Strike Up the Band
Ten years of Tulane’s marching music
ulane University Marching Band Director Barry Spanier gives a special award to his graduating senior players after the Spring Concert each year: the “100 Mile Award.”
“That’s because they march about 25 miles in Mardi Gras parades every year – so, after four years, they’ve marched 100 miles. And, that doesn’t count rehearsals or the football season.” Spanier says.
Spanier’s energetic musicians number about 90 these days. Considering that Tulane’s current marching band has only existed for 10 years, Spanier can well take pride in his students.
As far back as 1905, Tulane had a band at football games. Apparently, the rivalry with LSU in those years was not limited to gridiron action. As The Picayune reporter noted: “The Tulane Band struck up ‘There Will Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’ and the students set up a terrific yell. The LSU Band had been stationed near the Tulane Band, and it was not to be outdone by its rival, so it also struck up something …” (By ’20, LSU was inflating their band numbers by adding the musicians from the band of the Standard Oil Company – and Tulane fans complained to The Picayune about it.)
The Tulane Band’s first appearance in a Mardi Gras parade was apparently when they marched in Momus on the Thursday before Carnival 1912. Tulane’s then-President Edwin Craighead commented to the paper that if the 12 students in the group “keep pegging away they will soon have one of the best organizations in the city.”
Tulane’s band continued, but it stayed small in size. Gay Biggs Graves, who graduated from Newcomb College in 1963, played the oboe in the band for concerts but also sat in with the group at football games. “The concert band was really good, but the band that played at the football games wasn’t very big.” Despite their small numbers, “We could play the heck out of the fight song, ‘Roll Tulane,’ and in the stands everybody was happy and really enjoyed the music.”
Another former band member, Tom Graves (brother of Ms. Biggs’ late husband Richard) remembered band directors John Morrissey and his assistant, and a later band director, Ted DeMuth. A clarinetist, Graves was pleased with the “good camaraderie” in the band. He recalled Friday practice, causing him to earn a poor grade in a Red Cross course held at the same time, and then Saturday football games. Graves fondly remembered a spring band tour: “We went to Baton Rouge High School, Byrd High School in Alexandria and then Hot Springs, Arkansas.”
“I don’t remember marching in any Mardi Gras parades, “ Graves admits, but his happy band memories made him a good prospect when, after the official band ended, Tulane students reorganized their own pep band and needed some funding. “Somebody asked me to help, and I gave, and then I started asking ‘What are you doing with the money?’”
Happily, Tulane’s answer was hiring Barry Spanier, giving him the assignment of starting a proper marching band for the school. Graves is still a committed band supporter.
Spanier, as a music education student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, played in the marching band and was head of the trumpet section. Then, he was hired as an assistant director for that band, leading small configurations and conducting on the field as needed.
When the 1984 Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles, Spanier worked on the Olympic ceremonies, and the producer, an Australian, then hired Spanier to put together an American style band for a ’88 World Exposition in Brisbane. After three years in Australia, Spanier moved back to the United States and earned his Master’s degree at New York University.
At NYU Spanier became director of the Center for Music Performance, coordinating music campus wide and directing the university orchestra. In 2000, he took a year off and returned to Australia to be director of the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. “We had a 2,000 piece band from 23 countries. As far as I can tell, it was the largest marching band ever to play a program this way, with a feature on the field and an hour and a half of music for the parade of athletes,” Spanier proudly recalls.
Moving back to New York after the Olympics, Spanier and his wife realized that they wanted a change of scene: “a little greener, a little quieter, but with great history and culture.”
“In May of 2004 I saw a listing for the job at Tulane, and what was interesting to me was that it was starting a new band; that’s what I had been doing at the Olympics, starting a new band. But this would be a new group to continue forever!”
Spanier accepted the job offer, and the family moved to New Orleans in August 2004, in time for the start of the school year.
During his first year, Spanier laid the groundwork. He ordered uniforms and instruments. In addition, he directed the concert band and worked with the Tulane orchestra.
The first Tulane Band Camp, with 25 campers, was held the week before Katrina: “The final day of camp was check-in day for all the freshmen and the day the evacuation order was given,” Spanier says. He and his family evacuated to California but returned in November so he could get ready for the students in January.
Luckily, “Just about all the band members came back. We lost a few but we picked up some new ones and we still had 25,” Spanier says. “We went through uniform fitting and a few quick rehearsals and we marched in four Mardi Gras parades in 2006. The crowds were fairly thin, but they were very grateful and thankful that we were marching and parades were happening,” he says.
When the new Tulane University Marching Band took the field, “People didn’t really know who we were,” Spanier says. The school’s official band had ended in 1975.
But, that wasn’t the end of game-time music. “There was a student-run pep band called “Soundwave” for Homecoming in 2003, and they marched in the Krewe d’Etat parade in ’04. Their energy and entrepreneurial spirit was the turning point that had the administration wanting to have a proper band program,” he says. And Graves and his fellow alumni had signed up as supporters.
“It all came together with Soundwave – the students, the alumni and the administration – and we’ve grown every year,” Spanier says proudly. His staff now includes an assistant director of bands, Mendel Lee; a drumline instructor and operations manager, Andrew Szypula; a program coordinator, Patricia McWhorter; and two part-time instructors: a choreographer for the dance team Shockwave, Ashley Iserman, and an instructor for the color guard, Nikki Kelly.
Tulane’s drum majors have included Amanda Mahnke, who just received her doctorate at Tulane, and New Orleans native Lauren Stevens. Students in good standing get one credit unit for fine arts, but other than having a successful audition, musical skills and a willingness to work, there are no academic obligations.
However, prospective band members should beware: There’s a hundred miles ahead.