Balancing Tradition and Innovation

Mike Lawson • Archives • August 16, 2012

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Daniel J. Farris is the director of athletic bands at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, where, among his many responsibilities, he oversees the Wildcat Marching Band. The Northwestern University Marching Band (NUMB) is an all-volunteer ensemble that includes members from every nook and cranny of the diverse Northwestern campus. The vast majority of band members are not music majors. Yet, in spite of the immense challenge of bringing an enthusiastic-but-largely-inexperienced ensemble up to speed in a very short period of time, the Sudler Trophy-winning ensemble has long been known as “the Finest Band in the Land.”

In leading the NUMB, Farris, who is entering his 13th year with Northwestern, draws on a wide array of teaching experiences, including stints at public schools, the Illinois State University, and UNLV. His goal, he says, is to balance the signature moves and traditions that have been a part of Wildcat Marching Band field shows since the group’s inception way back in 1926 with the latest innovations in the marching arts and entertainment.

SBO recently caught up with the director to discuss his teaching approach, the intricacies of the NUMB, and some of the challenges of preparing the music educators of tomorrow.

School Band & Orchestra: How were you first introduced to music? 

Dan Farris: One of my earliest memories of being around music was listening to my grandmother play piano and hearing music at our church. My parents told me that I begged for piano lessons when I was in first grade. In fifth grade I started saxophone and continued in the program at Oregon High School in Wisconsin. My first high school band director, Mike Davis, left after my sophomore year and eventually moved to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, following my senior year. Along with three of my high school classmates, I followed him there to study music education.

SBO: He must have been a substantial influence on you, then!

DF: Oh, without question. Mike had a great high school program with excellent concert, jazz, and marching bands. When he went to JMU, he founded what is now known as the Marching Royal Dukes, and I was there to see the group more than double in numbers and grow tremendously in quality. He was a master motivator and understood how to entertain an audience, later working at Disney World for many years. I was also influenced by my other high school director, Steve Spiwak, who instilled an incredibly strong work ethic and energy in his students.

SBO: From your experience teaching in public schools before moving up to the college ranks, what are some of the things you learned that helped you have success throughout your career?

DF: I really received my education during my first few years of teaching. Not to take anything away from my undergraduate experience, but you really find out who you are as a person and as a teacher once you get into the classroom. You take inventory of what works and learn to use the resources around you to become more efficient. One of the more difficult things I had to learn was how to delegate. Surrounding yourself with talented people is essential in running a program, especially for a marching band.

Another mentor who had a huge affect on me as an educator was Gary Smith at the University of Illinois, where I was a graduate assistant. Gary is an amazing person and a master teacher. He provided me with numerous on-the-job opportunities in drill writing and leading ensembles. Among the many things he taught me was how to be effective within the system that he had spent years refining. This included a number of specifics in what should appear on each drill chart. At first I didn’t really get it; I thought it was just a ton of work and detail. Once I witnessed how quickly the students were able to read the music and the drill charts, leading to an efficient and productive rehearsal, I was convinced. You can see the influence of his teaching methods in many music educators throughout the country.

SBO: Let’s talk about the Northwestern University Marching Band; when you came on board at Northwestern, what were your initial goals?

DF: I’m beginning my thirteenth year here. This program is one of the oldest in the country and has a very storied past, beginning in 1926 with the original director of bands, Glenn Cliffe Bainum. Mr. Bainum was an icon and early innovator in the marching field. He was succeeded by NU alum and then-assistant director John P. Paynter in 1953. Mr. Paynter was really hands on with the marching band throughout his legendary 40-plus years as director of bands. There is a great lineage in that Northwestern’s third and current director of bands, Dr. Mallory Thompson, was a student of Mr. Paynter’s. She was a four-year member of NUMB and is committed to being involved in the organization. As you can see, the heritage and tradition of the band speaks for itself.

When I came here, I wanted to maintain and build on these traditions, while keeping current with halftime music and drill design. NUMB is made up of an amazingly intelligent and talented group of students who have a tremendous amount of pride and spirit. Building on the tradition of excellence has been both motivating and inspiring.

