It’s Cool to Be in the Band
Shannon Kelly ’15 played trombone in the Vandal Marching Band. But it was the historian in her that noticed the famed ensemble was about to turn 100 years old.
Kelly, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences and more recently with a master’s degree in public history from Colorado State University, was reading about the history of Vandal Athletics when she noticed the first band members — a small military ensemble — started what is now known as the Vandal Marching Band in 1919.
“One of the responsibilities as a land-grant institution was to provide military training and education,” she said. “The first band occurred as a celebration of the end of World War I. There were so many local casualties in the war. It was veterans rejoicing they wouldn’t see any more carnage.”
That discovery of the upcoming band centennial combined with her deep connection to the band led Kelly to become the first official band historian. As a student, she remembers being surrounded by people who cared about her and her success on and off the field.
Along with serving as a staff assistant to the band and occasionally joining in with her trombone, she’s spent the past year drafting a book project featuring alumni stories, photos, videos and memorabilia that showcase “The Sound of Idaho.” The project has received support from both the U of I Alumni Association and the Lionel Hampton School of Music, as well as an anonymous donor.
“I recognize how lucky I am to have an alma mater and professors who mentored me and saw value in something that is a major milestone for the university as a whole,” she said.
Kelly’s primary source material includes Argonaut archives, Gem of the Mountains yearbooks, student handbooks, over a half-century of video and audio recordings, state military records and alumni interviews. The book is set to be published in early fall 2019 in advance of the marching band reunion at Homecoming. The reunion was also inspired by Kelly’s discovery.
“It's a book that any Vandal can enjoy and that a scholar like myself can also appreciate,” she said.
Kelly joined the band after participating in Future Vandal Game Day during her senior year at Post Falls High School. At the time, she was on the fence about where to go to college.
“After that visit I really wanted to come here,” she said. “The band was having so much fun. Here it’s cool to be in the band.”
We will take the hard work seriously; we will not take ourselves seriously. Spencer Martin, Marching Band Director
Jazz and Other Kinds of Innovation
U of I’s military ensemble morphed into a pep band that had its first director in 1928 and was including women by World War II. That’s when an unusual influence began to make its way into the evolution of the band’s repertoire: jazz.
“From the beginning we were doing things a bit differently; we would not replicate other bands,” Kelly said.
In the ʼ20s, the band held jazz dances (including an infamous all-night party in the Administration Building) to raise money. Several early band members went on to become celebrated jazz artists of the era. A director in the ʼ40s, who had been raised by parents that worked for Barnum and Bailey, brought a circus music influence. The name “The Sound of
Idaho” emerged sometime in the ʼ60s or early ʼ70s.
Despite the band’s growth, funding for the marching band was cut in 1976. Vandals worried it was the end until the Associated Students of the University of Idaho (ASUI) stepped in. ASUI continues to sponsor the band to this day.
“That’s why we do the shows for the students, facing them,” said Spencer Martin ’99, ’02 , the band’s current director and a third-generation Vandal. “We’ve never forgotten the sacrifice they made.”
The marching band now features 250 members, or “Bandals,” that represent 55 different majors across the university. Generally, only 35-40 percent of band members are music majors.
The band often plays music arranged or composed by U of I alumni. Shows include innovations from student collaborations with the College of Engineering and Department of Computer Science such as a robotic grand piano, water drums and LED sunglasses that are synched to provide a light show as the band performs.
“No other marching band has done any of this,” Martin said. “The greatest ideas come from the students.”
Unlike other notable ensembles at universities across the country, the Vandal Marching Band does not have a large support staff. And students help keep the enthusiasm going throughout the school year. In addition to the Vandal Marching Band’s appearances at football events, about 50-70 continue their performances at basketball, volleyball and soccer games. The band’s rendition of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” even caught the attention of Rolling Stone Magazine in 2013.
“The reason the band operates so well has to do with student leadership,” Martin said. “This experience empowers students to high levels of responsibility.”
Both Martin, a drummer, and Lionel Hampton School of Music Director Vanessa Sielert ’96 , who plays the saxophone, are alums of the band — as are other faculty and staff. There is even an Alumni Marching Band that performs in the Homecoming Parade each year.
“The band is a community; it’s a huge space for human interaction,” Sielert said. “Within the band and music, students get to experience being a part of a whole.”
That’s also what Kelly experienced.
“I learned that being a leader doesn’t mean getting up in front of people and telling them what to do,” she said. “It can mean working side by side. You learn how to be a reliable person and how to rely on others. You learn how to trust.”
Article by Theresa Henson, Content Coordinator
Published in the spring 2019 issue of Here We Have Idaho.