Just the outpouring of patriotism and pride in schools and in bands between two major rivals in the SEC was just a great moment for both programs.
As far as just standing alone with our band, it was a wonderful experience to go to the Outback Bowl last year. Our team was behind in the 4th quarter, and we’ve had some experiences where our team hasn’t necessarily come back when they’re behind, but in this case they did. We truly feel like the band had an impact on the fans staying in that game. The team wins the game, but the band is what helps to keep fans involved and fired up about what’s going on, so we were excited to be part of that and to be able to witness such a great game by our team.
Halftime: How do you balance your personal or family life with being a band director?
Phillips: There’s no doubt that in this particular profession, you might be a nine or 10-month professor at your university, but the truth of the matter is that you work 12 months a year. People go home for Thanksgiving, and they want to watch football, so we’re here working. Over New Year’s, there’s collegiate football, and we’ve been very fortunate to be at bowl games, and that means we’re working over the holidays. Because our departure dates are typically on the 26th or 27th of December, we’re often working even Christmas Day at times. It’s a tough balance, but there are some landmark individuals who have done fantastic jobs with their families and their professions, and it’s something that I’m continuing to work on as I develop in this career.
Halftime: What has been your proudest moment as a band director?
Phillips: I think one of my proudest moments as a band director here at the University of South Carolina has been to watch the students begin to really take pride in what they’re doing, to watch them stand up straight and go out there confident that they’re going to do a good job. To watch them have fun while it’s happening, it’s like being a parent, you’re just thrilled when you see your kids happy and when they’re doing well. To see them be successful has been the highlight of my life.
About the Author
Samuel Sweetnam is a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Southern California (USC). He played trumpet for three years in the Palos Verdes Peninsula High School Marching Band and became a drum major in his senior year. Sam continues to play trumpet as a member of the USC Trojan Marching Band.