SBO: You mention trends in the marching world – what are some of the things you are seeing taking place?

DF: When I adjudicate competitive and festival shows, I see the expanded use of electronics and amplified soloists, vocalists, and front ensemble instruments. The amount of auxiliary equipment and props has also increased dramatically in the past few years. Music and drill are growing more sophisticated and complex.

SBO: Are electronic instruments something that you’ve considered implementing in the NUMB?

DF: Not really at this time, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule anything out in the future. The Wildcat Band is primarily traditional in what we do during pre-game, but our halftime shows can include anything. Our shows range from classical to Broadway to rock. Our hope is that we hit on something that everyone enjoys.

NUMB is essentially all-volunteer, with no audition requirement. Virtually every major offered by the university is represented, and from a very diverse population. We have members who are very experienced, having marched in competitive high school and drum corps, alongside students who may never have marched a day in their life. Last year we had a number of international students who received our recruiting materials, thought it would be fun, and there they were on the first day of band camp. We welcome them as part of our Northwestern family.

SBO: How do you maintain the level of consistency and musicianship with so many non-music majors in the ensemble?

DF: That is the challenge! I try to remain consistent with instructions and stress the importance of fundamentals. It takes some time, but once they are established it makes learning that much easier throughout the year. I also rely on the work of many talented graduate assistants who work closely with the students and help our student leadership. They are essential to the success of our organization.

I think it’s important to note that many high school students think that their musical careers end at graduation, that they won’t be good enough to play at the next level, or that they have to be a music major to participate in music; with NUMB, and the vast majority of university band programs across the country, it’s to the contrary. I would estimate that 95 percent of students in our marching band are non-music majors. It’s demanding, but I view the diversity of backgrounds and experiences as a huge bonus for our group.

SBO: What’s your secret for making it all work?

DF: You have to be really organized and prepared. We’ve set in place a proven system and a hierarchy of student leadership. I communicate with the students to coordinate the techniques and style that we use. They are incredibly committed and prideful of their individual teaching and the results they achieve with their respective sections. Coordinating is sometimes challenging, but it works effectively in the end. There is also an emotional element with the university and football team that is special here. NUMB creates an immediate connection to the Northwestern community. Supporting the team, no matter what, has been a tradition that will never die.

SBO: That system of student leadership goes back to what you were saying earlier, about learning to delegate. 

DF: Definitely. With a marching band, and larger sized groups in particular, empowering the people around you makes the students feel that they have a vested interest and pride of ownership in the product. That is one of the most rewarding aspects for me. As an admitted control freak, one of the most difficult things I had to learn was to let go. Part of it is teaching, but it’s also about being an organizer who trusts other people to teach what you want that really makes the system work.

SBO: That sounds like a system that could work at any level of marching band, no?

DF: Yes, or any organization or even corporation – without question.

A special part of being at Northwestern is being surrounded by such talented and bright students. It’s an honor and privilege to work here. I don’t think there is a smarter band in the land. They are also very nurturing and accepting of their peers, which creates a positive energy within group.

SBO: With the NUMB, how do you draw the line between staying current with marching trends, without becoming so esoteric that you lose the audience?

DF: As far as programming goes, marching bands can be many different things. I’ve tried to be open to the many different possibilities of what a marching band can be, and what it should be. Early in my career, I had an idea of the style of music and the style of marching that I wanted to do, and I wasn’t really open to anything else. As I’ve been around and experienced different programs, I’ve realized that marching bands can have many different layers. They can provide different opportunities depending on the performance venue and audience. This is another thing I learned from Gary Smith. Just because one group might be more traditional in nature doesn’t make it better or worse than a group who is “cutting edge.”

Quality is quality no matter what the program or style. It really comes down to what is appropriate for the performance setting and how the program is presented. An extremely complex, esoteric show might not be appropriate for a halftime show at a football game. I do think, however, that it’s important that people are pushing the envelope with what is possible on the field so that we can continue to grow. It’s kind of like musical composition; people are constantly trying to see what’s possible with technology, form, and technique. Whether you’re talking about drum corps, college, or high school shows, advancing the aesthetic, musical, and technical boundaries is what allows us to learn from each other and grow the art form.

