You Ought To Be in Soundtracks

Photo by Dr. Thomas Keck

Some musicians strive for the glitz and glamour of recording soundtracks for a major motion picture. Other times, a lucky break falls in their laps. For several marching ensembles, having the right connections and the right work ethic brings unique opportunities to perform for films.

I never imagined that marching band would leave me with so many amazing experiences. Performing a field show before a packed stadium at halftime will always be an experience to remember, but recording part of a movie soundtrack? A soundtrack composed by the great Alan Silvestri?

For some lucky marching band members, such unlikelihoods become reality when a movie studio and composer require that unique marching band sound. Many movies up the ante and excitement of their soundtracks with the exhilaration and pageantry that only marching ensembles can provide.

The Blue Devils in “Monsters University”

Nobody in The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps knew what to expect when they were offered a chance to record some music for an unspecified performance. During a rehearsal weekend, members of the drumline volunteered for a recording session, and on the day of the gig, they were amazed to hear that they would be recording parts of the soundtrack for Disney Pixar’s 2013 film “Monsters University.”

“They originally just wanted us to do their theme song, which was supposed to be like a college fight song,” says Scott Johnson, The Blue Devils percussion arranger and caption head. “They wanted that college atmosphere, so we tried to bring that to them using the drumline.”

Parts of the film using the drum corps’ soundtrack recordings included the opening titles as well as one of the final scenes involving a college-style sporting competition. “We had always wanted certain moments of the movie to have that collegiate feel, so we ended up researching quite a few different university bands,” says Paul Cichocki, post-production supervisor at Pixar. “In the middle of one of our discussions, The Blue Devils’ name came up. And from there, we started discussions with Scott Johnson to see if we could work together.”

With less than a day to prepare for the recording, the group felt plenty of pressure. “It was an extremely nerve-wracking time since we were going to a professional gig,” Johnson says. “And some of the members weren’t prepared; they were still working on getting the music learned and memorized. But they did their homework, and we had a great recording session.”

Originally composed by Randy Newman, the score received edits for drumline by Johnson, culminating in Newman asking if the drumline could record more of the soundtrack. In the end, The Blue Devils ended up recording six pieces.

At Skywalker Sound, the drumline members worked to coordinate the music with the scenes from the movie playing onscreen, amazing the Pixar recording staff with their ability to synchronize visual and musical performances. After recording, everyone watched the movie scenes overdubbed with the performance, giving them the unique opportunity to immediately see exactly how their music worked in the final product.

“It really stood out to me,” says Nicole Casino, a member of The Blue Devils drumline. “When you watch movies at home, you don’t realize how much work goes into putting music over the scene. We were all fortunate to see how it all worked out firsthand.”

Even with the pressure of recording, the corps members felt right at home once the actual music started. “It was a very choreographed experience, so it was almost like a drum corps rehearsal,” Casino says. “It was cool to see that kind of structure outside of a rehearsal and in an actual job.”

Along with the recordings, The Blue Devils toured Skywalker Sound, which also recorded scores from movies such as “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” As a treat from Pixar, the group also watched old Blue Devils field shows in a state-of-the-art high-definition theatre.

“Their performance was so invigorating and exciting,” Cichocki says. “The musicians were all so enthusiastic and quick to adjust to changes. It was really great to see all these high school or college kids really stepping up and playing so well.”

The USC Trojan Marching Band in “The Croods”

Opportunities for marching bands can come about in many ways. One such connection came to the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band through Alan Silvestri, renowned film and television composer and guest lecturer at the university. While composing the soundtrack to the 2013 movie “The Croods” from Dreamworks, he viewed the draft of a scene in which cavemen grab a prehistoric egg for breakfast and end up passing it like a football and immediately thought of the USC Trojan Marching Band.

“He knew the band’s background, and he’s been to our football games,” says Dr. Arthur C. Bartner, director of the Trojan Marching Band. “So he thought that it would be a perfect scene for the USC band playing ‘Tusk.’”

A group comprised of 90 band members recorded a rearrangement of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” with Silvestri and the movie’s directors at the university. The scene and the song both became known as “Smash and Grab.”

This scene and its imagery benefitted greatly from the energetic “marching band sound” that the Trojan Marching Band brought to the recording. “Early on, we weren’t sure if this would work,” says Alan Slivestri, referring to the rearranged version of “Tusk.” “We went back and listened to the original recording, but it just didn’t have the feel that we needed for this sequence in the movie. Ultimately I found a way to use a number of quotes from ‘Tusk’ in the scene along with some original material.”

The recording session itself required great precision and attention to detail, and the band acquitted itself very well. “Everything had to happen in very specific places, so we couldn’t just let the band play freely,” Silvestri says. “I thought it turned out beautifully, and the filmmakers were thrilled as well. We couldn’t have asked for more in an end result.”

Bartner says he is proud of the band’s results and the lessons learned along the way. “To perform at this level really requires concentration and focus,” he says. “To be put under that kind of pressure is really an invaluable lesson. But also to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself, like the movie industry, I think that’s a tremendous experience for everyone in the band.”

Along with the incredible opportunity to perform for the soundtrack and work with a highly recognized composer, the band also attended a private screening of the movie.

To cap off the experience, Silvestri returned to the USC campus for its football game against Utah State in conjunction with its high school band day to be honored as a guest conductor for the Trojans’ halftime show. A band comprised of the 300-member Trojan Marching Band as well as 600 members of local high school marching bands played selections from Silvestri’s compositions, including “Captain America March” from the 2011 movie, “Smash and Grab” from the recently recorded “The Croods” and the iconic theme from “Back to the Future.”

“What’s always amazing about the USC band is that their great mission is inspiring enthusiasm and team spirit,” Silvestri says. “True to form, they all continued to bring their best energy. Dr. Bartner has done something really extraordinary, maintaining a level of quality with the band. I would jump at the chance to make music with them again.”

University of Miami Frost Band of the Hour in “A Change of Heart”

Recording the soundtrack to a movie is an amazing opportunity for a marching band, one that became even more momentous for the University of Miami’s Frost Band of the Hour. Not only would band members record part of the soundtrack to the upcoming 2014 movie “A Change of Heart,” they would also make an appearance on the big screen.

This incredible chance came about through Gloria Estefan, an actress in the movie and alumnus of the University of Miami.

Having worked closely with the university’s Frost School of Music, she went to the Frost Band of the Hour when the movie needed a marching band for its final scene.

“Working on the movie was a great experience for all of us,” says Dr. Thomas Keck, the band’s director. “For the first session, we had a very efficient recording with one of the producers. The actual shooting of the movie scene was really educational for the students because they got to see how a movie scene is done and just how time-consuming it can be. The band was expected to step in and perform at a high level of professionalism without much advance rehearsal.”

This experience meant a great deal to both the students in the band and the university. “Not only is this great exposure for the school, but it’s also one more opportunity for the students to remember their time in the marching band,” Keck says. “I’m just thrilled that the band had a chance to be in something like this. In the moments thereafter, everyone seemed extremely happy with their work.”

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 where he had the privilege of participating in the soundtrack to “The Croods.”

A photo of Killian Weston.

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