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Drumming up Spirit at Homecoming

Thursday, October 8, 2015

UNW Drum Line performing at a homecoming game

As the Eagles football team entered the field for their Homecoming game on October 3 they were greeted by a packed stadium of fans, the UNW cheer squad and the percussive cadences of the Northwestern Drum Line. Whether it was the drums, the fans or the display of disciplined football on the field , the team’s 57-7 victory over Iowa Wesleyan was impressive.

For many Americans growing up, memorable sounds of fall include the impact of helmets and shoulder pads, crowds cheering and a marching band.

Luke Widbin ’11 had fallen in love with the energy and joy music brings to athletics when he was on a marching band drum line in high school. When he chose to attend Northwestern he knew they didn’t have a marching band because of the size of the school, but he recalled, “My entire time at college I felt something was missing [at football games], but I didn’t do anything about it.

Until last year. Rather than just wish for a more percussive experience as a fan at Eagles games, Widbin, now a UNW admission counselor, took action.

“In an admission counselor meeting, Scott Groeneweg ’96 was talking to us about how the new athletic field could represent an opportunity for new traditions,” Widbin said. Fellow admission counselor Stephen Mattson knew that Widbin had recently auditioned for the Minnesota Vikings drum line and said, ‘Luke could start a drum line!’”

Widbin laughed, thinking the logistics of putting one together would be impossible, but Groeneweg and Mattson pushed a little further until Widbin agreed to look into it.

Northwestern's percussion equipment was designed for a more symphonic style of play so finding drums was the first hurdle. Widbin tapped into contacts at a local high school and was able to borrow some of their backup equipment. “It was a patchwork group of instruments,” he said, “but we had a drum line for homecoming—and only two weeks to learn music, find players, and be presentable.”

Using a combination of current students, alumni and employees, Widbin assembled a group of individuals that was different each time the drum line played, but they got people excited enough that they wanted more.

To the next level

After the debut of the ad hoc drum line in 2014, Music & Theatre Department Chair Kirk Moss, Ph.D., and Vice President for Student Life & Athletics Matt Hill ’89, Ed.D., took notice. “When Music and Athletics saw the demand,” Moss explained, “Matt and I started talking about what it would take to make this happen [on a more permanent basis].”

Widbin knew that with his full-time work in Admissions and family commitments, his leadership of the drum line could not be long term, so he was grateful that Moss and Hill were able to take it to the next level. The result is now a collaborative effort between Music & Theatre and Athletics together.

Athletics supported the purchase of new instruments and the drum line is now an official auditioned music ensemble for which students may receive credit, led by Joel Alexander, instructor of percussion. Moss says they hope to continue to build in size and instrumentation in the coming years.

From Moss’s perspective, the drum line is an important part of a broader evolution of athletics and the fan experience at Northwestern. “It’s been a blast just seeing this happen,” Moss said.

Hill concurs. “Building a sense of school spirit and pride is great. People want to feel proud of what they belong to and all these things we build together seem to be building a new sense of pride and school spirit to the university.” Hill said that beyond students, he regularly hears positive comments from visiting opponents and their fans.

It took a creative idea to get the drum line started; people working together across traditional campus and departmental boundaries will now keep it going.

Adding another dimension to the fan experience

Head Football Coach Kirk Talley had always felt that having a school song or fight song would be a great element to add to the athletic experience at Northwestern.

“He [Talley] and I have been talking about this for better than a decade,” remarked Tim Sawyer, director of choral activities and honorary vocal coach for the football team. “So we just got together and said, ‘No more talking.’”

Talley and Sawyer checked in with Hill to seek his support, to which Hill replied, “Go for it.”

“The fight song’s been a discussion for a long time,” Hill said. “We had two versions of previous fight songs but Kirk and Tim decided to revamp a little bit—the old words and didn’t fit us very well.” It seemed the time was right.

Idea to action

Collaboration between Talley and Sawyer is nothing new—the two have been fast friends since shortly after Talley arrived on campus (see story on pages 20–21 of the fall 2010 Pilot) —but writing a song together was new territory.

Talley suggested the tune from his alma mater, Miami of Ohio, relatively short and with a good melody. They got together during the summer and started to put some lyrics down.

“We started from their first line, ‘Love and honor to Miami,’” Sawyer said. “Their words and music are all public domain and we just started from their perspective, throwing out different ideas.”

The pair considered incorporating the current athletics tagline, “Compete with purpose,” but realized the essence of that will remain but the phrase may not be permanent. “So we tried to write lyrics from a 50- to 100-year perspective,” Sawyer noted, “incorporating the Eagle, Christ and why we do what we do.”

At a meeting at the end of August the song was finished. “We sent it right to Matt Hill,” Sawyer explained. “He loved it and said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Talley contacted Miami of Ohio as a final courtesy check to verify their approval for use of the music. The school confirmed the tune was in the public domain and granted permission for Northwestern to use their arrangements, band parts, and the recording.

At Homecoming half-time Sawyer stood before the fans in the stadium and introduced the new UNW Eagles Fight Song, words by Kirk Talley and Tim Sawyer, sung to the Miami of Ohio Fight Song. Choir members had distributed the lyrics and were positioned throughout the stands to sing with gusto as Sawyer taught the song to the crowd.

New traditions

Like Moss, Sawyer is excited about the continued growth of school spirit at UNW. “With our new fields it feels like a whole new way of celebrating Northwestern,” he said.

Adding another dimension of sound to the Homecoming experience, the 200+ voice Festival Choir took the field to sing National Anthem before the game—no microphones. Singers stood with personal purple megaphones in hand to amplify their voices into the cool air.

While creative ideas sparked a drum line, a fight song and a choir singing with megaphones, collaboration across traditional campus and departmental boundaries made that creativity come to life and will sustain these new Northwestern traditions.

“There is such a great openness between athletics and music at Northwestern” Sawyer said. “There’s usually a chasm between athletics and aesthetics.”

Northwestern’s Homecoming was proof of a strengthening bridge of these two worlds.

Moss agrees wholeheartedly. “It’s been so fun to capitalize on that,” he commented. He noted Sawyer’s unique role as honorary vocal coach for football team and that he’s there for every game and every team retreat.

“To reciprocate and return the favor,” Moss said, “We opened our recital hour this year with Coach Talley as the speaker. We invited him to give a talk titled, ‘Perform with Purpose.’ He addressed music and theatre students and shared his faith journey and music journey—he’s a percussionist—and his vision for how we can do that for the glory of God.”

Additional 2015 highlights

Other Homecoming highlights this year included the new Homecoming K Run and a comedy night that raised money for One Day’s Wages, legacy events, a parent gathering and several decade reunion gatherings. Alumni Honorees this year were Dalynn Hoch ’94, honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award and Professors Charles and Helen Aling who received the Buckles-Hanna Service Award.

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