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The man behind the band at USC

Arthur C. Bartner, 71, has just kicked off his 42nd season leading the famed Trojan Marching Band, and there's no swan song in sight.

September 04, 2011|By Diane Haithman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Arthur C Bartner, director of the USC Marching band since 1970, is photographed with members of the band, next to a statue of Tommy Trojan on the USC campus.
Dr. Arthur C Bartner, director of the USC Marching band since 1970, is photographed… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

It was move-in day for the new term at USC, and the campus was in chaos — packed parking lots, disoriented freshmen, students emerging from the university bookstore with bags containing alarming quantities of information to be absorbed into brains by exam time.

But in the middle of campus on Cromwell Field, things were moving in clockwork order — well, almost — on this hot, mid-August day. That's where Trojan Marching Band director Arthur C. Bartner was putting students through their paces during the university's annual band camp.

"It's a crazy day!" observed Bartner, seemingly unfazed by the blinding sun and heat that caused one female musician to stumble off the field for a few minutes in the shade to hydrate with Gatorade. But he knows everything will work out just fine. After all, Bartner, 71, has been conjuring up the Spirit of Troy as band director for 41 years. This season begins his 42nd.

Photos: No swan song in sight for USC conductor

Although it was the first day on campus for some students, it was already Day 5 of camp, where 300 band members, more than 100 of them freshmen, already were putting in 14-hour days to get ready for football season. Five years ago, Bartner gave up his 28-year summer gig directing Disneyland's All American College Band in order to make up for lost vacation time with wife, Barbara.

Besides revving up for the first game of the season this weekend, the band also was looking forward to upcoming concerts (Friday and Saturday) at the Hollywood Bowl, where 40 senior members will be joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the 1812 Overture to close the all-Tchaikovsky fireworks program.

Playing the Bowl with the Phil is a 30-year tradition, Bartner said. "We started it on the Fourth of July because the Philharmonic didn't want to play for the fireworks show; all the ash and debris from the fireworks came down and messed with the fiddles. So they brought us in to play Sousa marches." Being part of the 1812 Overture "is one of the great traditions," Bartner said.

Back on Cromwell Field, players seemed a bit befuddled by the logistics of staying in a pinwheel formation, but for the most part patterns were beginning to look startlingly clean and crisp after just a few days of practice. Section leaders and assistants, experienced upperclassmen, are on hand for individual work with specific instruments, the Song Girls, twirlers and Silks (the flag bearers).

Bartner has a tendency to roar — he actually says it: "ROAR!" — charging at the students with hands up like bear paws. He's about as terrifying as Winnie the Pooh, but the energy is infectious. He does not hesitate to jump into a gaggle of musicians to demonstrate the high-stepping "drive it" marching technique that has become the band's signature.

On the podium, Bartner lavished the band with praise — they're doing better this afternoon than in the morning. "I can't tell you how much cleaner it is — turn on 'fight,' drive it down the field … it looks awesome!" he shouted. Band members took the moment to break into a tribal dance of joy. It didn't last long. "Now, let's review pinwheels," commanded their leader.

Even with a microphone, keeping up the high-decibel rant is enough to make a Trojan hoarse. Bartner's voice is consistently raspy, but also consistently loud. "It's amazing I have a voice at all," he said cheerfully. "Doctors have looked at it, I have nodes, my vocal cords are all stretched out, but it still works."

He must be doing something right; he's only missed one home game, and not due to illness but for a special event: leading an international band of 400 students including USC musicians for the opening of Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., in 1982. "I don't believe in getting sick," Bartner asserted.

Bartner joked that students know his voice better than his face. "I'm probably more of a nuisance to this campus than the band because I get excited," he said — excitedly. He shouts at the band and they shout back. "I want to know kids are out there. It's call and response," Bartner said. "This is the Trojan style, and they've embraced it."

What is the Trojan style, exactly? Bartner is the best guy to ask — he developed it. Raised in Maplewood, N.J., a trumpet player and jazz enthusiast with a doctorate in music education from the University of Michigan, Bartner was teaching high school music in that state when he was recruited by USC because of his history with the highly regarded Michigan band. Upon his arrival in 1970, Bartner, then not much older than his band members, recalled being taken aside by assistant football coach Marv Goux, who told him bluntly: "This band is a non-entity."

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