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Dr. Ken Dye

Mike Lawson • Features • August 15, 2013

Evolution Within a Historic Program

Dr. Ken Dye, director of bands at the University of Notre Dame. Photo by Heather Gollatz-Dukeman.

The University of Notre Dame is home to one of the oldest continuously running collegiate bands in existence. Thought to have been established as early as 1846, four years after the founding of the university, the Band of the Fighting Irish has been a valued contributor to the university since its inception, as well as a constant presence at home football games, from 1887 to the present day.

However, the Notre Dame Marching Band is also much more than a historical footnote. Under the watch of director Dr. Kenneth Dye, the ensemble was awarded the 2011 Sudler Trophy by the John Philip Sousa Foundation. The Sudler Trophy is the highest honor in the college marching world, reserved for “collegiate marching bands of particular excellence who have made outstanding contributions to the American way of life.”

Dye brings a remarkable background to Notre Dame. After starting out in college as an engineering major, he switched mid-stream to music performance. He then found himself teaching marching bands in Mexico, “caught the teaching bug,” and decided to go back to school. After building a high school marching band in Lakewood, Calif., Dye moved up to the college ranks as the director of bands at Rice University in 1980, where he led the Marching Owls for 17 years. In 1984, he further honed his skills working under his former undergrad band director, USC’s famed Dr. Art Bartner, as an assistant director of the marching band for the Olympics. Dye has since armed himself with a master’s degree in business administration and a doctorate in music education. Among his lengthy career notes are assignments as a pops arranger for the Dallas Symphony, the composer/arranger for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Band, the director of the All-American College Band at Walt Disney World, and director of the opening ceremonies of the U.S. Olympic Festival.

Now entering his 16th year at Notre Dame, Dye continues to explore the most forward reaches of the medium, developing and teaching courses like “Music Through Technology” and “The Business of Music.”

In this recent SBO interview, Dye discusses the impact of technology on the marching arts, the larger goals he has for his student-led ensembles, and his approach to balancing evolution and tradition.

School Band & Orchestra: How did you end up where you are today?

Ken Dye: It is very unusual; my first teaching job was in Mexico as a part of an international project. I went down and started marching bands in some little towns outside of Mexico City. I found that to be very rewarding and so I decided to go into teaching permanently. After that, I returned to Los Angeles, where I had studied as an undergrad, took a high school job in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and built a band program.

 SBO: In Mexico, was marching band culture something that was familiar to the communities there?

KD: Oh no – everything was from scratch. I took method books and instruments and really started everything from the beginning. That was a good way to find out if you could teach or not! [laughs] I had to do everything in Spanish.

 SBO: Do you speak Spanish?

KD: I do now! That really helped me because I was bilingual by the time I returned, and that proved to be useful getting a job in the L.A. area.

SBO: I can imagine. You also worked with Dr. Art Bartner on the Olympic Marching Band a few years after that. How would you describe his influence on your career?

KD: He was the reason I switched from engineering and science to music. He had such an energetic influence. I found him highly motivating to be around. And we’ve basically worked together ever since.

SBO: How would you compare your band at Notre Dame with what he’s doing at USC?

KD: One of the things that I learned in Mexico is that you adapt to your surroundings. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve had to change the methodology with the culture. Notre Dame has a very specific tradition and history that I had to learn and embrace before I could gradually add new material over the years. It’s pretty different from the Southern California approach, but certain elements of showmanship and entertainment in music are fairly common in every marching band program.

 SBO: How did you approach that period of integrating yourself into a program as storied as the one at NotreDame?

KD: This is one of the oldest collegiate band that’s been in continuous existence. There was this huge legacy to adapt to, particularly coming from a rival school in Southern Cal. I had to learn the traditions that were really distinct, and the things that were important: the Catholic culture, the musical traditions, the Irish guard – there were many things that I had to learn.

SBO: Meanwhile, you also want to put your own signature on the program over time, no?

