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Forever the Sound of Idaho
By Alexiss Turner
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night could keep Robert Spevacek’s Vandal Marching Band off the field.
In 1963, when Idaho took on the University of Washington, the team used giant snowballs to mark the hidden yard lines to stay in form.
Or in the 1980s, at a high school marching contest in Spokane, Wash. - there was an inch of rain on the field, but that didn’t keep the auxiliary team from doing splits as part of its act.
“You have to think, ‘What is the educational value?’” he said. “It may not be your comfort zone, but people depend on you.”
There was little that wasn’t worth sacrificing in Spevacek’s years of directing the Vandal Marching Band from 1968 to 1978. This mantra hasn’t changed, as the 200-person fleet continues to be a staple at university events today.
Photos courtesy of the UI Library. Hover over slideshow for captions.
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A campus band first appeared at UI in the early 1900s. The 1903 yearbook, the Gem of the Mountains, contains the first published mention of a University Band clad in military uniforms.
Because of their historic use leading troops into battle, early marching bands held exclusive military ties, and their regimented marches were adopted as performances for sporting events.
The first published instance of a UI pep band didn’t surface until 1920. A military ROTC and cadet band were also in existence. Record of Pep Band performances on the field were recorded in 1927.
In addition to the bands, an all-female singing ensemble, the Vandalettes, was formed in the 1930s. Its predecessor, the Vandaleers, is a co-ed concert choir that performs classical music of all genres.
Today the Vandal Marching Band includes several different parts, many of which are student-run. Its many parts include Basketball Band, President’s Band, Color Guard and an alumni band that invites graduates to take part in annual campus traditions.
The Vandal Marching Band also works with the Cheer Squad and various departments across campus. The collaboration has been one of band director Spencer Martin’s goals since taking the helm in 2011.
“The best part of college is to be empowered to go out and do stuff,” Martin said.
Martin's predecessor, Torrey Lawrence, directed the band for 14 years from 1998-2011. He said the band's growing popularity is apparent in the number of people who stick around for halftime performances.
"They have great spirit," he said. "They support the team regardless of what's going on out there."
Being part of the Vandal Marching Band takes a certain level of commitment. Most members are not majoring in music, but they rehearse for an hour each weekday. For the first football game of the 2013 season, members had 14 hours to memorize 18 minutes of music.
“It’s so intense for such a short amount of time,” said Al Gemberling '89, former marching band director from 1988-1998.
He said performances bring him back to the five years he spent traveling as part of a rock and roll band before settling in at UI.
“It reminds me of back in my rock and roll days jamming along with them,” he said.
Directors choreograph shows through a paper chart process, and 90 percent of the music the band performs was arranged by a Vandal. The band was recently recognized by Rolling Stone magazine for its cover of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ "Thriftshop."
Their recently graduated orchestrator, Jeff Chambers ’13, works for marching bands across the country including Vanderbilt and Fresno State universities.
“That’s the type of kid we’re graduating,” Martin said.
Each October the group hosts Band Day, where area high school bands are invited to campus to participate in game-day events. This year high school students will join the band for the halftime performance as Idaho takes on Fresno State Saturday.
Phillip Coffman '62 came to the university in 1960 as a graduate teaching assistant for what is now the Lionel Hampton School of Music. By 1962, Coffman impressed department chair Hall Macklin ’38 so much the marching band was turned over to him.
Coffman instituted the first Band Day in 1963. Close to 1,500 students swarmed the field during the performance.
"It was quite a task to stand on a high ladder and keep all of these students together, on the same page, and beat," he said.
The recruitment tool has benefited the band’s mass. This year, the group welcomed 70 freshman students into its ranks.
“These kinds of skills you can keep alive,” Coffman said. “It’s just an add-on for students who want to take on something more than reading books and taking tests.”