Forging Tradition: USC’s Dr. Arthur Bartner

Mike Lawson • Archives • August 7, 2008

School Band & Orchestra: How did you first become involved with music? Art Bartner: My older brother played trumpet. And then he dropped it. But the trumpet remained there. I saw his instrument and I guess I liked the way it looked, so I picked it up and started playing. This was in fourth grade; I was just about 10.

In junior high I really got into the band music. The catalyst there was the Marine Band. They came to my junior high and I heard them play and thought, “Golly, how can I make music like that?” They played “Bugler’s Holliday,” which is a very famous trumpet trio, so I fell in love with band music.

Then in ninth grade, I was the youngest member of the New Jersey all-state, all-star orchestra, and we did Tchaikovsky’s 4th. So then I fell in love with classical music. I thought that was terrific.

Later, I heard the famous Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall album, so then I fell in love with big band jazz in high school.

SBO: One by one these genres opened themselves up to you? AB: One by one. Somewhere along the line, I fell in love with the Broadway stage. I was born and raised in New Jersey and we used to get into the shows and check out the musicals and also the jazz scene about once a month. I pretty much like everything. I even like opera! [laughs]

The last piece was that I went to the University of Michigan, and there I fell in love with the marching band. So basically, as it goes through my primary years, I fell in love with each one of those genres. And to this day, I really love them all. Of course, I also get into the pop culture because I deal with college kids on a daily basis. I’m into Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Tower of Power all the bands that kids listen to because that’s how I make my living. That has occurred while I’ve been here at USC.

SBO: Where along the line did you realize that education might be in your future? AB: When I was in high school, I had two loves: basketball and music. I was actually all-state basketball and all-state band and orchestra. Like most kids, I figured either I was going to be the next Cazzie Russell, who was a great basketball player at the time, or the next Harry James, the great trumpet player.

Then I went to the University of Michigan and went out for the basketball team, where I found out I was too short, too slow, and couldn’t jump high enough. I also found out I was a pretty good trumpet player, but not good enough to be Harry James. At around that same time, I got into the marching band. And I thought, “Hey, I really like this.” In marching band, I realized you have to be very athletic, you have to be a very good player, and I liked working with people. I liked the whole structure and discipline of marching band. Really, that first year in college was when I thought to myself that teaching could be a possibility.

SBO: But you didn’t initially go for education. AB: I really wanted to be a player, but education is where my college career led me. In Michigan, when you get to that level, there are just phenomenal players and I just seemed to flow into that marching band and music education scene. It’s obviously worked out well I’ve been in the business for almost 50 years now.

SBO: Going back to your days at Michigan and your early days thereafter, would you mind walking me through your progression as an educator? AB: Sure. So I was in the Michigan band, then I became a Music Education and Instrumental major. The big push for me was my Master’s era. I was there for five years, and the summer of that fifth year, I really started to get serious about teaching. My mentors were William D. Revelli and George Cavender. William D. Revelli was the icon, and he concentrated on the music. George Cavender was the drill sargeant. Jerry Bilik was the arranger and he wrote the shows. I thought all three of these guys were just brilliant. So I came up with this plan: my goal was to become a college band director. I started to make plans to go through with my doctorate.

Forging TraditionI started going to every marching band clinic within 60 miles of Ann Arbor. I started playing in every group I could play with outside of school. I had my own dance band. I was in a Wind Ensemble that Dr. Revelli directed. I moved to Flint because I was teaching there at Davison High School, and I was in the Flint Symphony Orchestra. I just immersed myself in this career.

Without bragging. I built one of the best high school band programs in the state of Michigan. It took five years. And there were other great programs, don’t get me wrong, but I would consider mine one of the best. When I arrived there, they had one band of 60 kids. And when I left the school, they had three bands: a wind ensemble, a concert band and a freshmen band. The two upper bands marched. I had doubled the size of that band in five years. And in two of those five years, those bands won the top first-division ranking at the State Competition.

SBO: What specific steps did you take to effect that achievement? AB: The main thing is that you have to go in and talk to students. Basically, you have to sell the program, sell yourself, and convince everybody that this is a worthwhile experience. I did the same thing at USC, which is a whole different story.

