Spirit of Gold student leader explains the difficulties facing Vanderbilt’s marching band

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Spirit of Gold student leader explains the difficulties facing Vanderbilt’s marching band

Izzy Ercan

This weekend’s football game against the Tennessee State Tigers (TSU) will bring a jovial atmosphere to Vanderbilt stadium. Fresh off a great victory against the University of Georgia, the Commodores will be playing in front of their adoring students and alumni, as the game caps off the numerous homecoming festivities throughout the week.

Joining the football team will be the Spirit of Gold, the official marching/pep band of Vanderbilt University. From accompanying the team during the pre-game “Star Walk” and performing at each halftime show, to playing in the student section during the game, the band is an integral part of the Vanderbilt SEC experience.

But the band nearly didn’t get to have their Homecoming performance. After the UF-Vandy game on Oct. 1, Vanderbilt administration announced that the TSU “Aristocrat of Bands” was scheduled to perform at halftime of the Homecoming Game instead of Spirit of Gold. Initially, the athletic department said that the decision was made to honor the passing away of notable TSU track coach Ed Temple. However, they later revealed to the Spirit of Gold staff that the performance was given to TSU to make up for a lost performance in 2006, the last time the teams met in Nashville.

“Students were outraged. they were so upset about the whole thing.”

The cancellation was a double blow for the Spirit of Gold. Homecoming weekend was also band parent’s weekend, which the band had planned months in advance. Because there was no home football game the weekend of Vanderbilt parent’s weekend, the band had to choose another weekend when their families could come see them play. A canceled performance would have meant disappointing hundreds of family members who had already bought game day and plane tickets and reserved hotel rooms to come see their children perform.

“Students were outraged,” said John Collyer, student president of Spirit of Gold. “They were so upset about the whole thing. The parents were also extremely upset. One of the first things I heard when this became official was students trying to convince their parents not to come.”

Spirit of Gold alumni quickly made an online petition calling for Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos and Vice Chancellor and Athletics Director David Williams to take action. Coupled with enraged Facebook posts shared by members of the Vanderbilt community, the petition garnered over 5,000 signatures and the decision was reversed. Although this crisis was averted, this is just the latest example of a series of problems that has plagued the band for the last two years.

“It really hasn’t been the same since Dr. Sagen left after my sophomore year.”

Spirit of Gold thrived as one of the premier ensemble groups on campus during former Blair assistant dean and conductor Dr. Dwayne Sagen’s 29-year tenure from 1986 to 2015. It included over 200 students from all four Vanderbilt schools, and also admitted students from the nearby Nashville universities: Lipscomb, Belmont, Trevecca Nazarene and Nashville Tech. But the band’s heyday seems to have gone with Sagen’s retirement in June of 2015, according to Collyer.  

“It really hasn’t been the same since Dr. Sagen left after my sophomore year,” said Collyer, a four-year member of the band. “And that’s understandable. He was an amazing person. He definitely was the face of the organization.”

At the forefront of the band’s problems is Dr. Sagen’s old position: the director of bands. The last year and a half following Sagen’s departure have been a tumultuous time for the band, as administration has struggled to find a suitable replacement. The former assistant director and top candidate for the position, Gavin Smith, left to be the director of the Illinois State marching band. Dr. Joseph Corey Francis, a gifted conductor, was given the spot instead, and he helped improve the band’s sound, according to Collyer. But he resigned just a few months into the job, after the discovery of an inappropriate relationship with a minor that occurred a decade before. His assistant, Rob Bryant, was promoted in October of last year, and lasted until early this band season when his physical health deteriorated, leaving the position unfilled yet again.

John Collyer, student president of the Spirit of Gold, plays xylophone during a home game this season.

John Collyer, student president of the Spirit of Gold, plays xylophone during a home game this season.

That leads the band to its current leadership under Joe Murphy, Bryant’s old assistant. Murphy is an accomplished Nashville musician, who frequently performs at live shows and recording sessions, but his availability to completely take over is questionable, according to Collyer. His title remains Assistant Director of Athletic Bands, according to the band’s website, but it remains unclear whether he will be fully promoted.

Also helping out is Alan Wong, a graduate student of the Blair-Peabody MA 5 program, which “prepares the undergraduate musician for a teaching career”. It allows them to achieve a bachelor of music degree from Blair and a master of education degree from Peabody in 5 years, according to the Blair School of Music’s website. The duo’s commitment to their new positions have been nothing short of commendable, according to Collyer.

“Their dedication has been amazing and they have really helped hold things together… (but) this whole situation has put a lot more pressure on these people who took the job thinking it would be less time than it is,” Collyer said.

