UpClose: Barry Spanier

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • August 14, 2007

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From a Vision to a Band

From a seed to a sapling, and a sapling to a tree. A strong music program begins with a vision. This idea must be articulated and nurtured, so it can lay roots and extend. As the environment takes notice of the positive nature of this aim – the power of unity and determination, the exhilaration of performance – it gains in strength, numbers and support.

The vision at Tulane University was sown by students. In 2003, after 30 years without a marching ensemble, a student-run pep band decided to march for homecoming, with support from the few emeritus alumni who recalled a Tulane marching band long extinct. The enthusiasm of this student group inspired administration to bring in a music director who could rekindle Tulane’s dormant marching tradition.

Enter Barry Spanier, a man who has fielded marching bands across two Olympic games, a World Expo, and rebuilt the NYU Orchestra. In a recent SBO interview, Barry spoke of the progression leading up to his current position as Tulane’s director of bands and the challenges and joys of sowing musical seeds.

Tulane University Marching Band at a Glance

Director: Barry Spanier
Assistant Director: Mark Lighthiser
Drumline Instructor: Michael Beyt
Color Guard Instructor: Valen Gonzales
Drum Majors: Eric Wilder, Nick Larberg
Enrollment in Marching Band: 45
Enrollment in Music Department: 600
Marching Band Web Site: www.tulane.edu/~band
Years in Existence: 1920-1975, 2005-present


School Band & Orchestra: Walk me through your own musical development.
Barry Spanier: I grew up in Southern California. I went to public schools, good all-around programs, and did my undergrad work at USC.

SBO: What about before that? How did you first get into music?
BS: When I was a kid, my older brother had a friend who played the trumpet. I saw that and thought I would like to try it, so I started taking private lessons, just before sixth grade. I played in junior high school bands and orchestras, where I had a great teacher, Bill Grantham, who really pushed the groups and was very inspirational. Once I started playing, it never occurred to me to stop. I loved sports and arts and all sorts of things, but when music came along, I enjoyed it and picked it up pretty quickly.

High school was the first time I got a chance to march. In band camp my freshman year, I fell right into it. I liked the kind of people who were in the band; it was a really tight-knit group. Throughout high school, I explored other things, too: I played in the band, the orchestra, did musical theater and jazz. I did some student conducting in high school, especially my senior year, and then went on to study music education at USC. Once I started conducting, I really got a bug for it.

SBO: You conducted during high school?
BS: The music teacher, John McRae, usually offered opportunities to one or two students each year. There was the wind ensemble, which was the advanced group, the concert band, and the orchestra. I played in the different groups, but got a chance to conduct the concert band.

And then at USC, I was studying music education, taking trumpet lessons and performing and, I think it was my sophomore year, I was taking a conducting course when I had the chance to be an assistant music director for a student musical. I did all the legwork that an assistant usually does: mark the cuts in the books and line up the student musicians and rehearsal space – all the logistics. Just before we were going to start rehearsals, the guy who was going to be the musical director quit.

SBO: So you were just thrown into the fire?
BS: Yes. I wasn’t planning on conducting – I was just going to assist, maybe run some rehearsals – but I got thrown into it and it was a great experience. I pursued conducting more and more, and with some friends at USC – some who were into film, some into drama, and others who were in music – we did our own shows on campus, in addition to the curricular ensembles.

Throughout my time at USC, I was always in the marching band, as well. With the USC marching band, doing bowl games and traveling, I rose to be squad leader, and then section leader, and then later when I was doing some graduate courses and beyond, I became an associate conductor for the USC band. At the same time, I was freelancing in musical theater and involved with other kinds of projects. It became two-pronged: the marching band on one side and freelance music production on the other.

Then the 1984 Olympics came to Los Angeles and I had a chance to work again with Dr. Art Bartner, who is the band director at USC.

SBO: Whom you worked with at USC?
BS: Right. He was the director of the 1984 All-American College Olympic Band. I worked with the full 700-piece band at the Olympics, but then also coordinated small groups to play at all the different venues during the games.

From that I got to know an Australian fellow named Ric Birch, who was one of the producers for the Olympic ceremonies. He had previously done the Commonwealth Games in Australia and was working on the ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles as one of the entertainment producers. The following year, he invited me to come out to Australia to direct a band program for World Expo ’88, for which he was the entertainment director. That became a three-year job. With his experience at the Olympics and seeing the power of the marching bands at the Olympics and the USC band, Ric wanted to bring that energy and entertainment value to Australia and the Expo.

