Big Band Attitude

Although they rarely make it into the national limelight, many colleges with lesser-known football teams field great marching bands. Find out how some of these Division I-AA (now Football championship subdivision), II and III schools gain public interest.

Photo by Eric Sullano

You wouldn’t think that a marching band at a small liberal arts college of only 1,400 students has anything in common with the 300-member Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band. The McMurry University Marching Band would beg to differ.

Like many marching bands at smaller schools, McMurry works hard to create a big band experience in a small town— Abilene, Texas, to be more precise. Dr. Chris Neal, the band’s director, worked with the Pride of Oklahoma for several years, including writing drill for the 2001 National Championship show at the Orange Bowl.

Neal’s transition from Division I-A (now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS) to Division III took him from a 300-piece band for one of the most storied football programs in the nation to a 29-piece band in a small town crowded by two other universities.

“We’re a very small school,” Neal says. “We aspire to do quite a lot. My first marching band roster had 29 names on it. So we began not only trying to put that band together but immediately got to recruiting. Currently, we have about 75 members.”

McMurry gets involved with the community holding public performances and even an annual band camp for middle and high school students. Neal points to individual contribution as an important success factor at a small school.

“By the time I got to McMurry, I felt like all the experiences to that point filled in the gaps,” Neal says. “Through the experiences at all those different kinds of bands, I’ve learned how to run this band.

… I went to a Division I school, and I’ve taught at a Division I school. I think that in a small program like ours, everybody has to contribute. Nobody can just carry a horn. If one person is gone from a rehearsal, the whole dynamic changes. I put a lot more responsibility on our individual players.”

All About the Team

One advantage for a small-school marching band is the ability to maintain close ties with the team. “We have a new coach who’s in his second year,” Neal says.

“There’s a real similarity in what both programs are trying to accomplish. I think the students recognize that and admire that. We get along great.”

While many large schools also maintain positive relationships between the band and athletic departments, sometimes being in a small environment allows for an even stronger connection.

“We have a really, really unique relationship with our athletic department and football team,” says David Campo, director of the Stephen F. Austin State University Lumberjack Marching Band in Nacogdoches, Texas. “The coaches believe that the band is an integral part of home field advantage. As a token of their appreciation, every fall during their two-a-day practices, and we’re in our band camp, they have a luncheon for the band, and the freshman football players serve the band.”

Most football players for the Lumberjacks aren’t likely to line up a career in the NFL, so the team leans even more on the band for support during the games.

“Everything we do in the stands is directly related to what’s going on on the field,” says Brett Richardson, the band’s assistant director and the man in charge of the “Roarin’ Buzzsaws” basketball band.

“Our first primary goal is to support the football team. We’re at the game, and we’re there to support the team. Our relationship with the football team is great. Our coaches and athletic staff are very vocal about how much they appreciate the band. There’s mutual respect, and no matter how good or how bad the team is doing, the band is there.”

Jerry Hoover, director of bands for the Missouri State University Pride Band in Springfield, Mo., also boasts about the interaction between his band and the football team.

“It’s something neat,” Hoover says. “The coach we have right now, he made all the players learn the fight song. When they win, they come across the field and take their helmets off and sing it. We have a good relationship. In the [football] coaches’ office, there’s a big sign that says, ‘We love our band.’”

Hoover reminds his students that regardless of how well the team is doing, they need to keep the energy up in the stands. And in his mind, they are always there to answer the call, “whether it’s riding the rollercoaster or the bump and grind,” Hoover says.

Off the Field

Although the band focuses on what happens on the field, the Missouri State Band’s activities off the field bring the group into the limelight. Last January, the band performed in the 2008 Rose Parade.

“We got a phone call, saying somebody wants us to do the Tournament of Roses,” Hoover says. “I thought it was a parent or something wanting us to do it, so I just kind of blew it off. The next day, we got another call. I got a call from the president of the Tournament of Roses. That was kind of unique, to get the invitation like that and all.”

The Pride Band has also performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade several times.

Bands outside of the FBS don’t get the opportunity to go to high-powered bowl games, so these bands do their best to gain exposure in parades and outside events. By performing both in their own communities and outside, these bands gain exposure and make a splash.

Improving on the Greats

Many smaller marching bands do their best to emulate—and improve upon— the established traditions of big-school bands like Oklahoma and Texas. Many band directors at these smaller schools have experience marching in or working with big FBS bands and incorporate these experiences into their current bands.

“I came here from the University of Oklahoma, and of course they have a wonderful, wonderful band program, and a lot of what I do here is patterned after what I saw there,” says Campo of the Lumberjack Marching Band. “The difference is here we seat 24,000 in our stadium; there they seat 80,000. They get lots and lots of television time. We’re a Division 1-AA school, so we don’t have that same kind of national exposure. The biggest difference is about the exposure of the school, football and band programs.”

Overcoming Challenges

But no matter the size of the marching band or school, every college band encounters its share of challenges. And for many lesser known bands, these obstacles shape the band into its own unique entity.

“Because we’re a smaller school, we’re having lots of students coming into the marching band from all walks of life, and a lot of them are from Texas,” Richardson says. “One of the biggest things right off the bat is, you know, we’re not televised. Sometimes we’ll get one or two games a year that are televised. That would be really neat to be able to say that to the band, ‘We’re on TV!’ and get that extra motivating factor. Everything’s just smaller. The crowd’s smaller.”

With fewer spectators, you might expect less excitement, but Campo disagrees. Campo’s band strives not only to bring a high-energy atmosphere into the stands but also to each rehearsal and performance.

“We always aim for high entertainment value,” Campo says. “Our kids get the motivation from knowing that they’re turning out a great product and having a good time doing it. With this college marching band, the biggest motivation is, ‘This is what we have to do, and this is the music and this is the drill. I know what you’re capable of, and you know what you’re capable of.’”

At a smaller school, it’s always hard to recruit enough students, but it can be just as hard to maintain those students’ interest. Neal of McMurry University may have perfected the art of recruiting and retention, with more than one in 20 students at the school participating in the marching band, including 10 percent of the freshmen class.

“You might think that on a campus like this, there’s less going on,” Neal says. “There’s no less going on; there’s just fewer students to do all of it. Finding ways to fi t into the students’ schedules—those are challenges at this level.”

The marching band’s recent rise in popularity at McMurry has likewise led to its own challenges.

“Growing in five years from a program that has 29 kids to a program that’s playing international conferences— what I’ve found is that the challenges of just keeping everybody content are really different,” Neal says. “I think we’re a lot of things to a lot of people. We’re in a very rural part of Texas. We get kids from graduating classes of 10. We get kids that didn’t even know that private lessons were even an option … We get kids that this is very deep musical water for them. They get a lot of personal attention, and they thrive. It’s really great to see.”

Some members of the band have also participated in top drum corps and winter guards. But this isn’t the end for Neal, who plans to continue building the marching program, especially with the addition of a $2.35 million renovation to the band building.

“It’s been kind of an exciting transformation here … They really see us as part of the face of the university,” Neal says. “Whenever we travel somewhere, somebody asks me how we get such a big sound out of such a small band. I tell them it’s because everybody contributes. The kids take a lot of pride in that. They take a lot of pride in those performances when everybody is pleasantly surprised.”

About the Author

Eddie Carden is an editorial intern for Halftime Magazine. He is a senior, majoring in public relations and neuroscience, at the University of Southern California. He has been playing the trumpet since the fifth grade and currently serves as the drum major for the USC “Spirit of Troy” Trojan Marching Band.