As Collyer implies, directing Spirit of Gold is a lot more work than meets the eye. Aside from game day, a solid full day commitment that occurs six times a semester, the band meets several times a week, adding up to four to six and a half hours of rehearsal time weekly. This requires additional work off the field, as the director must chart out and choreograph the band’s movements, arrange the music for the band and conduct various administrative duties between the athletic department and the band.

Collyer believes that the salaries of the band staff do not fully compensate the work they do, and this is a possible reason for why it is difficult to find suitable replacements for Sagen.

“I do not know the exact financial situation of what the staff members are paid, however it is pretty sad when you compare it to other SEC schools,” Collyer said. “If we are going to be in the SEC, there’s a level of commitment that needs to be funded by the athletic department if we are going to match the other schools. What (the athletic department) is paying the director and the assistant director is not really near that.”

As an assistant dean of the Blair School of Music, Sagen’s salary was also supported by the music school, which eased the financial pressure of funding the band’s staff. Aside from being partially funded by Blair, Spirit of Gold used to be funded by the Vanderbilt Recreation and Wellness Center budget. They were recently moved to the Athletic Department’s budget, a move that made sense to Collyer.

“It is an athletic program,” he said. “The cheerleaders, the dance team and other members of the Spirit Squad are all athletically funded, so it made sense for us to be under them as well.”

However, unfortunately for the band, the athletic department’s funding has failed to meet their expectations.

“Our budget is not the best thing,” Collyer admits.  

According to Collyer and other band members, there is simply not enough money: for the band’s instruments, for an annual away game trip—for anything. Just this year, the band was given new uniforms to replace the old ones, which were older than the students wearing them. The instruments, on the other hand, have not been as lucky.

“We have a portion of the budget for instrument repair and replacement,” Collyer said. “And that section of the budget is just so small. It is not feasible. We haven’t had instruments replaced in such a long time and they are literally falling apart. We have the tuba section, the big sousaphones–we have duct tape on some of them. They are dented. There’s a couple that didn’t make a sound until we got them in the repair shop…the other day part of my xylophone just fell off. I’m not asking for a complete overhaul. That would be too costly. But I’m simply asking for more funds to take care of our instruments.”

But perhaps the most frustrating thing for Collyer is that that none of the money allotted to the band can roll over to the next year’s budget, or that money apportioned for one purpose (i.e. new uniforms) cannot be reallocated to a different expense, such as instrument repair or the band’s annual away game trip.

Unlike the saved homecoming game performance, the band’s annual away trip appears to be doomed this year.

Since its inception, Spirit of Gold has been allowed to travel to one away game per season. Collyer said that some years the trip has been less eventful than others, usually a trip to Murfreesboro for the Middle Tennessee State game, or to Lexington for the University of Kentucky game. Yet once every four years, a larger effort is made for the band to have a true SEC away game experience. Due to financial strains, the trip would be made in one day.

This year, in coordination with the athletic department, the away game selected was the Auburn game Nov. 5. Although this five-hour drive to and from Jordan-Hare stadium would occur in the same day– but the band would be up for it.

“We provide the family atmosphere. We provide the fun. We are always going to have fun out there.”

The problem? Funding.

“We have $7,000 given to us for this away trip,” Collyer said. “Given the costs of feeding the band, the charter bus, and other miscellaneous expenses, the total is about $15,000. Right now, it’s canceled. I don’t see any way of it happening.”

The athletic department has urged Spirit of Gold to fundraise to make the trip happen, and Collyer is open to the idea. He has proposed selling the old band uniforms to nostalgic alums, who have expressed interest in buying them. He has yet to hear from the athletic department about their input on this idea.

The Spirit of Gold alumni have also brought it upon themselves to fundraise for the band. However, Collyer is wary of the future expectations that these efforts may bring.

“We never have had to fundraise in the past because the money has always been there,” Collyer said. “We are very grateful for our alumni’s efforts, however there needs to be an understanding from the athletic department that if the alumni are fundraising, their funds are supplemental. It’s not to fill in a hole in the budget.”

In the meantime, Collyer can only hope that the remaining $8,000 will be raised in the upcoming few weeks, and that the band’s staff can begin working with the athletic department to restructure a better budget.

“I don’t want it to come across that the band is being confrontational,” Collyer said. “We want to have the materials that we need on game day to be able to put on an amazing performance on that field. We provide the family atmosphere. We provide the fun. We are always going to have fun out there. But we are going to feel even better when we leave the field about our performance if we can actually play the instruments the way they should be played.”  

The Hustler reached out to the athletic department for comment but have not heard back in time for the publishing of this article.

This article will be updated as new information is received.

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