SBO: Australia isn’t renowned for marching band tradition, though, is it?
BS: That is correct. They do have a very strong brass band tradition, like the British, and they also have pipe bands, but not marching bands. Ric wanted this to be introduced to the Australians. The Expo ran for six months, seven days a week, in 1988. My job was to recruit, nurture, and work with local high schools to develop their own bands, which could then come out and perform at the Expo. So I had a couple of years to indoctrinate and train educators how to teach marching band. Simultaneously, we developed a fulltime professional marching band for the Expo, a 64-piece band comprised of college-age musicians from all over Australia. They came to Brisbane, where the Expo was, two months prior to train and learn the shows. They were called the Expo City Marching Band and performed five days a week throughout the six months.

SBO: And that started from scratch?
BS: Yes. That band performed as a marching band, but also broke up into a swing band, rock band, brass quintets, flute trios – all sorts of ensembles – throughout the Expo site.

At the same time, we trained three local high school bands, who performed at the Expo about 10 times each. They would lead parades and do drill shows around the sites. Those bands were sustained after the show, so there’s sort of a legacy. This all connects to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, in which some of those students, who went on to become music educators, were really involved.

After the ’88 Expo finished, I came back to the States to go to NYU and get my Master’s degree. Upon graduation, I went to work for NYU, directing an office called the Center for Music Performance. That entailed music coordinating for the university and directing the orchestra, which wasn’t doing so well at the time. In what’s become a sort of career trend – not something I’d envisioned from the beginning – I was a building program up either from scratch or from hard times.

SBO: Had the NYU Orchestra had more success in the past?
BS: Yes, but it had fallen into decline. I didn’t work with the NYU Orchestra or even the music department when I was getting my Master’s, so I can’t be too sure of what went on, but, for whatever reasons, there were some problems with recruitment and retention – students would come through it for about a year and move on.

One of my things is that I really work closely with each individual student. I get involved with their playing and their philosophy and approach to the ensemble. When I took over the NYU orchestra, we had 19 string players, mostly freshmen, and that was it. After five years that had been built up to an 85-piece full orchestra.

SBO: You customize your approach with each student?
BS: I leave flexibility for that, yes. There’s a structure and an overall philosophy and an approach which is fair to everybody, but I know that each student brings their own kind of aspirations and schedule conflicts and whatever else to the ensembles. I try as best I can to find a way to work with them so they can enjoy the experience and get something out of it and find a way to add to the ensemble experience for everyone around them. Ensembles are different from other classes, where students are only responsible for their own work. In any ensemble – whether it’s marching band, orchestra, whatever it is – everyone is responsible to each other. You can only progress in rehearsals if everyone is there.

I want to help students get a good experience out of it – not just a good musical experience, but also a good life experience. If people are getting a good experience out of the process – and everybody gets something a little bit different – then they’ll want to come back. Also, I find that students want a challenge; that was the case at NYU and that’s the case here at Tulane.

SBO: Take me back to NYU. What happened from there?
BS: While I was at NYU Ric Birch contacted me and wanted me to put together a band program for the 2000 Olympics in Australia, which were a few years away. His idea was to have a 2,000-piece marching band. There may have been larger numbers who’ve assembled and marched to break a certain record of people playing together, but as far as a band actually creating and performing a field show in uniform, I believe it’s the largest band in history.

We had 2,000 kids from 23 countries. The primary countries involved were the US, Japan, and Australia.

SBO: How long were they around to practice?
BS: Two years prior, my drum instructor, David Glyde, and I started traveling to the hub cities – Atlanta, Los Angeles, Osaka, Japan, and the major cities in Australia – where those members would gather with local directors and rehearse material that we had sent them. We came by every six months to see how they were doing on the material, work with the students and directors, make improvements, and introduce new material. When we all got together, we had 10 days prior to the Opening Ceremony in Australia.

SBO: That sounds like a massive undertaking.
BS: [laughs] It was pretty wild. Even the practice field we had in Australia was a full size field up in the mountains. Certainly there were some things that you’d never imagine having to deal with, just because of the logistics. For example, we had 40 busses and 10 trucks, and going through the mountain roads to get back and forth to the stadium to rehearse took almost six hours. In some ways it was a nightmare, but it was also an amazing, amazing experience.

My superiors at NYU had given me a leave of absence so I was able to spend that whole summer leading up to the Olympics preparing and work during the games themselves. When it was finished, I continued at NYU. We had an Artist-in-Residence series, we built the orchestra up, and we also had chamber groups. My last two years there, we also had a secondary orchestra of about 20 students. I mentored some students to do some conducting and arranging to lead that group. So that was all going along, and my wife and I had a daughter in 1999. The orchestra had stabilized – it wasn’t going to get much bigger – and I started looking for a new challenge, so to speak. And while New York was great, with a young daughter, we started thinking of going someplace a little warmer, maybe a little greener. So we explored and this opportunity at Tulane came up.

