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UpClose: Stanford University Marching Band

Bryan Reesman • Features • August 14, 2014

“Spreading the Love and Rocking Out”

Photo by Al Ponce.

While the term “college marching band” instantly conjures up the image of a uniformed, synchronized unit moving with military-like precision, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band defies that convention. Driven by a fun-loving, hard-working rock and roll ethos, the famous “scatter band” may don their school’s cardinal red and white colors (along with some black), but their attire can also vary from sport coats and pants to pajamas to casual beach attire. Their mixture of new and classic popular music, spiritedly performed whether they are at a stadium game or part of a street corner flash mob, is enhanced by members scrambling into formation and dancing or hopping to the beat. And the beat rolls ever on – they play approximately 200 rallies per year.

The roots of the Stanford Band’s irreverence, which has included controversially humorous performance stunts over the years, can be traced back to the mid-’60s when beloved director

Jules Schucat was let go after a reorganization of the music department. Band members were outraged and went on strike to protest this controversial decision. Despite their anger, new director Arthur P. Barnes was hired in 1963, and he soon found a way to ease the tension and get the band back on the football field – he would let them run themselves. Over the next few years, the band would abandon their traditional military garb and classic marching style and evolve into a “scatter band” that, according to the ensemble’s website, wore “tacky red blazers [and] white fishing hats.” It continues, “Armed with the weapons of student autonomy, rock and roll music, and bad fashion sense, the band was ready to take on the world.” Considering this changeover occurred during the culturally turbulent 1960s, it all somehow made sense.

Despite the seemingly controlled chaos it represents, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band offers a contrasting model of success for junior high and high school groups seeking to make musical experiences exciting and invigorating for their members. The modern trajectory that the Stanford Band has followed for the past 51 years is a strong deviation from its traditional roots that stem back to the group’s inception in 1893. Although overseen by the university, the band has no specific requirements or musical directive.

“We have an amazing music director, Giancarlo Aquilanti, to provide oversight and give us rehearsal time during the winter and spring every Sunday night,” says Stephen “Mac” Goodspeed, the band’s current drum major, a veteran drummer who previously played alto saxophone for the unit. “Other than that, we have no musical supervision – it’s all up to us for whatever we want to do.”

“[Giancarlo] is also the director of the wind ensemble at the school,” notes Allison Crow, who plays alto sax and also handles recruitment and public relations. “He’s an amazing director and helps the band approach music and play music, and he conducts the national anthem when we’re on the football field. He offers a music class [for band members], and the music department also offers us private lessons, so for specific people looking to become even better on their instrument, we have ways of pairing them up with Stanford music teachers and professors.”

While she wears many different hats, Crow is not alone in her multiple tasks (and she has a partner for her endeavors in Roselyn Miller). She explains that other bandmates also juggle different duties. For example, one band member is “in charge of making folders, putting in songs, and managing our music, as well as assisting and leading the band in new charting music, providing the resources, and teaching people how to do that if they want to,” she says. “Then there are the people whose jobs vary depending upon what sorts of events we’re doing.”

 

Repertoire

As drum major, Goodspeed is responsible to be the bandleader on the field and also to select music for the group to play. “When the new drum major begins his or her year, he or she sends out a song survey to everyone in the band to gauge how people are enjoying the current music,” he says. “Each academic quarter at Stanford, the drum major will generally choose a couple of songs to take out of the folder and a couple of songs to replace those, whether that’s putting back in old charts or inserting new ones that have been recently written up by current band members. The song selection in the folder fluctuates a ton depending on the year, and it’s always good to keep things shaken up and interesting.”

Goodspeed adds that the band has been updating its repertoire this year to include a fair amount of more modern songs, most notably “Pyramids” by Frank Ocean and “Little Secrets” by Passion Pit. “In our music choices, we try to play songs that people will recognize, while still attempting to avoid becoming ‘too mainstream’ in our choices,” he says. “Many bands solely play Top 40 hits, and while we’re not opposed to playing a few here and there, we mostly elect to stick with many classic songs that people will know but aren’t on the forefront of their minds.”

Crow says that anyone can chart a new song for the band and bring it in. It will be tried out in a small group in which a few people from each section will play the tune, discuss what works and what doesn’t, and then vote on it. If band members think that there is potential for the song to become part of their live repertoire, the song and its champion are sent to their musical director, who works on and fine tunes it with them. Then the song goes with the director to a music class where members delve into it part by part and section by section. Once the director helps the band learn the song, they vote on it again for possible inclusion in the current repertoire. This democratic spirit is echoed in other areas of band administration.

 

Student Administration

The main band staff of 26 students includes a management team comprised of a manager, an assistant manager, and the drum major. The manager and assistant manager are in charge of the rest of the staff and assure that they get the requests for different events and vote on them. “We welcome input from the rest of the band, but we do the official voting as the staff,” says Crow.

While the Stanford Band has 26 core members as well as five “Dollies” (their own dancing squad, not cheerleaders) and “The Tree” (their own personal mascot), other musicians are welcome to play at various events. What sounds like a potential band traffic jam seems to work out every time.

“Anyone can attend almost any event,” relays Crow. “That’s our policy – there are no sign-ups, you just show up for the event and you get out your horn. We have an idea based on prior history of how many people might show up. There are some events that are limited, and those decisions are made by our section leaders as to who will be the players for that night, but they’re not specific and not the same for every time.” For football games, additional performers are required to attend at least two field rehearsals prior to performing at the halftime show.

