Fundraising for marching band’s survival

By Collin Overton

The EKU Marching Colonels perform during halftime of the homecoming game against the University of Tennessee at Martin on Oct. 21. (Photo courtesy of EKU)

At the end of the last game of the EKU football season on Nov. 18, 2017, sophomore music education major Ashley Morrell played “My Old Kentucky Home” as she had numerous times before. What she didn’t know, however, was that it could have been the last time.

“That’s what makes it the worst,” Morrell said. “And I keep thinking about it.”

Nearly a month after the Board of Regents voted to cut EKU marching band, a group of faculty, staff and students is still working to save it. On April 13, EKU announced it was launching a fundraiser to raise the $250,000 necessary for keeping the band in operation. The announcement came three days after faculty got word through email that the School of Music was eliminating marching band and placing pep band under the funding and management of Student Success.

Morrell was in class when one of her professors got the email about marching band’s elimination. Students didn’t take him seriously when he announced the elimination.

“We all thought the professor was joking,” Morrell said. “We all just kind of looked at him.”

The email spread like a wildfire, causing an uproar with students and alumni on social media, drawing attention from local newspapers and TV stations and adding to the mounting list of stories to come out of EKU’s budget crisis.

That email, said School of Music chair Jeremy Mulholland, was never meant to go beyond faculty. He and director of EKU Bands Andrew Putnam sent official letters out later that afternoon explaining that the decision wasn’t the School of Music’s to make.

“Once I was able to explain to the students that this was not a School of Music-oriented decision, that we like marching band, that we like them… I found that they became much more responsive and much more willing to help,” Mulholland said.

That willingness was soon put into action. The EKU Band Task force, the ad-hoc committee responsible for restructuring bands, expanded its duties to helping with marching band’s funding and transition. The committee consists of co-chairs Sara Zeigler, dean of the College of Letters Arts and Social Sciences, and Eugene Palka, vice president for Student Success; and faculty, staff and student representatives from the School of Music, development and alumni relations, campus life, athletics and communications and brand management. Its main priority in fundraising: replacing old equipment and uniforms.

Typical ongoing costs for marching band total $150,000 a year, Mulholland said, but not when all uniforms and instruments are in dire need of replacement. Although students who play trumpet or flute often bring their own instruments, EKU will have to replace or provide a significant amount of mellophones, sousaphones, baritone horns and drums to replace aging instruments.

One student, Mulholland recalled, couldn’t participate until Zeigler provided the band with extra baritone horns.

As for the band’s 10-year-old uniforms, replacement isn’t needed for aesthetic reasons, but for students’ safety. One recent example was on September 23, when the band was preparing for a humid home game against Tennessee Technological University in poorly-ventilated uniforms.

“Before we even got to the stadium, I was in an ambulance with four students,” Mulholland said.

Of those four students, two were sent to the hospital with heat exhaustion. Zeigler, again helping the band, provided t-shirts and shorts afterwards that were more forgiving in the heat. New uniforms would cost the band $500 each minimum, Mulholland said, but they’re a necessity for a reason.

Another potential improvement: increasing student stipends.

Currently, marching band students earn stipends ranging from $125 a year as freshmen to $450 a year for seniors in leadership roles, said Andrew Putnam, director of EKU Bands. To earn these amounts, students meet requirements for rehearsal times, perform at games and events and pay $125 yearly for shoes and equipment, which they get back at the end of the year. Compared to other schools in the state, however, Mulholland said the stipends aren’t comparable.

All Western Kentucky University marching band students earn $600 a year, given that they meet program requirements. The University of Louisville offers all of its students scholarships ranging from $500 to $1200 for meeting grade and conduct requirements, with the amount based on how many years a student has been a member.

With new uniforms, instruments and increased stipends, marching band would also operate as a voluntary club option for students instead of being required. Instrumental music education majors had previously been required to participate in band for three years, a requirement Morrell said was the reason for a “50/50” reaction among students once they heard marching band was getting cut.

“Marching band is a lot of work, so a lot of people appreciate the free time,” Morrell said. “Personally, I was really upset and it took a moment for it to sink in, but people were either really relieved or a lot of people were really upset about it.”

Photos from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s showcase the band’s historic ties to the university. (Photos courtesy of EKU Archives)

Zeigler and Mulholland said making marching band an option for music students would allow them to pursue time with other ensembles or areas of study. The school of music had been wanting to switch to a voluntary model for a while, Mulholland said. Not everyone has been on board with the idea, however.

“I know the kinds of things that it can do for kids, and I know that the marching band, in my opinion, gives someone with a music ed[ucation] degree that plans on doing instrumental music a more competitive resume, especially if you’re doing instrumental music,” 2011 EKU graduate Michael Wooley said.

Wooley earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in music education at EKU and played trumpet in marching band. Today, he serves as band director at South Laurel Middle School in London, Ky. Wooley said marching band provides students with an immediate social network and prepares them for careers.

“If students are serious about their degree, they need to do that,” Wooley said.

Wooley added that that he thought bands being voluntary could affect their size and presence at campus events.

“If somebody starts in the marching band and does it for a year and they’re not obligated to do it anymore, it will hurt the size of the ensemble,” Wooley said. “I think that the marching band’s size is important for the presence at ball games and homecoming parades, tailgating performances… I think the size of the band is very important to the overall atmosphere.”

Morrell was also worried about a change in atmosphere. Music at home football games will be handled by athletics next year if marching band goes unfunded.

“The idea that they’re going to play some music on some speakers during halftime or whatever they plan on doing is honestly really sad to me, because it’s not football without a marching band there in my mind,” Morrell said.

The EKU Marching Colonels currently stand at two percent of their overall goal, at $6,099. Of the 62 donations made, Zeigler said, the largest is $1,000. No deadline is currently set for the band to meet their donation goal, Mulholland said.

Mulholland said that if marching band can’t be saved, the School of Music will provide a marching band techniques class with guest instructors to compensate for students who want to be marching band directors. An additional class will be provided to vocal, string and piano majors who are currently getting no experience in marching band.

Still, Mulholland remains optimistic.

“If we could set up an athletic band experience for them like we’ve been discussing that is voluntary, that they can choose to do…that has good equipment, has good uniforms…is something they want to do — I think that changes everything,” Mulholland said.

To make a donation to the EKU Marching Colonels, click here.