It hurts to even write this story, but it is one of those things I never want to forget.
I was watching the 2019 USC vs UCLA College Football Game when an announcement came on that the Director for ‘The Spirit of Troy’, the USC Trojan Marching Band was retiring after 50 years. I played in the TMB years ago and was present during part of the reign of Dr. Arthur C. Barnter and wow, do I have some stories to tell, including some from Band Camp!
I honestly thought Art would never retire. Also strange is that I call him Art although I don’t recall if that was too his face and I probably should have shown more respect given the PhD in Music and all. Regardless, I figured after that long at the helm that he’d never retire, and would probably die in the middle of a game, yelling at some unassuming freshman that they weren’t “driving the chair” hard enough! So what better way to show respect to the man, the dictator, the legend than to share my own story.
I’ve written about my time in the USC Trojan Marching Band before. It was the time of my life, I would trade it for nothing, and Art and the legacy he is leaving behind is a large reason why.
We put on a halftime show almost every week during college football season where we memorized marching formations to execute on the field, memorized all the music that we’d be playing that week, and had less than five days to do all of this while still attending classes. Art was a perfectionist and by extension so were we.
Our week starts Tuesday where almost three hundred band members would show up in the afternoon on a practice football field. We’d start by doing music warmups and torture drills (where we’d sing alternative words to other schools fight songs while marching in place). For the next 30 minutes or so, we’d practice four to six songs that we’d be performing for that week’s upcoming show.
Next, we’d get handed sheets with our actual marching formations that told us when to be where during the show. The band is divided up into sections by instrument and four-member squads. Each of these squads memorizes all of the steps that they’re going to perform during a song, multiplied by the number of songs that we’re performing that week. And every week has a different theme (like Marvel or Miss Saigon) so the music can be pretty different week to week as well.
Finally, we’d put it all together, the music we just practiced and the steps we just walked. This was all on Day One and it was never perfect on the first try — or the last according to Art. Rinse repeat, over and over till you get it right.
While all this was going on Art would sit atop this 100-foot tall structure we called “The Gawd Tower” connected to a 5,000-watt speaker system and proceed to yell at over three hundred people for literally hours. Because of his birds-eye view, he could both hear and see every mistake anyone ever made. And remember, we were putting together an entire show in less than a week. And also remember that Art was quite the perfectionist. And the most benevolent of dictators :)
So you’re in a three hundred person band, with Art perched atop the Gawd Tower barking instructions at you. The last thing you want to do is do anything that gets you singled out. Art directed the TMB for five decades, and probably oversaw tens of thousands of students, so nine times out of ten, if you did something to stand out it was usually pretty bad but he probably did not know you by name.
That didn’t stop the fact that he remembered all sorts of random things about people. And if you did get called out by Art, the entire band would hear it, and if there was some defining characteristic it was likely that would become your new identity and nickname for literally forever. Oh, and getting called out also meant you had to do a lap around the track. Did I mention we were quite the disciplined group?
So back to my story. We’re practicing for that week's show. During this particular song, we not only need to memorize the music but also have to learn a dance routine. Yes, a bunch of “band nerds” putting down their instruments (which most bands never do) and dancing during a break in the song. So we put down our instruments, and we start learning this dance routine.
As as I’m in the middle of doing my pelvic-thrusts Art grabs his microphone and stops the entire band from practicing. He doesn’t even look at me, but looks at my squad leader and shouts:
“Brian! The Freshmen from Palmdale, what’s he doing?!? He’s Got No Soul!!!”
There was an audible gasp. I should probably point out at this time that I was one of maybe ten black people out of three hundred in the entire band. I was supposed to be the one representin’ and I just got called out by a 100 year old white guy from Michigan for not having enough soul in a band of mostly white folks.
That was Art. He gave no fucks. If he thought you weren’t bringing your A-Game EVER, you got called out. Period.
My squad leader didn’t even say anything he just pointed at my instrument and then the track. I took off to do my lap. To this day, if I ever run into any TMB folks during that era, they’ll either call me “Palmdale” or “The guy with No Soul.”
A few notes about the above story:
- I did not embellish or exaggerate anything
- The TMB is alot more diverse today than it was when I was in school
- I still have mad respect for Art. He always expected your best, always and did not play politics. If you did not bring it, you got called out. Period.
- Every TMB Alum can do their own Art Bartner impression
- If you read a quote from Art anywhere, you hear it in his voice
- TMB won't quite be the same without him
- My favorite Art Quote? “It’s a new band!” usually shouted at someone that was doing something old school that they probably should not have been, hahaha.