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History of ISU Bands and the Big Red Marching Machine

Illinois State University traces its band program back more than 90 years, to the very beginning of music ensembles at the school. Illinois State Normal University students developed a Varsity Band in the early 1900s, which appeared at sports rallies and games. The first regular courses in music were organized in 1901, and Professor Frank W. Westhoff became the university’s sole music teacher when he was placed in charge of the glee club and chorus practice. As a teenager, Westhoff had studied cornet and clarinet, gave lessons in organ and piano, and directed a church choir. Prior to coming to ISNU, he was in charge of vocal music at the Decatur school.

”A bigger and better band! That is the slogan at I.S.N.U.”

President Felmley had long dreamed of a school-sponsored concert band, and in 1914 was appropriated $500 by the state legislature with which to start a band. 13 horns and two drums were purchased and Westhoff was put in charge of the 30-student band, which played its first note in September of 1914. Westhoff himself composed or arranged all music the band played, specifically tailoring his arrangements to the band’s strengths. The concert band played marches, overtures, and waltzes at a number of University events, including patriotic demonstrations, contests, and baseball games. Over the initial decade of the band’s existence, membership varied greatly, falling anywhere between 10 and 32 from year to year, and students from local high schools were sometimes added to the group to fill out instrumentation. The band was quickly recognized as an “enlivening feature” of the school, due to to Professor Westhoff’s dedication and his focus on tone over volume. Westhoff remained the director of music education and music events at ISNU until 1935. Today, the Westhoff Theatre in the Centennial East building bears his name.

See more photos of the Big Red Marching Machine in a STATEside featured story - Photos: Big Red Marching Machine, then and now.

  • The Marching Band is Born
”This is the same band that made the walls tremble of Capen at the assembly – do you remember?”

Kenyon Fletcher, an industrial arts instructor, was named band director in 1932, following Westhoff’s appointment as director of music education. The ISNU band had played at a number of sporting events, including homecoming football games, under Westhoff, but it was Fletcher who developed the school’s first true marching band. In 1932, Fletcher composed "The Redbirds Marching Song", a variation of which remains the fight song of Illinois State University to this day. Under Fletcher, the band quickly grew in both size and capability. Between 1931 and 1933 the concert band more than doubled its size to 45 members, almost all of whom also marched in the marching band. Fletcher replaced the marching band’s all-white uniforms and red capes with brilliant red military-style uniforms. The band also began traveling for performances, taking buses to away football and basketball games across the state.

In 1934, the ISNU band hosted what is believed to be the state’s first high school marching band competition, which featured six high school bands as well as the Southern Teachers Band. The contest, designed to stimulate a widespread interest in music, went on to be held annually, growing in popularity each year. By 1935 the band program was popular enough to create a second band for beginning band students who wanted to be involved with the program. Interest became so high that, in 1939, Wayne Sherrard was appointed director of the concert band, now totaling over 90 players, and Fletcher was left in charge of the marching band, which had grown to over 60 members.

  • The Big Red Marching Machine

By the early 1940s the band had reached new heights, totaling 150 members by some accounts. The need for men to protect the country in World War II, however, hit the band hard, diminishing the co-ed concert band and all but eliminating the all-male marching band. And so in 1944, Sherrard created a women’s marching band, the first of its kind in a co-educational college. The women’s performance at Homecoming was such a success that the women’s marching band became a staple of school pride even after the war had ended and the men had returned home. The two bands marched side by side for years before they were integrated into one band in 1962 by director Arden Vance.

”One of the greatest college marching bands in America... the ISU band displays pride, enthusiasm and dignity."

Exciting change came to ISU in 1977 when Ed Livingston was appointed director of bands. Livingston placed a heavy emphasis on athletic bands, and marching band participation exploded under Livingston almost overnight, climbing from 90 players to over 340 in just one year. It was Livingston who coined the name ‘Big Red Marching Machine,’ capitalizing on the recent success of the Cincinnati Reds. Under Livingston, the Big Red Marching Machine grew to become one of the largest marching bands in the country, bringing widespread fame to Illinois State Bands. The Big Red Marching Machine has since performed all over the world, including at numerous Chicago Bears games, the 1998 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the 2017 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland.

  • The Bands Today
”I have heard some extremely fine wind ensembles during the past few years, but I can't think of any more impressive than this one."

Today, Illinois State Bands continue to enjoy widespread praise for their performances and recordings. The Illinois State University Wind Symphony has commissioned and premiered countless new works, including David Maslanka’s Symphonies 5, 7, 8, and 9. The Wind Symphony has performed throughout the United States, including at the 1990 Illinois Music Educators Association Convention, the 1993, 2001, 2013 and 2014 College Band Directors National Association Conferences, and the 2005 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. Albany Records has released over a dozen recordings of Illinois State Bands, including albums of works by Karel Husa, John Barnes Chance, and Vincent Persichetti, which have been met with widespread acclaim.

“They play so well that, even without strings, one could mistake them for a symphony orchestra. Their conductor… has shaped them to become one of the prime wind ensembles in the world.” – Classical Music Sentinel

“The Illinois State School of Music has no better promotional tool than the quality of these performances. They are truly fantastic! … I have heard some extremely fine wind ensembles during the past few years, but I can't think of any more impressive than this one.” – Fanfare