Marching Forward: Spirit of the West band struggles, overcomes

Under the direction of Dr. Nathan Stark, the MSU Spirit of the West marching band has undergone some significant changes.

Funding has been scarce and tensions have been high. The band needs new uniforms and instruments, including at least five new sousaphones, which are currently borrowed from Bozeman High School and Eckroth Music.

In reference to the old instruments, Drum Major Tara Donohoe said, “They are literally falling apart.”

The band size is also quickly increasing, gaining 40 members from last year to 97 this year, half of those being freshmen.

“The band is growing and the funds are tight,” Stark remarked. “However, these growing pains are a good sign.”

With even more growth expected next fall, the marching band is making significant changes to stretch its money to fit the surmounting costs. The current budget first allocates money to immediate costs, second to the scholarship fund and lastly to new instruments. To help support their endeavors, MSU leaders such as President Waded Cruzado and Head Football Coach Rob Ash have risen to the occasion.

Keeping it cool

Though temperatures plummet well below freezing every season, Spirit of the West members agree the frigid weather is just part of the experience. In the past, band members have suffered from frostbite, so members are warned of the harsh conditions in advance.

“[The cold] is just the reality,” Stark said. “We do our best to prepare them for it.”

This dedication has paid off. Last year, Ash donated $40,000 of his Coach of the Year award to the MSU Foundation, and it is through the foundation that the marching band maintains and grows its scholarship pool. Ash’s endowment will help to generate around $1600 each year to help financially support the marching band members.

Most band members receive scholarships. Previously, each freshman was given $500, with the amount increasing by $100 each year the member is in the band. However, Ash’s donation means that, starting next year, members will receive $1000 and a $300 bonus for each additional year in the band.

This fall, the marching band plans to nearly double the number of scholarships for the band. Many members receive scholarship aid every year. Because Montana is not quite “marching band land” like Texas and the Midwest, Stark and his team are working hard to attract potential members to the marching band.

“We don’t want to do the same thing [as other marching bands],” he said. “We want to do better.”

Students leading the march

According to Stark, the band maintains a strong focus on student leadership.

“Our leadership style is all about getting out of [the students’] way,” he said. “They’re the performers, the enthusiasm, the ideas and the leadership.” A large portion of these leadership roles include coveted major positions each year, such as section leaders and drum majors, which are chosen based on their performance abilities and leadership qualities.

In regards to student leadership, Stark explained, “The more the better. Their leadership and input is the only thing that can make this group run.”

Sophomore Sarah Burk joined the marching band her freshman year to get involved on campus. She currently holds a uniform management position with the band in which she is responsible for cleaning and keeping track of uniform rentals. Burk refers to the marching band as a built-in, automatic community of friends. She went on to tell of her passion for the musicality of the band and attributes her success at MSU to the group.

“Everyone finds their niche at college,” Burk said. “I never thought mine would be the marching band.”

No matter what, the band sticks with the team. Winning or losing, the marching band will still be in the stands and on the field. “We’re all about students supporting students,” Stark explained. “We’ll be there whether the team’s 40 points above or 40 points below.”

The link between the football team and the marching band is certainly peculiar. While most people seem to lump together the team and the band, this is not always the case. “We represent the School of Music,” said Burk, but “most people think we just represent football.” The band makes several appearances throughout the semester at pep rallies and Blue-and-Gold Breakfasts.

Bridging the gap between football and the marching band is baritone section leader and MSU senior, Josh McRae. After playing football in high school, McRae has switched from one side of the bleachers to another. Since his small high school did not have a marching band, he chose to join his freshman year of college.

“There’s a team off the field and on the field,” he said of the band. “You build this marching band team as the season goes on. The people you play with in the stands become your family.”

Throughout this last year, Stark has proven to be an effective and capable leader. His strategy in helping the Spirit of the West overcome their current challenges is to make the band better by improving each individual member. However, with underfunding and increasing growth, the marching band has many struggles still ahead of them — yet they are struggles that will be met with the same enduring and conquering attitude that has helped sustain the band thus far in their accomplishments.