SBO: Speaking of growing the art form, in a broader sense, how has music education been influenced by technological innovation?

DF: Technology has definitely changed things, particularly in the past five to ten years. One of the challenges facing music education today is how we can harness all of this very useful technology and use it to improve instruction. It can be powerful tool, but it can also detract from learning. The question is how can we be creative in using and implementing what technology has to offer? Equally as challenging is keeping up with an ever evolving medium. It is a very exciting time, but there are many issues we need to explore.

SBO: What technological tools have you implemented into your own courses and ensembles, writing drill, and so on?

DF: When I started writing drill I did everything by hand. While I’m glad that I learned to do it that way, I now use a computer. For me, it saves an immense amount of time and is far more accurate than I can chart by hand. Animation within the program is also a helpful tool for both writing and teaching drill. In addition, digital media has made it much easier for students to communicate using videos and recordings to facilitate learning a show.

SBO: You mentioned that your first few years in the classroom were a trial by fire in some respects. What can be done in the music education courses at colleges so that future teachers might be better prepared to step into the classroom?

DF: Providing as much practical involvement as possible is key. A typical music education curriculum usually includes student teaching only at the end of a four or five-year curriculum. I think it would be advantageous to have more extended teaching experiences throughout the undergraduate curriculum. Whereas music performance majors perform and composition majors compose throughout their entire collegiate experience, music education students have to wait until their senior year to student teach.

As a pre-student teaching experience, I incorporate teaching practicums in my music education methods course where we have the opportunity to go out to four or five high school and middle schools. Students prepare a lesson plan, rehearse the band, and receive a video review. It’s proven to be a valuable experience and one that, quite frankly, I wish we could do more of in preparing music educators. You can only theorize so much about certain ideas before you have to put them into practice.

We also have a rehearsal lab that was started several years ago. It meets once a week, and is required of all music education majors. Students who are closest to their student teaching experience organize and run rehearsals, with everyone playing on a secondary instrument.

SBO: What have you found to be the main logistical impediments to increasing the number of contact hours for student teaching?

DF: That’s a challenge for a number of reasons. With the number of required courses in a music core curriculum, music education courses, general education courses, observation hours, student teaching experience, technique training on all the instruments, and so on, it’s a full curriculum, to say the least. There’s very little room for additional electives and supporting activities, even though that contact element is so important.

I think we do a good job of teaching the technical aspects of music – fingerings and that sort of thing – and preparing them on that front. However, you really need to be in front a classroom to learn the essential skills needed to be a quality educator. Assessing your teaching style and developing interpersonal skills with administration, parents, and colleagues – I think that’s where you really learn the most about being a teacher.

SBO: Last question: what would you say are the characteristics that make for a great educator?

DF: There are many qualities that come to mind; clearly a person needs to have expertise and knowledge of what they are teaching. Someone who is caring, enthusiastic, committed to excellence, dedicated, and passionate about both music and teaching. I also think the ability to adapt to change and continue to grow personally and professionally is vital. These are all universal themes.




Dr. Mallory Thompson


Director of Bands

Northwestern University

School Band & Orchestra: Remarkably, you’re only the third director of bands since the marching band was founded in 1926. What does that legacy mean to you?

Dr. Mallory Thompson: Glenn Cliffe Bainum was one of the real leaders in the 20th century band movement, not only in terms of building the marching band, but also building the concert organization. One of the ways he did that was by writing transcriptions, because during the time he was conducting concert bands, there really weren’t that many original works.

John Paynter, my predecessor, was a student of Mr. Bainum’s, and always spoke very highly and reverently about Mr Bainum and what Mr. Bainum meant to the band program. Now, I can hardly believe that I’ll be starting my 17th year in this position, and as a student of Mr. Paynter’s, it’s very meaningful for me to be here. Each person had a great deal of respect for their predecessor, but had the expectation of coming in and building on the tradition and excellence, while putting their own stamp on it.

