The students in Vanderbilt's marching band represent the best of university life
by Kara Furlong
photography by Steve Green and John Russell
Attending a Vanderbilt football game is a singular experience. The energy of the fans, the athleticism of the players – and the copious consumption of snack foods – make for a truly enjoyable day at the stadium.
Other than the football team, perhaps no group works harder to entertain the crowd than Vanderbilt’s Spirit of Gold marching band. From kickoff to last down, the band’s nearly 200 members – which include musicians, color guard and danceline – are spirit leaders and consummate performers. Off the field, they are among the university’s brightest students, balancing their commitment to band with academics and other activities.
“The students that make up the marching band are really a composite of the whole university,” said Dwayne Sagen, Vanderbilt’s director of bands and assistant dean at Blair School of Music. “Almost every major is represented, from molecular biology to HOD to music.”
Sagen came to Vanderbilt in 1986 knowing that competition among bands in the Southeastern Conference was nearly as fierce as football and basketball rivalries.
“Just as the SEC is one of the strongest conferences in the country athletically, so it is musically for university bands,” he said. “I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over 23 years – to build a program that is looked at nationally as one of the best, especially among highly selective private universities.”
Sagen, who spends much of the year recruiting students for Vanderbilt’s music program, must contend with some of the same challenges faced by his counterparts in athletics. Though potential high school recruits may be all-state musicians, they must meet Vanderbilt’s rigorous academic standards for admission. And once here, students are careful when choosing the extracurricular activities to which they commit their time.
That time commitment for band includes a weeklong camp before classes start in the fall and two-hour rehearsals three days a week for the duration of the football season to learn music and marching drills. The Spirit of Gold prepares and performs a new halftime show every home game.
The band also performs pre-game music at Star Walk – the football team’s traditional parade from the locker room into the stadium – and between almost every play.
The band traveled to Ole Miss on Sept. 20, when the Commodores’ come-from-behind win in the final minutes of the game propelled Vanderbilt to a top-25 national ranking for the first time in more than two decades.
“That was a big win,” Sagen said. “We went over and played (Vanderbilt coach) Bobby Johnson’s radio show after that game, and he said he was glad we were down in the end zone playing our cheers.”
On a typical game day, band members are in uniform and performing for as long as six hours. Many of the students have been involved with band programs since middle school.
“I always knew that I would march in college,” said Wade Wheatley, a junior creative writing major from Deerfield, Ill., who serves as one of the Spirit of Gold’s field commanders. “I genuinely enjoy the art and science of marching.”
“I’ve been dancing my whole life and the opportunity to continue at the collegiate level was extremely exciting to me,” said Jessica Newton, a senior from Jacksonville, Fla., majoring in civil engineering and engineering management. “Being a member of the danceline has been a defining experience of my college career.”
Many cite the close-knit band community as an important part of their life on campus.
“I enjoy the friendships that have come from my experience with marching band,” said first-year student Brent Baker, a trumpet performance major from Austin, Texas. “I started marching band two weeks before classes began. When school started, I had 200 more friends than every other freshman.”
“When students join the band, they are joining more than a performance ensemble,” Sagen said. “They are joining a community that does together something they can’t do individually. They learn how to interact as a company.”
But band also provides the opportunity for students to distinguish themselves as leaders. Many join Tau Beta Sigma, a co-ed national band service sorority. Some become officers and section leaders within the band.
Each fall the Spirit of Gold sponsors the Vanderbilt Marching Invitational, a premier competition for high school bands in the Southeast. This year – VMI’s 20th – brought 25 bands representing seven states to campus.
The contest is organized and run entirely by Vanderbilt students, who handle everything from acquiring sponsors and arranging the judges’ travel to advertising the contest and conducting PR. Their efforts raise around $20,000 each year for Vanderbilt marching band scholarships.
Tracy Hancock, a junior computer science and political science double major from Cottontown, Tenn., marched in VMI as a high school student.
“There is a sense of things coming full-circle for me,” he said. “This year I was co-chair of the contest, meaning I was the No. 2 person running VMI. Next year I will chair the contest. A lot of work goes into it, and it’s really cool to be running the contest that a few short years ago I was competing in.”
“The students are looking for outlets through which to grow as leaders,” Sagen said, “so we run the band program in such a way that they can be integrally involved.” That hands-on involvement includes the upcoming Student Show – the last halftime show of the season – for which the band students will write the music and drill themselves.
When football season ends, the band plays on. The Vanderbilt Basketball Band performs at men’s and women’s home games and for post-season tournaments. Encorps, an elite indoor marching company of around 30 students, performs some basketball halftime shows as well as in local schools. Students may audition for a number of ensembles. And the Community Concert Band, open to anyone in the Vanderbilt or Nashville communities, performs a free concert every spring.
Many students remark on the delicate balance they must strike between band, academics and other activities. Many conclude that it all comes down to carving out time for an activity they love.
“I definitely think of band as a stress reliever,” said Spirit of Gold field commander Stacy Clark, a senior from Cordova, Tenn., majoring in history and medicine, health and society. “I like to put everything else out of my mind and concentrate on putting together a great show. Lots of people in the band are incredibly involved on campus – that’s what makes our community so interesting and diverse.”
Sagen credits the Spirit of Gold’s success to the students.
“I’m just a teacher,” he said. “It’s fun to see these students come in and just blossom – with their musical skills, their social skills, their leadership – and then give it back to the university.”