Sell people on going to the games, going on trips, the camaraderie that is formed, the leadership skills the kids get. The second year at Davison I had new uniforms, which is part of that image you have to create for the band program that this is a place where you want to be. A lot of it is also the music you select and the type of shows you write.

SBO: How does that process compare to what you did at USC? AB: At USC, I started with 80 kids. It’s an amazing story USC had a great football team and in January of 1970 they beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. While USC was the better team on the football field, the Michigan band was vastly superior. Actually, that’s one of the reasons I got the job. The Michigan band was so superior to the USC band that the dean of the music school at USC, a Michigan guy himself, was looking for someone from Michigan to come in and revamp the program. It was that Michigan tie in that got me the job.

As I was saying, the band that I took over was 80 kids, and mostly music majors who really didn’t want to be on the field. They were only marching because that’s where their scholarship money came from. I wanted an all around student organization, not just music majors. So I convinced the School of Music to give me their scholarships. Then I went about attracting kids from the student body, regardless of major. The second thing I did was I added women to the band. There had never been women in the USC band.

So from that first band of 80 kids, last year we had 300.

USC’s Trojan Marching Band at a Glance

Total Number of Students: 300

Director of Bands: Dr. Art C. Bartner

Years Under Dr. Bartner’s Direction: 38

Consecutive USC Football Games Attended: 250

Rose Parade Appearances: 32

Typical Number of Performances in a Year: 350

Typical Miles Traveled in a Year: 20,000

Number of U.S. Presidents Played for: 7

Countries Performed in Since 1985: 17

Number of World Expos Performed at: 4

On the Web:

Select Television and Movie Appearances: The Naked Gun Forrest Gump Grease II The Last Boy Scout The Little Rascals Sgt. Bilko The Academy Awards America’s Funniest Home Videos American Idol The Arsenio Hall Show The Best Damn Sports Show, Period Doogie Howser, M.D. Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show The ESPY Awards FSN’s College Football Saturday Good Morning America Hollywood Squares In Living Color Jeopardy! L.A. Law Last Comic Standing The Rosie O’Donnell Show Scrubs Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 07 SportsCenter The Tyra Banks Show

SBO: Also, that was a reluctant 80 to an enthusiastic 300, right? AB: Oh, yes! Here’s another example: all bands have band camp. It’s the week before school and you teach the kids all the fundamentals. I had 56 kids show up for that first band camp. The high school band at the program I had just left had 120. So, you can imagine what it was like for me, the size of my band had dropped in half!

SBO: There are some pretty amazing opportunities afforded by your location and the connections that the school has in the Los Angeles community. Would you mind talking for a minute about these unique opportunities and how you think they affect the student body and the identity of the band? AB: It’s all about the experience that you offer these students. When you join the USC band, number one, you become a part of a program that is really locked into our football program. This is really one of the unique things about our program: the relationship between team and band is very close. Before every home game we’ll give them their own private pep rally. It’s a very unique situation. We play for them, just the team, at least once a week. And sometimes the coach comes over to band practices, so there’s this whole experience with the football team which is very unique to USC.

SBO: Can that be a little difficult because in some respects the band can’t always control the outcome of the sporting event? AB: Our philosophy is that we’re part of the game. We play for every down. We have a response for every play that occurs on the football field. This goes back to what an assistant coach once said, a guy by the name of Marv Goux. He’s the guy who got a hold of me in 1970. He said, “Here’s what this band needs to be. Here’s what the relationship to the football team needs to be.”

I came from a very conservative Michigan background, where we never played during the games. We only played during timeouts. But at USC, we play after every play; we have a musical response to everything that happens.

SBO: How was that transition for you, going from that Michigan atmosphere to the University of Southern California? AB: That’s a good question because I initially brought out the Michigan philosophy. And you know what? It didn’t work! These are west coast kids, these are kids that are used to living at the beach, and I needed a new approach. I got together with a group of guys, one of whom was Dr. Ken Dye, who’s now the band director at Notre Dame, one of our archrivals. Ken Dye was part of that first generation of students with whom I talked about what we were trying to do. I got together with this group of students, I remember it like it was yesterday, and this whole philosophy developed. At that point, I realized something: it’s a student band. It’s not my band. It’s not the football team’s band. It’s not the university’s band. It’s the students’ band.