KD: Let’s say you’re starting out in a new school – at any level. You’re going to have to assess the program and its traditions and learn to distinguish between what is a good quality tradition and what is a bad habit. That’s very difficult to do, but it’s necessary to move an organization forward. Just because you’ve done something some way before doesn’t mean that it is the best way to do things every time. So you obviously don’t want to come in and change everything, just those things that you think can improve the program.

SBO: Identifying what to change seems to be the challenge.

KD: It’s delicate and it takes time. Educators must try to do their homework, but also be assertive in a positive way so that they can show leadership in a new program.

SBO: In your time at Notre Dame, what is your sense of the larger trends in marching bands?

KD: There has been a dramatic change in the marching arts, and there are a lot of factors that play into that. One is technology – this has a huge influence on the way students learn, the way audiences pay attention, and how audiences respond to things, particularly in an athletic venue. We have seen a lot of competing time demands of academics versus musical activities. So the pressure to excel academically has put an extra challenge on music educators to make their program fit in with the best students who are trying to excel in both areas.

SBO: What’s the role that technology plays in this?

KD: It’s such a huge issue. I developed a course called “Music Through Technology.” If you follow technology from the player piano on – we’re talking 1900 – when Edison came out with the phonograph, all of a sudden songs had to be two minutes or two-and-a-half minutes long. So that duration has affected our attention span through the years. Now we have a text-message-length attention span. So if you’re designing marching band shows or arranging music for concerts, you should take into account the decrease in people’s attention span through the years. And this has been a dramatic change since the ’90s. We’ve seen students walking across campus in conversation, and that’s evolved from conversation into cellphone calls, and then that turns into text messaging. The amount of contact time that people have with one another has changed. So music has to cut through all  of that.

SBO: What is your response to changing methods of interpersonal interactions?

KD: You have to have really good communication with the students and engage them beyond the distractions they might have with technology. You have to give them something that they can’t get out of technology – you have to give them an experience that’s truly special and engaging.

SBO: On the other side of things, there’s a lot of new technology that can assist with planning and teaching the field show.

KD: We use a lot of technology for that, and the frequency of field show activity has been compressed from 30 seconds, to 15 seconds and down to even a five-second or less span of time because of people’s tastes and attention spans. If you’re programming a show for a non-captive audience – like at a football game – you have to grab that audience much more quickly now than before. The novelty of a band marching around and playing music doesn’t have the same impact as it used to. Now it has to quickly grab the audience musically and visually and keep them engaged for the duration of the presentation.

SBO: Do you have an opinion on this, or is it simply how it is at this point?

KD: I don’t have all of the answers! What we’ve done is we’ve had to work harder to keep our audience entertained. We give them more cues and recognition musically and visually, so that they can follow what we’re doing.

SBO: And you do this with an incredibly diverse student body, musically speaking, right?

KD: I’d say 99 percent are non-performance majors. We have a wide variety of academic fields representing all different majors and all different regions of the country. We probably have kids from all 50 states and some overseas students in the marching band.

SBO: What is your strategy for bringing those student musicians up to the level where they can perform with the quality your program demands, and do so in front of hundreds of thousands of people?

KD: It has to happen very quickly. We have our senior students – approximately 100 of them, known as the “core band” – come early and learn the teaching process. They do the teaching more one-on-one, and the directors are really in charge of guiding that process and handling auditions. If you have a student that learned to march in Massachusetts, the style might be different from someone who marched in New Orleans. We do have that kind of diversity here, so we have to unify that to the marching style that we’re going to use in the Notre Dame band. The students are able to accomplish that much more effectively than a few band directors who also have to be responsible for giving overall directions. We only have four days or so to do that.

SBO: That’s incredible

KD: It’s very broad strokes, is what I say! But it works.

 SBO: So what’s your philosophy as far as entertainment versus intrinsic music value in marching bands?

