By Ethan Mickelson
Photos By Tanner Wallace
While the Bison football team recuperates during half-time, another team takes their place on the turf in their uniforms and shining instruments. The Gold Star Marching Band (GSMB) takes a collective breath before bursting into the first note, setting into motion all of their hard work.
Just like any team, performing is a small fraction of the time put in by the band’s student musicians. All the game day pomp and circumstance begins early in the morning with repetition and anticipation. Atop his tall conductor’s podium, the man behind the band, Director Dr. Sigurd Johnson, shouts directions into a microphone as the morphing crowd spells out “BISON.”
“It’s a muscle memory thing and it’s a visual thing, so we try to get as much practice in the Fargodome as we can,” explained Johnson. “But we hope that we’ve done it enough that even if we’re not on a home field, we are still able to do it.”
History in the Making
With nine years of experience directing the GSMB, muscle memory is exactly how Dr. Johnson sculpts the lines of his marching students. Directing the century-old band, one of the oldest in the nation, Dr. Johnson controls the reins to a historic program that first started as a small “Cadet Band” of just 14 members in 1903.
At the helm of the infant program was Clarence Simeon Putman, a local Fargo doctor, who grew the program with his dynamic leadership. After earning 100 percent ratings for three consecutive years from a Washington
official, the military band was awarded a gold star, inspiring Putman to coin the band’s new name.
The iconic name seems to be the only noticeable remnant left of Putnam’s directorship after all these years. However, the growth and expansion of the program initiated by Putnam continues today under Dr. Johnson with involvement at about 200 members.
“For my nine years, we’ve been anywhere from about 160 to 220 members, with an average of 180,” said Dr. Johnson. “I like the 200 range, that’s a good round number for me. The gold standard we use to determine what a healthy college band’s numbers are is one percent of the student population, so technically we should be around 145. On that ranking, we’re a good, healthy band.”
A Change of Pace
Sharing the same anniversary as Dr. Johnson, the GSMB uniforms have seen almost a decade of use, with over half that time being national championship years.
“We’ve had a very active season, especially since the Bison football team has been winning so many games,” Dr. Johnson explained. “Our season has gone essentially from the middle of August to the middle of January for the past five championship years. There have probably been about six different uniform styles for the band, from the inception where they wore very military style, to more contemporary in the last 30 to 35 years. We want the students to feel really good about their look, and we work hard at that.”
Even though there hasn’t been a recent update to the band’s uniforms, the current style retains modern aspects such as the tall plume and lightweight material made of cotton and nylon blend instead of the heavy wool uniforms of the past. The band’s new look is accompanied by a focus on incorporating dance into drill performances.
“The show that we’re doing currently is a dance show, and we had someone from the theatre program come over and choreograph about a minute or two of dance for us. Contemporary marching bands move a lot more than we used to, students are less afraid to do something like that. “
“When I started, the first dance we ever did was ‘The Thriller’ dance, which was a lot of fun. That kind of broke the ice for us,” said Dr. Johnson, “And we’ve had some kind of dance in every season since I’ve been here. The students don’t even think twice about it anymore, which is really nice.”
To help understand and plan how each band member will move during the complex performance, Dr. Johnson utilizes technology to further perfect the band’s iconic drill performances.
“You can do a lot with computer animation when you’re designing the drill. That’s been going on for quite a while,” Dr. Johnson said. “When I first started, we did it all on paper with pencil and you wrote in everybody. Now, I would say about 99 percent of marching band directors in this country do it all on computers because you can animate it, you can have your uniform on stage, views all the way from flat to like you’re in a drone, so you can really see how everything is going to look. It’s pretty amazing, but it makes for a lot of little extra things to learn.”
Prior to his current position as Director of Athletic Bands and Associate Professor of Music, Dr. Johnson was director of bands and percussion at Valley City State University, director of bands and instrumental music at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., and as a percussion arranger and instructor on the staff of the University of Memphis Marching Band. He spent four years teaching and performing in Norway, and continues to teach percussion at the International Music Camp at the International Peace Gardens each summer.
Another essential member of the team is drumline instructor, Dr. Nick Meyers, who is also the director of bands/percussion and assistant professor of music at Valley City State University.
Finally, the true voice of the band, the instruments and the musicians behind them include; piccolo, clarinet, alto/tenor saxophone, mellophone, trumpet, trombone, baritone, sousaphone, drumline, snare, tenor, bass drum, cymbals, front ensemble, color guard and twirlers.
In addition to performing at Bison football games, the GSMB also performs a stand-alone show called “Sounds of the Gridiron.” The show takes place on November 6 at 2 p.m. in the Fargodome and is a taste of all the classic warm up songs and victory ballads played throughout the year.