The band rehearses every Monday during the school year for about an hour, and during and after that session (via email) the week’s events are announced. There are also two hour-long field rehearsals each week during football season. Goodspeed says that the main rehearsals are kicked off with “a warm-up song, tuning, and then a variety of choices. As drum major, I like to begin with a couple of songs that need a bit more attention, so we can get down to business while people are still focused. Something integral to our rehearsals is called ‘rally-starting songs,’ which basically means at any time in between rehearsal songs, people can just start playing another song of their choice. If the band deems it worthy of a run-through, more and more people will join in, until that simply becomes the next song we’ll play. It’s a very fluid dynamic predicated on both fun and a bit of work here and there.”

Given that so many can be involved with the group, one wonders if there is stringent criteria for the additional players that come onboard. But according to Crow, the band does not turn anyone away, whether they want to come and play once or a hundred times. “We welcome anyone and everyone, even people who just want to try it,” she says. “In fact, we have a rehearsal in the spring just for people who want to try it once, and even if they never come back that’s fine by us. We just want to spread the love of music and the love of rocking out. That means that we don’t have a select core group, but there are more dedicated people who come all the time or who come just for football.”

 

Playing With Purpose

While school naturally comes first for everyone involved, their next big priority is to the band, which does have an audition process for a travel-size band unit. “The band acknowledges that there is an audition through the directors, that these are some of the best players in each section, and they’re given some priority with smaller bands such as air trips to basketball tournaments and that sort of thing,” says Crow. “That’s not the only selection criteria, so we consider it to be more of an honor, rather than an exclusive group.”

Prior to joining the Stanford Band, both Crow and Goodspeed had experience in high school ensembles, but not traditional marching band. She performed in jazz band and he played in his school’s orchestra pit for several of their musical theater productions. “The Stanford Band is obviously a very different social and musical experience,” notes Goodspeed. “My two years in the band have made me reframe my idea of why we perform and what message we try to send when we play music, as every rally or performance is an opportunity to put on whatever type of show we so please – whether that means accentuating our fun and crazy nature, or focusing on being as musically sound as possible. The experience has made me appreciate much more the ability to do that kind of reframing for performances, making sure that everything is done with purpose, even if that purpose is just to be as wild and fun as possible.”

Crow notes that the Stanford Band plays with a combination of individuals and that the whole group supports what each person can bring to the field. “We have amazing composers, we have amazing players, we have people who just bring the excitement,” she says. “I think we do a really good job of making sure each person has a place to shine, and that makes it fun for everybody because they get to do what they’re strong at. I also think working with the popular music we get to know a little bit more about music. We just had a huge, inter-band charting competition to see what people could bring to the table. It was interesting to think about the popular music in our culture today and how we might chart that for a typical marching band instrument and who could play what parts in these different styles of music.”

 

Recruiting & Diversity

An important element that keeps the band vital each school year is new blood. Crow says that the freshman are important to the program because they are so excited to be in the band and at the school that they are a reminder of why the older band members joined in the first place. “You can just feel the excitement build when it’s their first football game and their first time in the stadium. They keep us young. They keep us connected to the school. They keep us fresh.”

Crow appreciates how the Stanford Band combines a lot of different players together – beginning players, veteran players, and music majors. “I find it really interesting when we play together what everyone can offer and how we all end up playing really well,” she says. “I love to listen to how people who are really great musicians add their own little touches to the music and hearing the beginning members start to pick that up, and just being able to play in a group that has such diversity. It really helps you think about your playing and think about the music in a different light because you get to hear everything from just playing the notes as they’re written to improvising on top of it.”

 

Unforgettable Experiences

Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band has found a way to make things work smoothly and allow everyone to have their voice heard while still learning new tricks. Last year, the band celebrated 50 years of their autonomous existence in grand fashion.

“That was amazing because we had a reunion for all of the [previous] band members to come back and play with us at that [Reunion Homecoming Weekend] football game [with UCLA] at the halftime show, and in the process of that we broke the world record for the largest rock and roll band,” recalls Crow. “On the field we had hundreds of people playing and rocking out together, which was just an amazing experience to be a part of. We entirely filled the field. There was very little extra space. That was really memorable, [even] just talking to the people who started the [newer incarnation of the] band 50 years ago.”

“Our back-to-back experiences at the Rose Bowl [also] stand out in most people’s minds as unforgettable experiences,” adds Goodspeed. “We had an especially outstanding basketball season this year, culminating in working with our teams during March Madness, traveling to the Final Four with the women’s team and to the Sweet Sixteen with the men’s team. Those were amazing opportunities to cheer on our sports teams and give as much support as possible on some of the grandest stages of college sports.”

Unforgettable experiences like these are certainly alluring for musicians who are considering joining the ranks of the Stanford Band. “It’s so awesome,” asserts Crow. “I don’t notice the work just because I love the band and love talking about the band. The band has provided me so many opportunities. I’ve gotten to talk to a variety of professional writers and media sources, and I get to travel. I went to Nashville this year for the Final Four, not just visiting, but playing on stage there. The opportunities I’ve had are just amazing, and the band and the university really put a lot of effort into making sure that we are able to take part in a lot of those.”

In contemplating how other school marching bands and their faculty leaders could learn something from the Stanford Band, Goodspeed offers, “They shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Music and all organizational activities having to do with music should be first and foremost for the joy of playing together and having fun. There are plenty of things people can say about us, but nobody can argue that we’re not having fun.”

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