There had not been a marching band here in 30 years. Officially, there had been some attempts using high school students and some other things, but nothing had really taken root. I answered an advertisement in late May of ’04, got the call and interviewed that summer.

SBO: What was the impetus at Tulane for bringing you in?
BS: Well, the alumni had just been wanting a band back for so long for football games and Mardi Gras parades and those sorts of things. In the music department here, there’d been concert bands, orchestra and jazz groups, as well as a full range of other academic subjects: music theory, composition, arranging, all those things, choral groups, but there was not a critical mass of energy across the university to bring back a marching band, because it is a major endeavor. With the urging and support of alumni, the student-run pep band Soundwave – which had been established about 10 years prior – put together a volunteer marching band for homecoming 2003. They wore khakis and matching shirts and hats and they had about 50 or 60 people: the pep band themselves, their friends, and some alumni. They rehearsed a couple times a week and they made a block-T formation for homecoming.

SBO: All without administrative support?
BS: Soundwave pep band is administered through student affairs, but it was the student motivation, organization, design, and coordination that got it done. Fundraising through alumni enabled them to acquire some instruments – large brass and drumline equipment. They also did a Mardi Gras parade the following February, ’04. With all of that happening, there was enough excitement that Tulane president Scott Cowen set the stage for the marching band to become a fully accredited ensemble in the music department.

SBO: Tell me about that first year.
BS: It was great. There were a lot of good resources here at the university, as far as fields and practice rooms, but since a marching band had not existed, the fields were already booked and there were other issues that had to be resolved. The goal the first year was to lay the groundwork, do the research at the university, and develop relationships with the different departments, alumni, administration and so forth.

I attended all the Tulane football games at the Superdome, and observed and talked to people in athletics and the administration, and designed a plan. In the meantime, I was directing the concert band. We did a few experiments: for example, we had the concert band, along with the pep band, play for the last football game to see how it worked and get a feel for the logistics. We also played at the Mardi Gras parade in February of ’05. We didn’t march, we just played at the start of the parade for a bit of promotion, and we purchased uniforms, the funds for which had been raised by the students the previous year. We were trying to get some publicity materials out. We had no recordings because we hadn’t had a band yet, but using graphics and photographs of the new uniforms, we put together some brochures and a Web site for late spring of ’05 and planned for band camp in August of ’05.

SBO: Right before Hurricane Katrina hit? Perfect timing!
BS: Yeah, perfect timing, right? We ran our band camp in August. The last day of camp was August 27th, which is also the regular freshman check-in day for the university. So we had some of the freshman in early for the camp, but the bulk of the freshman class, about 1,600 of them, was coming in that day.

SBO: Were the majority of the students at band camp underclassmen?
BS: It was a pretty good mix. Those who’d been involved with the volunteer pep band in ’03 were then sophomores and juniors, plus there were freshman coming in.

A lot of the camp was focused on determining our style. I had a basic technical approach of what I wanted to do marching, using a glide step, but also knew that we would tie in to traditional marching aspects of being here in New Orleans – some of the early jazz music that ca me out of band traditions in the previous century.

SBO: What happened next?
BS: So the first band camp finished on August 27th, which was the check-in date for the freshmen. At around 10:30 that morning, the university made the call to evacuate. Everyone had been watching the weather and a day or two before, the president had started e-mailing updates to everyone at the university. We had a good plan in place, one in which anybody who didn’t have their own transportation out would be taken by bus up to Jackson, Miss., where we had an arrangement with the university there to house students and others.

So, unlike some aspects of the city, state, and federal government, the university had a plan in place and executed it. We made sure that every band member either had somebody driving them, was with a member of our staff, or was on those buses to Mississippi. We stayed connected to everybody by cell phone.

Obviously, that fall semester at Tulane never happened. Ryan Guillory, who is a band alumnus and previous Soundwave leader, and I coordinated to get the band back together that November to play at the Tulane-Rice game in Houston, where Rice University is located, because so many people had evacuated to Houston. So band alumni, current band members, and students from a local high school who helped us out with instruments and rehearsal space all gathered in Houston in mid-November.

SBO: That must have been an emotional performance.
BS: It was, very much so. We played in the stands wearing special t-shirts we had made. The Rice band was very hospitable and helped us out – they brought over water jugs and refreshments. It was great for the fans to see us there, and for the team, too.