Northwestern, along with Illinois and Michigan, in particular, are some of the schools that have this really long and rich history of excellence and leadership in concert music, not only in the Big 10, but also across the United States.

SBO: When you came on board as director of bands, where were you looking to make your mark?

MT: I was really interested in doing recordings. This was something that Mr. Paynter did a little bit of, but not a great deal. This was something that became important to me, and we actually just released our fourth CD in my tenure on the Summit record label. It is called Rising. And Summit has just entered us into consideration for the Grammys, which is a first for me. We were entered in the Best Orchestral Performance category, ironically enough, because no one really knows what to do with a wind ensemble.

I also really wanted to establish strong relationships with our applied faculty and collaborate with them a great deal. I’ve had them play many concerti with the symphonic wind ensemble, and I’ve been involved with a lot of commissioning. I just wanted to put my own artistic and musical stamp on the organization, and the kind of artistic training that I want to give the students as they go on their way – many of them – to professional performing careers, as well as the kind of artistic quality of performance that I wanted to present to our audiences.

SBO: How do the athletic bands fit into the scope of musical opportunities at Northwestern?

MT: The athletic bands are very near and dear to my heart because I actually played in the NUMB for four years when I was a student here. This gives me a lot of perspective, as well as credibility, both with the alumni and the students who are in the organization now. People feel such an emotionally vested interest in it these bands.

I’m all in favor of the students putting their stamp on the organization and watching it evolve, because you have to evolve! You can’t just be a museum. That’s not relevant to the members, and it’s not relevant to the audiences. I always want to think about the audience, whether that’s with the Wildcat Marching Band or with my symphonic wind ensemble. You have to consider the audience, and you have to make the audience want to watch your performances. I’m really very interested in the marching band, in many ways like I’m interested in my own ensembles.  You want to be respectful of and attached to the history and tradition of excellence, but you have to be aware and modify things so they speak to the modern times – without pandering to the lowest level of taste.

SBO: You mean base entertainment factors?

MT: Right, exactly, because that’s not excellence.

SBO: So with your unique perspective, having been a band member and now overseeing the entire program, how has the marching band evolved in terms of purpose, identity within the university, and execution on the field?

MT: It’s been an amazing evolution. The evolution went from the stock picture-style show – where you go from formations making a clock or a bugle or whatever else – to incorporating more of the drum corps, while not giving up some of the traditions, which is a very important part of the entertainment value and historic value of what the marching band does.

Dan Farris does an exceptional job charting for the marching band. He stays very current and is always finding a way to incorporate the tradition of the highest level of musical performance and playing really effective arrangements with really modern and very entertaining drill design.

It’s always interesting for me to see. I can’t keep up on drum corps; it’s not my thing. It’s all I can do to stay current and on top of things in my own area of expertise, but I can’t wait to get to rehearsal to see what Dan is having them do and to see how he leads them to their really excellent level of execution.

SBO: For people that might be unfamiliar, what are some of the signature moves, sets, or sounds of the NUMB?

MT: Our big traditions are in our pregame: there’s our high step; there’s something called a “rear back,” which is a flashy move that makes their capes move when they’re about to turn in a new direction; and the formation of our block “N,” where that letter appears as a sort of a marquee, like there are theatre lights blinking around it. Those happen during the pre-game and that’s the real tradition in terms of drill design.  The pregame is an homage to the Big 10, and to the traditions of the bands in this conference.

A new tradition, this year, was having the drum line come out of this inflatable wildcat. That was very exciting! I’m all for reinterpreting traditions and putting a new spin on them. I think our wonderful relationship with the athletic department really facilitated our creativity and our the ability to brainstorm and come up with something new and something really entertaining for the crowd.

Musically, the band is really known for making a quality sound, not just loud and blaring volume for its own sake. We’re not the biggest group in the Big 10, and there are virtually no music majors in the marching band, unlike at some other prominent schools. Dan just absolutely works magic with this group. From hearing them from the first rehearsal to what they’re able to do on the field, it’s just magic. And he does it by encouraging students to play musically, to play smart, and to never ever make a bad sound. Maybe one of the most important aspects of the marching band, to me, is that they play musically.


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