The Vandal Marching band is anything but typical. A typical college marching band has several full-time staff members. The staff generally writes content — music, drill and choreography — and coach individual sectional.
UI’s marching band, however, relies on only full-time staff member Spencer Martin, Director of Athletic Bands — the rest falls to the students.
Students write the music and choreography, in addition to leading sectionals and drill squads and moving equipment across campus. This creates an environment conducive to learning, leadership and growth.
“The students become the staff. With that student ownership, it teaches them how to lead and do things and to empower them with these skills that will help them when they graduate,” Spencer said.
Before the school year begins, students work on the music for the band’s first field show. First, the horn pieces are written. Then, all at once, the plans progress simultaneously. Drumline music is finished while the color guard captain works on choreography. Drill is then written, edited and finalized.
UI alumnus Sy Hovik, who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in music composition and music education in 2017, has written and arranged the horn parts since 2014.
Hovik is the band director at Mt. Spokane High School in Spokane and works with Martin remotely.
Martin gives Hovik a list of songs to include in the field show, and Hovik finds a way to weave them together.
“It’s like doing a homeworking assignment for 250 people,” he said. “You can’t really screw it up.”
After finishing the score — which depicts all the instruments and their parts — Hovik formats the parts for each instrument on the computer. All 17 instruments typically end up about six pages of music each.
Hovik, a percussionist, said it took time to learn what works best for each instrument.
“The more that I’ve played all these instruments, I really understand what’s effective on each instrument,” he said. “You would never want to write for flutes in marching band to be heard from the line below middle C to third space C. You would never hear it, it’s the way instruments are built.”
Hovik said he has earned more freedom during his time writing for the marching band.
“Spence leads the charge with what he wants,” Hovik said. “I’m always looking for creative, unexpected ways I can mash as many tunes in. It used to be a lot more spelled out, and it still is, but it’s less of the exact measures of this to this with a lead sheet and rhythmic curves.”
Eric Parchen began arranging drum line parts in 2013 and worked with Hovik before graduating in 2016. This was his first time writing for the batterie — the French word for drum — often used to refer to drumline. For Parchen, the intimidating part was starting.
“I got the horn parts, fully completed, and then I had 250 measures of blank I had to fill in,” he said.
Parchen said he used exact copies of rhythms for some songs, and original ideas for others.
“There are some things I know will work on a drum set that won’t work for 30 people playing batterie instruments,” he said. “It’s trying to put energy through the batterie without stepping on the feet of the horn parts.”
Fifth-year student Neil Paterson took on Parchen’s role in 2016. Paterson, a psychology major, said the learning curve was steep.
“It was interesting learning how to keep 230 people in time using the drumline only,” he said. “All great rock bands have a great rock drummer and I had to make the drumline that great rock drummer.”
Martin conducts the pregame show, not half time, so the band relies on the drumline for tempo changes and other cues during half time. Writing complex shows can prove difficultThis can be difficult when Paterson wants to write something complex.
“We did Top Gun for the first show last year,” he said.” There was some drum fill I wrote that was nonsense. It was very cool musically, but to put it on the field, it did not function at all.”
While Paterson works on the percussion parts, color guard captain Shaundra Herrud receives an audio file of the score and writes preliminary choreography. While she works out a plan, Martin and Assistant Director Nikki Crathorne complete the drill.
She said choreography can change at any time and she has to make changes after looking at how the drill matches up with the music. Martin and Crathorne work with Herrud to adjust the drill if needed.
“It’s having the flexibility as a leader to adjust things that need to be adjusted, and making sure people don’t get frustrated,” she said.
This means making sure she does not get frustrated either.
“It comes down to being a professional,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how much you love something, what you need to love is the band’s performance and that you can’t be selfish in what you personally want.”
She and co-captain Adriane Hull work together to teach drill to the guard. The quick turnaround for midseason shows is a special challenge for her section when learning drill and choreography.
“If a band member doesn’t quite know a part, they can fake it until they make it,” Herrud said.
But for guard members, if one person is out of sync with the guard as a whole, it is obvious.
“If you’re the one doing it wrong you’re the one being watched,” she said.
The Vandal Marching Band uses a style of drill — movements on the field — called squad drill, which places band members into groups of four. The groups move around the field together, and, no matter where a band member is placed, they will always be surrounded by the members of their squad. Each group of four has one student leader.
The drill is broken into 8-count series. Martin said each show has between 70 and 90 series.
The football schedule determines when the band learns new shows and takes breaks.
“If the marching band’s not ready for a show, they’re not going to cancel the football game,” he said. “It’s a real different kind of pressure that really only marching bands have.”
This makes student leadership even more important.
“I’ll say, ‘OK squad leaders you have 45 seconds to learn page four. Go.’ So the squad leaders will get their squad together and they’ll show them what the moves are and do as many reps as they can,” Martin said.
The student group with the most challenging work is the crew, Martin said. The crew moves and prepares instruments and equipment for rehearsals and performances.
“It’s not a glamorous job, it’s not a leadership job, but it’s probably the most important student job. They keep the band afloat,” he said. “They earn every penny. On Homecoming, they’re doing 18-hour days. During marching band camp they’re doing 14, 18-hour days, along with doing their obligations in the band.”
Martin, a UI alumnus, was part of the crew when he attended college. The band, he said, has always used student labor — and leadership — to make things happen.
“It’s one of our traditions, whether it’s on purpose or it has to be,” he said. “I think that’s what makes the Vandal band special, the students have to become the staff.”