KD: We program and design according to our audience. And our primary audience is our student body. If you can actively engage your primary audience, then gradually the band becomes a very accepted group on campus. And when our band members go back to their dorm rooms, their classmates will say, “Wow, I sure like that song you played” or, “I sure liked that thing you did during the game.” That just keeps our students coming back to the band. They’re non-music majors, and they’re all volunteers, so we have to make them feel that they’re doing a great job and looking good, especially among their colleagues.

Depending on our audience, if we have an away game or a bowl game, there’s going to be a slightly different mix of repertoire. And it’s all entertainment oriented, compared to a contest show. A contest show is completely different, and you have to know when to switch gears.

SBO: And of course the repertoire plays a part of that entertainment, too.

KD: Absolutely. We work really hard to include the most current music. By doing that, it engages our student body. Then we can do other things from there and our student body will follow us and be appreciative of the effort.

SBO: That’s a little different for most high school bands, which may only prepare one or two shows each season.

KD: It’s a different job doing a contest show, but anything done well will be appreciated if you can engage the audience, no matter what kind of music you’re playing. An example of that is Texas A&M. They have a more traditional style, but when they came into our stadium, our audience loved it. And when Ohio State does their Script Ohio, people appreciate that no matter where that is. They see the coordination, the precision, and the commitment that they have. You have all of these great bands that do what they do really well.

High school programs have the same challenge of doing something really well – musically, with dynamics, phrasing, and visual clarity – and that may not always resonate with a “football” audience. It’s hard though, because expectations at one high school will be different from expectations at another, just as expectations change from one college to the next.

At Notre Dame, you’re going to be expected to entertain the audience and play the fight song really well. In another school that had predominantly music education majors in the band, you’d have to teach the tools that they would need to go out and teach marching band at the high school level. In that situation, you’re going to have a couple of different things to do. You’re going to have to play for exhibitions, to go play at state contests to recruit students to the college, and things like that. So there’s a balancing act there of trying to do the entertainment-related elements and then whatever the state-of-the-art in marching band is going to be.

SBO: How does your degree in business administration serve you in running a band program?

KD: It is really valuable in terms of marketing. It’s helped me look at things a little bit differently, when I have to, when thinking about things from an organizational structure or public relations perspective, rather than an educator’s point of view. I have developed and taught three large lecture courses: the Music through Technology, the Business of Music, and Music and the Olympics, which presents the history of the Olympics and its musical content. Through those courses, I’m able to show different types of development, leadership, marketing, economics, politics, and on and on – with music as a soundtrack.

SBO: And what about your own program – do you have to do much marketing of the Notre Dame band, even though it’s one of the most storied collegiate ensembles in existence?

KD: Oh, constantly! We’re constantly getting the word out via news, video, social media, graphic design, and more. We’re trying to share what we’re doing. We travel a lot, so we talk about our travel. We also reward the students visibly by giving them things they can wear around campus and wear at graduation – these are coveted items that are popular and instill pride.

SBO: For the many non-music major students in your marching band, what do you hope they take with them from their experience?

KD: That’s a good question. What I want them to experience is being able to work with others, and learning to communicate effectively with their peers so that they can attain a position of leadership or management when they graduate. I hope they develop respect for their coworkers, their teammates, and bandmates, and that they will still love the experience of performing music, rather than being tired of it by the time they leave. I want them to experience the joy of music. Hopefully we’re creating some audiences for the future, but we’re also developing people that can talk effectively in front of groups, lead by example, and work with others.

Band of the Fighting Irish at a Glance

Location: 100 Ricci Band Rehearsal Hall, Notre Dame, Ind.

On the web: www.ndband.com

Students in ensemble: 380

Year founded: 1846

Director: Dr. Ken Dye

Assistant directors: Larry Dwyer, Sam Sanchez, Justin McManus, Matt Merten, Alison Thigpen.

See members of the Notre Dame marching band featured in the video of OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass.” This alternate version of the pop hit was recorded live during the video shoot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJKythlXAIY

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