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A Conversation With Arthur C. Bartner

A Conversation With Arthur C. Bartner
USC Trojan Marching Band leader Arthur C. Bartner's roots are in classical music.

“I’m married to this job. You can’t separate the band from me, me from the band.” So said Arthur C. Bartner after four decades leading the Spirit of Troy – possibly the most recognizable marching band in the world. Next May, USC will celebrate this milestone with a 40th anniversary gala dinner and concert at the Galen Center.

DK: In an article that appeared five years ago in the Christian Science Monitor, you said you would never leave this job. Do you still feel that way?
AB: I’m having too much fun. I’m 69 years old and I’m running around like a kid. It’s who I am.

DK: Are you a sports fan?
AB: Big. Big. I was a basketball player in high school. My claim to fame was that I was an All-State trumpet player and an All-State basketball player. This is the perfect job, because it’s a great school of music and we have great teams. I can combine the physicality of the rah-rah sports with the musicianship. Plus, we’re in Hollywood’s backyard, where we do movies, TV shows and the Academy Awards. Where else in the country can you combine all this at a great university?

DK: Do you ever get to watch the games? Your back is turned when the plays are happening.
AB: One of my assistant directors, Ben Chua, who also conducts at the women’s basketball and women’s volleyball games, stands right in front of me with headphones. We have this little sign language. He’ll let me know if it’s a first down, if it’s a stop or if it’s a penalty. Sometimes I might sneak a look, but I really need to focus completely on the 300-plus kids in the band.

DK: Are there signals for each piece of music?
AB: Yes. This is “Tribute to Troy” [forms a T-shape with his hands]. This is “Charge” [holds a fluttering hand in front of his face]. This is the third chorus of “Fight On” [holds up three fingers].

DK: Do band players ever lose their focus because they’re watching the game?
AB: Absolutely. There are times, after a touchdown, when they’re so elated that they’re just jumping up and down. It’s a wonderful feeling. Gradually, I’ll get the section leader’s attention and blow the whistle. Hopefully after eight to 10 seconds, I can get them to settle down.

DK: Do you have after-game parties for the band?
AB: No. I think they’re exhausted. On game day, we start at 7 a.m. We rehearse for three or four hours, then I give them a lunch break. We come back two hours before the game for another rehearsal, so for a 5 o’clock game, we’re there at 3 p.m., and we’ll go all the way through until the game ends, at around 9 p.m. Then we’ll play our postgame show for another half hour, 45 minutes and march back. It’s a good 11-hour day.

DK: How much of being a band player is about musicianship, and how much is about stamina, pride, hard work?
AB: At band camp, I talk about five things. No. 1, you’ve got to be a great player, a great musician. We want kids who played in a good high school band program. Second, they have to march great. We have a unique style in which we “drive” out the leg and there’s a horn swagger. It’s different from any other band in the country. The third goal is to be able to play and march at the same time. And this is where it gets real difficult, because you’re asking someone to memorize a piece of music, march to a spot where they do a dance step and play at the same time. Trust me, this is not as easy as you’d think. The fourth thing is that you want them to do it with spirit. You want them to be the biggest Trojan fan in the stadium. And then No. 5, they have to represent the University of Southern California in its highest standards. What I mean by that is they really have to be a great citizen. They have to go to class, get good grades and represent the university well. Accountability. Spirit. Respect. This is the most visible band in this country, and if something funny happens even when they’re away from band, they’re going to be held accountable. We spend a lot of time talking about that.

DK: What kind of music do you listen to?
AB: My roots are in classical music. On my iPod, I listen to Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler and Puccini operas, but my first love is big band. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and I hung out in New York big band/jazz clubs during my high school years. But I make my living listening to what these kids bring in to me – Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Muse, Audience of One – even though I’ve never heard of half these groups. The great thing about this band is that it’s very much a student effort. The student leaders bring me show ideas. If you went to a student party, these would be the sing-along tunes: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Night,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’ ”

DK: What do you think was your biggest single contribution to the Trojan Marching Band?
AB: I’ll take you back to the beginning, which was 1970. This band was probably the least respected band in the country. Even the people at this university couldn’t stand this band. There was no budget, there were no phone calls for gigs; it was like the eyesore of this campus. But here you had a great music school. And a great football team that had appeared in three straight Rose Bowls. My greatest contribution, I think, was turning this program around. How did that happen? The first thing I’ve already alluded to: I embraced the students. It wasn’t: “I’m the director; I’m going to make all the decisions.” It was student leadership, student show committees, student selection of music. I think the band members developed a sense of self-ownership. The second thing I did was get close to Coach Marv Goux. He was the only guy on this campus who would pay attention to me. He taught me about the Trojan Spirit, the philosophy – not about X’s and O’s, but how to have a great football band. He taught me what that band could mean to the team, to the student body and to the alumni. Under his influence, the band started focusing on its relationship with the football team, which is to this day unique in this country. We have all these traditions. This did not happen overnight; it happened over four or five years. The third thing I did was cut the connection between band and music scholarships. Previously, the band had been made up of music majors, many of whom did not want to be out there; all they wanted to do was collect their scholarships. I got the music school to free up those scholarships so the music majors weren’t forced to be in the band. Here’s the final thing I did: I invited women to be in the band. Today, the USC band is about 40 percent female. When I first came in, it was really a male activity. In my second year, I changed that. At the time, bands were just starting to go coed at the Big Ten.

DK: Do you think the band’s place is secure in the age of multimedia and iPods?
AB: I think 90 percent of the bands do not get the visibility and recognition that they deserve, especially now that networks sell the halftime show. It’s not that people don’t want to see the bands; it’s that the sponsors would rather rehash the scores or replays of other games. I’ve done 16 Rose Bowls. There was a time when the band got the whole halftime show: 7� minutes. Now it’s maybe 2� or three minutes. I’ve done four Super Bowls. It used to be the band was the Super Bowl. Now you can’t even find the band. But a few bands still get recognition. What makes a band great is its personality — when it has that something special. For example, Southern University: It’s like a human jukebox. Or Ohio State, when they spell out Ohio in script and the tuba player dots the “i.” The Trojan Marching Band also has that mystique – between the horse, the song girls, the sunglasses and the helmets. It’s also to our advantage that we can still be Hollywood’s band.

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