Then the university reopened in January of ’06. During the fall, we’d all been in touch by e-mail, and we threw ourselves back together for Mardi Gras ’06, which was really our first uniformed performance in public.

SBO: You didn’t have much prep time, did you?
BS: We didn’t! We had whatever we had prepared at band camp the previous summer, a couple of school songs, a couple of traditional Mardi Gras songs, we had our own custom arrangements of “Saints” that we’d learned at band camp, and a couple of cadences. We really didn’t have time to rehearse, per se, it was more play through the music a few times, work some things out, form up a parade block, and get some whistle commands and protocol together and go around the parking lot a couple of times. Of course, we also had to do all the uniform fittings, because we hadn’t had a chance to do that at band camp. But it such an emotional event – Mardi Gras ’06…

SBO: Right, a re-awakening of the city…
BS: It was, and everybody was still so in shock. People were trying to figure out where everything was and some people didn’t even have a home to go back to, as is still the case for many. But the university did a tremendous job getting things ready for that January opening. It was a staggering process.

The band room is on the second floor here, and we didn’t actually have that much direct flooding in this part of the campus, but there was seepage in some of the theatres and some of the orchestra pits. The university had to replace some seats and redo electrical and things, but the band room – the uniforms and instruments – did relatively well.

SBO: You got lucky.
BS: Yep. We threw ourselves together and did four parades. Even though we weren’t right where we would have wanted to be artistically, it was just so important to be out there and to be giving to the people on the streets. And the emotion that they gave back was tremendous.

It was such a release after all the anguish and pressure and uncertainty about what was going to happen to the city. The crowds were smaller, obviously, but everyone was so happy to be there. Mardi Gras was the first real positive thing to happen to New Orleans after the storm, and it just felt great to be a part of that.

I’ve played in a whole lot of parades in my life, and Mardi Gras is just a completely different thing. The crowds are right there, and they’re yelling to you, and it’s a real give and take. It’s spontaneous, too, because you don’t know exactly what is going to happen on each block. The band members start coming up with their dance steps during the cadences and the songs, and the crowd just loved it. We were really developing a rapport with the people in the streets because that’s whom you’re doing it for.

Even though they’re long, epic parades – I think the shortest one is five miles – and it’s exhausting, you just keep getting recharged every block because of the audience. It is such a wonderful and unique experience.

SBO: Where do you see the Tulane Marching Band going in the future?
BS: We just finished our first football season, our second Mardi Gras, and the recruitment has gone well. This freshman class coming in is going to be the first one to set the pace regarding our future size. We’ll be about the same, or maybe slightly larger than we were last year, but with a much better instrumentation balance and now with that first year under our belts, we can really move forward. My goal moving forward is to get 20-25 in each freshman class so we can continue to build and grow.

Each administration has its own culture and way of doing things, so these first couple years at Tulane I’ve been indoctrinating myself into that, as well as educating the university about what it takes to run a marching band, in terms of logistical needs and finances, et cetera. That said, the administration has been great. They are very supportive and they realize that it’s a great public relations and outreach instrument for the university.

The pep band still operates as a student run group through the office of student affairs, so it has its autonomy, but most of the members of the pep band are also in the marching band. Also, that flows into the concert band, orchestra, jazz groups, et cetera. I advise them and work with them, and as each year passes we’ll find more ways to streamline and dovetail certain things artistically and operationally.

Part of recruitment and retention is understanding where the students are coming from before they get here, and giving clear expectations and parameters of what’s expected of them. Then they can make a judgment as to whether or not they can commit to it.

SBO: You have pretty extensive experience building marching programs with both high school and college students. What are some of the unique challenges of working with each group?
BS: Each phase of a young person’s life prepares them for the next phase, both academically and in terms of life skills, so in high school students are in that middle ground. Kids are still living at home, a lot of them haven’t developed a lot of independent skills of critical thinking and responsibility. In high school and even before that, it’s necessary to delineate for them what they have to do step-by-step to get from point A to point B.

In college, I see the responsibility of the educator as helping transition the student from being told everything and taking it step-by-step to being able to see the big picture and make critical decisions in their lives. Ideally, by the time students have come through the program, I’m satisfied that they have learned certain life skills through the band process – that they know how to see a challenge, analyze it, prepare to meet it, and execute what they need to do to overcome it.

While my actual job is about teaching music, drill, and performance etiquette, I wouldn’t want to separate it from all of the other aspects that education entails and which individuals and the greater community can benefit from.

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