In 1899, fourteen men at the Northern Illinois State Normal School (teachers college) gathered under the direction of Mr. Calvin Dart with horns and drums in hand to form what we now know and love as the Northern Illinois University Huskie Marching Band. The spirit and legacy of these first fourteen musicians no doubt embodied the same pride we feel today in our band. Otherwise, how else could the band have survived and flourished through the past century?
The history of the Huskie Marching Band is a storied tale, reflecting both the growth of the university as well as the changes in student lifestyles and fashion. Very little is known about the first band of 1899. We do know that there were football and basketball games held that year. However, the first public mention of the band performing was not until April 12, 1900. We do not know if the band presented a concert that day, or if the band had played at the “Blue-Red” basketball game that afternoon. Aside from a photograph, the only other record about the band was this cryptic message in the 1899-1900 yearbook:
The Norther wonders why the band didn’t follow Miss Williamson’s advice and take Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup?
It is doubtful that this first band ever marched. It likely performed at not only athletic events, but pep rallies and socials as well. Not until the 1930’s do we find substantial records about the band at Northern. Like so many other colleges across the nation, the decade of the 30’s marked the emergence of marching band programs that resemble our notion of the modern marching band. While not executing fanciful maneuvers at halftimes like bands of today, the marching band did take the field in parade formation during the 1930’s, performing traditional marches as the mainstay of its musical repertoire:
The band is instrumental in stirring up enthusiasm at sporting contests, is also popular with students because of its concert work. Football games were enlivened by martial music and school songs, re-enforced between halves parading behind the skillful baton-wielding of drum major “Pinky” Ferry.
Through the 1940’s and 1950’s the Northern Illinois State Teachers College Marching Band was well versed in marching field formations at football halftime shows. From picture formations to precision drill maneuvers, the band was accomplished in all the most current styles of marching known to college bands. In 1960 the band was even pictured in The Instrumentalist magazine (the leading trade journal for school band and orchestra teachers) demonstrating how to design and execute picture formations. By the 1960’s the NIU Huskie Marching Band had evolved into a mature collegiate ensemble of the highest caliber:
The prime objectives of all Northern Illinois University bands are four ---cultural: to continue the development of music appreciation and understanding through the study and performance of the best music; educational: to develop competent performers, teachers, and conductors; service: to lend color and atmosphere to certain athletic events while promoting and enhancing dignity and reputation of the university through traditional on and off campus appearances; recreational: to provide all students of the university with an opportunity for worthy use of leisure time, emotional outlet and social interaction.
Among the many accomplishments of Northern’s marching band program was the progressive attitude regarding the membership of women. Unlike most college marching bands in the United States, the Northern band had welcomed women into its ranks since the 1930’s. No doubt, in the early years this was out of necessity as women students completely outnumbered men in the first several decades of the schools’ history. But long before the passage of the 1972 federal law Title IX, which mandated that all public universities allow women into their band programs, women marched alongside men at Northern ---not only as baton twirlers, but as musicians --- which leads to an interesting but brief period in the history of the Northern marching band when women were excluded. Suprisingly, this short-lived change to an all-male band occurred in the latter 1960’s at a time when most college campuses were rocked by student unrest and the liberalization of old traditions and mores:
When the Marching Huskies appeared on the football field this season, spectators were surprised to see only men in the group. For the first time since the Huskies began playing for games, women were eliminated from the ranks of the marchers. “The preparation needed to perform at the football games was just too rigorous for the women”, said Dr. Gordon Bird, NIU Director of Bands. One male trumpeter believed the men could “learn the turns and flanking better” and concentrate more fully on marching because “the women were no longer there to cause distraction”.
During another brief period in the band’s history, NIU was without a marching band. The result of a squabble among many departments and divisions across campus, the marching band folded from 1972 to 1974. The role of the marching was in jeopardy because of the changing perspectives and attitudes among students and academe alike:
Although realizing the marching band’s importance, Dr. James Ballinger, Music Department head, said the department does not consider the marching band to be a necessary activity of the basic instructional music program. Dr. Richard Bowers, Provost, said that he does not believe the band’s marching activities are part of the academic program.
----1972, Northern Star
With all due respect to Drs. Ballinger and Bowers, today we are grateful that their view of the marching band went the way of other vestiges of the ‘70’s, such as leisure suits and powder-blue tuxedos. The Huskie Marching Band has since been a valued and indispensable component of the School of Music curriculum, enjoying the full support of not only the School of Music directors and the university Provost, but our athletic director and university President as well.
When the band reorganized in 1974 as the Huskie Show Band, the marching entered into its modern era. Embracing the latest developments and styles of contemporary music and marching, the band under the direction of Michael Embrey and then Frank Bibb flourished through the 1980’s into a mammoth organization in terms of size, power, and spirit. The Silverettes and Color Guard were also added to the ranks of the marching band during this period, thus adding color and sparkle to the already dazzling field performances.
All of this leads us to the Huskie Marching Band of today - committed to the ideals of entertainment, service and education. As it enters its second century, Northern’s marching band is entrusted with a legacy that defines college life in Dekalb, provides unrelenting support of Huskie Football, and sets forth a proving ground for future school band directors.
Much to the disappointment of some band members, one cannot “major” in marching band. For most, the Huskie Marching Band marks the last opportunity to combine your love of music with the athleticism of marching band performance. Former band members look back on their college years with a profound love and appreciation for their alma mater, with gratitude for the friendships and fellowship forged in the heat of rehearsal and the excitement of performance, and with fondness for the Huskie Marching Band. Current members should strive to uphold the proud traditions of this venerable institution, and take pride in their membership in the Huskie Marching Band.