Eastern Michigan’s New Marching Band Director Aims To Create Tradition

The 2019 Quick Lane Bowl saw many things “broken”.

For starters, 34,765 fans attended Ford Field to see Eastern Michigan (EMU) vs. Pitt; breaking the bowl game’s previous attendance record of 34,217 (2015 Minnesota vs. Central Mich. matchup). Then there were the broken hearts of many EMU students, faculty, and alumni. They just witnessed their team lose the lead in the final minutes of the game, as Pitt won 34-30 in an unexpectedly exciting contest. Lastly, there was the broken spirit of the players over the controversial final seconds of the game; something several have alluded to via social media.

While the game’s final result wasn’t in EMU’s favor, there was one bright for nearly four hours in their fan section.

It was the “Pride of the Peninsula”, the Eastern Michigan University Marching Band. Whether EMU held the lead or trailed behind, their marching band kept the student section energetic, bobbing their heads, and dancing on their feet. It was the biggest stage that some of those band members have ever been a part of. One man, in particular, had been preparing them for this same stage since arriving in Michigan; hoping to showcase a performance that would delight all in attendance.

For that, you can thank Dr. Chandler Wilson, the newly appointed director of the Eastern Michigan University Marching Band.

A Rattling Beginning

Wilson was born and raised in Miami, Florida. It’s a place that’s “near and dear” to his heart. Proof of that is spotting him donning a Miami Marlins baseball cap  (occasionally) during band practice. Recently, Wilson obtained his Ph.D. in music education with an emphasis in conducting from Florida State University. Prior to that, he received his Master of Arts in Wind Band Conducting from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. While those accomplishments are very impressive, his undergraduate education is what turned the heads of many. Wilson received his bachelor’s in music education from Florida A&M University (FAMU).

FAMU is one of several revered HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). “The Marching 100”, the official name of the FAMU marching band, garners respect across the nation for their unique sound and performance. So with this in mind, news of Wilson’s arrival created excitement in the EMU community, especially with black alumni. His arrival almost seems as if it were fate if you ask him.

“I had a couple of interviews at a couple of other universities”, said Wilson.  “And when Eastern came up, two of my professors on my committee forwarded me the email almost simultaneously. They were literally about thirty seconds apart. And they’re like, ‘Hey, this is a job you really need to look at.’ And it was because they know it’s a place where you can grow.”

After conducting research on life in Michigan, Wilson along with his wife Ashley, and daughter Addisyn packed their things and relocated from sunny South Florida to the unpredictable weather of Michigan. While the change of scenery has been horrible for Wilson’s allergies, making the move, in general, was an easy sell to his wife. “She was just happy that I was going to have a job”, said Wilson. “You know, three years of grad school, it’s a lot of work.”

According to Wilson, his encounters and interactions with faculty, students, and Michiganders have been good to this point. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t draw the ire of some though.

Cultural Appropriation…Or Not?

There’s an obvious elephant in the room when discussing Wilson, his background, and his appointment at EMU. It’s something that became an interesting conversation topic on social media earlier this Fall. When the EMU Marching Band began performing publicly for the first time under Wilson’s leadership, videos of the band surfaced on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter; showcasing a sound that some felt mimicked HBCU marching bands. Most notably was their performance of the song “Neck”. It’s a song that some within the black community identify with being traditionally performed by marching bands from HBCUs such as Tennesse State, Southern University, or Wilson’s alma mater for that matter.

With chatters of “cultural appropriation” surrounding Wilson bringing his pedigree from an HBCU to a PWI (predominantly white institution), he suggested that there is a lack of research conducted amongst naysayers with this opinion.

“You know, HBCU programs, we all derive from a lot of the larger grandfather bands like the University of Illinois, Michigan, and Kansas”, said Wilson.  “And being a FAMU person, Dr. Foster pretty much took everything that he saw from the University of Kansas, which is where he’s from, and brought it to FAMU. So the same uniform style, the same marching style, the same pageantry of music. There’s really no difference. It’s just that we’ve always been isolated in what we hear. [Now we] realize that other people have now been doing it.”

Wilson doubled down on this to drive home a point. That point is the EMU Marching Band will have its own identity.

“So if somebody says, ‘Oh, they’re trying to march like an HBCU band’, No, go look at Penn State. Go look at Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, and Kansas State University. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. We just kind of put our own twist to it”, said Wilson.

“And there’s really no difference in philosophy of teaching. It’s just bringing different energy. A lot of times, most people look at that cultural thing based on, not necessarily sound of the band, but the selections of music that we play. Once again, they can go back and listen to Florida State. Though I’m from Florida, State’s been playing stuff like ‘Neck’ and ‘Right Above It’ for fifteen years now. It’s just that social media wasn’t as big as it is, and people don’t get a chance to see it.”

Wilson’s perspective may change not the criticism he’s received in that department. Nonetheless, it’s not stopping him from creating an opportunity for students in Metro Detroit and surrounding areas.

Inner City Recruiting

As noted, Wilson isn’t looking to turn the EMU Marching Band into a facsimile of FAMU’s. What he is looking to do is recruit the best talent possible, while offering an opportunity to high schoolers in Metro Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, and surrounding cities. Wilson was intentional about his ambition to recruit talented performers.

“You know, we want to get students where ever we can get them because I’m a firm believer of everybody getting a fair shot and option at life”, said Wilson.

“Whatever we can do to get out into the schools is great. And I have some friends that have come from the Detroit area, especially like Cass Tech and Southfield High School as well, that I met fifteen, twenty years ago at a FAMU’s band camp. We have to make sure we connect with everyone, too. So we don’t just recruit from one particular school. We reach out and try to branch out as much as we can. So I do plan to get out and get into those schools in Flint and Detroit and Pontiac as well because Eastern is a place where they can feel comfortable, not just being in a band, but also in school in general. And that’s the ultimate thing.”

During this process of making EMU’s marching band a place where prospective students feel welcome, he plans to give his program a proverbial facelift.

Beginning of a New Tradition

To create a tradition, there has to be a starting point. The EMU Marching Band isn’t talked about with the same notoriety as the University of Michigan’s Marching Band; their neighboring college. Knowing this, Wilson understands that he has his work cut out for him. It’s not missed upon him that it will take more than one year to cultivate a sound that can be identified with EMU. For now, his focus is on the band maintaining energy while doing it “The Eastern Way”.

“You know, when you go to those historic schools like Michigan or, like I said, Illinois earlier. I mean, they’ve got traditions that last 110 years”, said Wilson.

“We want to start and do things that create traditions and stuff here that’ll go down the line. And ultimately we just want to put on a good show, regardless if we’re playing the music of whatever culture. It’s whatever we can do to make it sound good, to put on a good show for the people in the audience, and to get the people in the stands rocking. And so I want to make sure people understand. We’re just here to put on a good show, regardless of anything. We are not trying to turn anybody in anything else. We’re just going to be ourselves.”

Judging by the reaction of the EMU fan section during the Quick Lane Bowl, they’re doing a fine job at it.

Photo Credit: EMU Marketing Department

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