This is how we started attracting students. Also, we became a very contemporary band. Today, we’re playing tunes that can be heard on the modern rock radio stations. For example, we had a meeting just recently and there’s a group called the Offspring. Dexter Holland, their lead singer, is a USC graduate. They have a new album coming out and one of my teaching assistants heard their new single on his way into work. He said to me, “We gotta play this tune!”

So I said sure, and now we’re probably going to be the only band in the country that’s going to play that tune. But that’s what the students listen to. So that’s how contemporary we try to be.

SBO: Yet, at the same time, you also, I’m sure, want to present some of the great literature of the past that students might not be familiar with. AB: Absolutely, and I tell the kids this. If it was up to them, all we would do is material that was written yesterday. But we have 92,000 people at every football game they always sell out. So we need a variety of material.

As an example, we’re going to open next season with a Stevie Wonder show. I consider his music to be timeless because the kids like it, adults like, and it has a very broad appeal. Then, for example, we’ll do an Olympic show, which has the music of John Williams. That will be a fun show in which we honor the USC students and graduates who are participating in the Beijing Olympics. So now you have a show that appeals to everybody in that house. Then we’ll do a homecoming show. Because homecoming honors alumni who return to USC, we’ll do “Sing Sing Sing,” which goes back to my roots. I really love that stuff. That’s one of the problems with me. What I really love is big band jazz, which is not what the kids are into. As far as classical music, probably the closest we get is John Williams. When Cal and Stanford come down and bring their bands, well, then we go back to contemporary material because then it becomes a battle of the bands and we want to play what we do best and what the kids like.

During the course of our season, which includes six home games, all the shows will be different. We have the same 92,000 people, so every halftime show has to have a different theme, has to have different style music to keep the interest of the audience and your students, and I think that’s one of the exciting things about collegiate bands in general: every week, they’re changing shows. The band members have to be able to read. When students come into USC, one of the things that I see is that most high school bands only learn one show. That’s it. They learn one show, and that show gets them through a whole season. So, oftentimes, when they come into my band, the kids don’t know how to read, or can’t do it well. We spend a lot of time developing that skill.

Also, all our music is memorized. Not only do they have to read, our kids also have to be able to learn material fast. We spend a lot of time developing reading and memorization skills.

SBO: In addition to the football season, the USC band also makes numerous appearances around town. Would you talk for a minute about those performances? AB: This Hollywood experience is something that I can offer students that no one else in the country can. For example, we just did the finale of American Idol. Over 30 million people watched that show. Whether you like that show or not is another discussion, but over 90 million people voted for the eventual winner. That’s more people than vote for the President of the United States. And this is just the last thing that we’ve done. We’ve done countless other events and high profile performances.

SBO: Is there anything special that you do in preparing students for this level of exposure? AB: It’s just become a part of our tradition. It’s a part of what we do. To be on television in front of all those people, well, we know how to do that. Our kids are willing to rehearse and willing to take direction. These shows have producers, so all of a sudden I’m not really in charge. I’m just relaying the information from the people who are running the show. It’s a great experience, and obviously there’s a very strong USC connection. We have a very strong cinema school, which has produced the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. A lot of the guys in the business are from USC. Also, because we’ve done so many of these events, people already know about the band. We’ve got that connection both from our graduates and from the reputation of the band that makes these events possible.

SBO: Do you approach it as training professional musicians? What’s your mentality in that regard? AB: It’s a work ethic. I’m training kids to be successful in life. By surrounding them with Super Bowls and Olympics we closed the Grammy’s one year, we were in Forrest Gump, and doing all these things I’m just trying to create kids who are going to be successful in life. These are doctors, these are lawyers, teachers. The music school really prepares the music majors, and my goal is just to help these kids become a success in life.

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!