Spirit of the West: 108 years of vim

College football is filled with many traditions but perhaps none are as noticeable and unique as marching bands. Marching bands bring an atmosphere to the games unmatched by professional football, tying in school colors and fight songs with impressive displays of precision and skill. From Gainesville to Berkeley and everywhere in between, marching bands are a campus staple.

Montana State University’s Spirit of the West marching band dates back to 1906, just 13 years after the college itself was established. Throughout the past century, the Spirit of the West has represented the blue and gold.

Dr. Nathan Stark, the director of bands at MSU, is responsible for the organization, rehearsal, selecting the music and designing the show. He doesn’t do it alone though. Also helping him are an assistant director as well as drum majors and section leaders.  “The marching band brings a ton of things to the school and the community,” Stark said. “One of the unique things about college sports, especially football, is a marching band. We feel that the pageantry and the enthusiasm of the band brings an element of camaraderie and community.”

Stark earnestly stresses the virtues of marching bands, both on and off the field. He points out that the band doesn’t just provide entertainment on game day but gives members a chance to be creative and improve musically. “[In addition to] working on musical skills, we also offer some tuition assistance to our members. Really, we’ve got one foot in music and one in athletics,” Stark elaborated.

The tuition assistance has increased from a base of $500 to $1000 over the past four years as part of a push by the Bobcat administration, led by President Cruzado, to effectively double the size of the band. “When the initiative came down from the president’s office, we said, ‘What are we going to do?’ Our first step was to increase the award. It gets people’s attention and gets them listening. When we first offered the award back in the 90s, it was $500. Even though the cost of going to college had doubled since then, we hadn’t increased the assistance at all and we were losing potential members because of it.”

“But really, the assistance just gets people’s attention. The increase really belongs to the members. The band belongs to the members inside the band. It’s all about their connection to the music and the organization. But in order to keep growing as an organization we have to be present — be out and around both in the community and on social media like Facebook and YouTube.”

The expansion has been quite a success, Stark happily states. The success has built upon itself and become infectious. “The culture weaves its way in and then you pass it around. It’s something you’re exposed to as a freshman and you pass it along when you’re a senior. This is an energetic, fun loving group of people. I’ve taught elsewhere — this group is unique, they’re up for anything. Today when we practiced it was 12 degrees and they were excited as ever. That’s really what sets them apart.”