Rutgers band program celebrates 100 years

By Lisa Intrabartola

Long before bands roused stadium crowds to their feet at football games, they rallied their brothers-in-arms on battlefields and blared messages from castle tops.

“Horns blew across the kingdom to send signals. In the [American] Civil War, all the buglers blew their form of communication on the battlefield,” says Darryl Bott, associate director of the Music Department, associate director of the wind studies program and conductor of the Rutgers Symphony Band. “Bands were considered service or entertainment, not art.”

In 1915, Rutgers University’s first band was born out of that same military tradition when Professor L.W. Kimball led 11 musicians around the Old Queens Campus to accompany the Rutgers College Cadet Corps’ weekly exercises. The marching band played its first football game in 1921.

To mark the band program’s centennial, the Music Department presented the Rutgers Bands Extravaganza on March 12 at the State Theatre in New Brunswick. The performance featured the four bands that now comprise the program––Rutgers Marching Scarlet Knights, Rutgers Wind Ensemble, Rutgers Symphony Band, and Rutgers Concert Band––along with numerous faculty soloists and guest conductors from the program’s history.

“I think this was the first time in our 100-year history that we got each of the bands together on one stage,” said director of bands and Rutgers Wind Ensemble conductor Kraig Alan Williams.

Those concert bands began forming in 1960 with the creation of the Rutgers Wind Ensemble. Led by Williams, it boasts a number of Grammy-listed recordings. Underclassmen and graduate student musicians who are studying performance, composing, or music education comprise the ensemble, which performs centuries-old masterworks of the wind repertoire and contemporary works at professional conferences, conventions, and at the university’s annual commencement ceremony.

“While a marching band provides outdoor entertainment, a wind ensemble is the musical accompaniment that balances out an art school,” Williams says.

The band program’s most recent addition, Rutgers Symphony Band, was founded in 2000 to cater to the increased enrollment of music students. The band performs both standard and contemporary literature from the wind-band repertoire. The group grew out of the former Concert Band, which is now made up of members of the larger university community.

Playing the field
But the band most synonymous with the program is the one that started it all a century ago with a dozen players on a drill field.

“We make college football college football,” says athletic bands director Timothy Smith, who has grown Rutgers Marching Scarlet Knights from 134 to 253 members since taking over in 2000. “We’re the parade around the stadium. We’re the soundtrack for the university. We’re out in front of 50,000 people every single week.”

Following the university’s announcement of its entrance into the Big Ten, the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the nation, the marching band enjoyed increased visibility with a string of high-profile performances that include the 2013 televised Victoria’s Secret fashion show, Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 at MetLife Stadium here in New Jersey, and the 2014 premiere of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon playing on the roof of Rockefeller Center.

“I don’t think you can really buy that kind of publicity,” says Smith of the exposure. “Putting the block ‘R’ on top of the Rock with U2 to kick off The Tonight Show is just fantastic.”

All the extra eyes and ears on the marching band is a definite boon for the band program and the university in general, says Mason Gross graduate Carlos Vazquez, 27, a former member of the marching band’s drumline and Rutgers Symphony Orchestra who now instructs the drumline while studying for his master’s in percussion performance.

“It’s a huge recruitment tool. High school students see the level these bands are at and they say, ‘Oh, I want to be a part of that!’ ” Vazquez says. “That’s the biggest thing a band program does for the university.”

Forward, march!
A strong marching band playing on a national stage is the hallmark of a quality music department, says Bott. But the pressure is on: For the Rutgers Marching Scarlet Knights to remain competitive with Big Ten powerhouses such as Ohio State and the University of Michigan, Bott says, the Mason Gross band program must continue to step up its game.

“Every time that marching band goes out and plays at a football game, there is no question people sitting at that stadium garner an opinion about what’s going on at the Music Department at Rutgers,” Bott says. “If the Music Department can help to build the quality of that marching band by teaching it at the highest levels and providing a staff around it, then that marching band becomes a real crown jewel of the university and demonstrates the excellence of where we want to be.”

Smith has spent 15 years grooming his group to play in the “big league,” solidifying the band’s marching style to reflect a mix of the rigid British and American Drum Corp while allowing for the flexibility to slow down or speed up the tempo and incorporate some fancy footwork.

He says he’s up to the challenge.

For their first Big Ten season, instead of performing one half-time show, the marching band learned five. Next year, Smith said to expect more stylized choreography, tighter precision, and, he hopes, new uniforms and instrument upgrades.

“Being in the Big Ten is game-changer for us,” says Smith, who created a committee to court alumni and raise funds in celebration of their centennial year.

No doubt: A well-oiled marching band has the power to attract not only top-notch musicians to the band program, but top-notch students to the university, such as Hightstown High School 2014 Valedictorian and piccolo player Katarzyna Dobrzycka.

“The first thing I did after I enrolled at Rutgers was sign up for the marching band, because I couldn’t begin to see my life as a student without it,” said Dobrzycka, a freshman at the School of Arts and Sciences who is double majoring in biomathematics and statistics. “When I did hear about our entrance into the Big Ten it just added to the magnitude of the program I was joining, and made me that much more excited to be a part of the program and to help it grow throughout the transition.”

Like many of her band mates, Dobrzycka considers marching band a culture, not a club.

“Being part of band means being part of a family,” she says. “The work is hard, but the satisfaction that comes from putting your heart on the field and meeting people completely different from you that are as equally passionate about band is something that has always been worth the effort for me.”

Posted May 2015