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David Thornton proudly carries on the traditions of the Spartan Marching Band

Bill Beekman, Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Michigan State University, welcomes Spartan Marching Band Director David Thornton to MSU Today to discuss some behind the scenes information and perspective on the band.

“I've been going to MSU football games since I was probably six or seven-years-old,” Beekman says. “And to me, every football season when the band comes out of the tunnel and they do the kick step and they come out in the same sort of way every single year, it just sends a shiver down my spine. To me, that's sort of the first moment to me that you feel like the season’s begun and we're really at a football game. The band is a much larger part of our culture here on campus than many of us maybe even realize.”

David Thornton

“The preparation of the marching band is really a year-round project for us,” says Thornton. “We have about 310 students in the band. We're a part of the athletic department and supported by the athletic department. But we also are an academic class that students sign up to get credit for.”

Thornton talks about the process of developing halftime shows.

“It starts with a note on my phone where I'm constantly brainstorming and thinking about what are songs that would be fun, or what are themes, or what are artists that are maybe having an anniversary, or are really popular in pop culture, or we have a significant anniversary, or an event coming up on campus. It starts with always being open minded and always brainstorming.

“And then we start thinking about the design aspect of our show based on how many shows we're going to do. So we do a new halftime show for every home game. So depending on the schedule, that could be anywhere, six, seven, or eight games. And so from there, then we look at things like Homecoming and Halloween that might dictate the type of show that we would do. And so there's a lot of brainstorming time and thinking about what we're looking at. We've got a new football coach this year. So I've met with Coach Tucker to talk about some of his musical interests to see if we could collaborate on a show to welcome him to our MSU family. And so all of those things are our influencers in that process. But another big part of it for us is the collaboration with our students.

“The music is the most critical element for us in putting together a halftime show and the one that certainly takes a lot of thought and a lot of time to come together. But it's very much a collaborative process with myself, our staff members and our students. And every year, the students at the end of the year, we take a little survey and the whole band recommends themes and music that they would like to do. And we try and involve some of those ideas into our planning and our performances to give the students a little bit of ownership in the process.”

Thornton says a couple of his favorite performances have been when “we made the elephant fly through the sky. And then we also did the Africa themed show for the Year of Global Africa in partnership with the African Studies Program.

“It’s great to learn about different music and different communities and to connect with different people, which I think is a great message for the time that we're living when we need to be open minded and good listeners. And these cross collaborations are incredibly powerful. And our students really enjoy the opportunity as well. And so it was a great experience despite the sideways snow storm two weeks later.”

Thornton talks about how the band has evolved over its 150-year history.

“Our band program as a whole is really significant, particularly in the Big Ten and really across the country. The first band was established in 1870, and it was a 10-person student Civil War group. And that was how our organization was started. It has grown now to an over 300-person member ensemble.

“This Fall as a part of our anniversary for the 150th year of MSU bands, we welcomed back over 900 alumni that came to participate in a halftime show. And we had over 1,200 people combined alumni and the current Spartan Marching Band on the field, which was just spectacular. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it. And so that was a fantastic reunion. It was just so great to see people that had been in the band over 50-60 years ago come back and want to be a part of the great tradition.

“We're not the oldest band in the Big Ten, but we're certainly one of the oldest. And we take great pride in carrying on that tradition. And it's my job to have that tradition continue.”

MSU Today airs every Sunday morning at 9:00 on 105.1 FM, AM 870, and your smart speaker and connected devices. Follow and subscribe at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts.

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