There was an unexpected highlight of Northwestern State University’s gridiron matchup versus Top 10-ranked Louisiana State University that occurred during the fourth quarter — off the football field.
As the clock wound down and the LSU Tigers widened the score, NSU’s Spirit of Northwestern Demon Marching Band cranked up what remained of the dwindling crowd by playing “Neck,” a stadium favorite blasted across Death Valley by the visiting band’s powerful brass section.
That grabbed the attention of the remaining Tiger fans. Video went viral. This following a memorable halftime show in which the Spirt of Northwestern combined with the Golden Band from Tigerland for a joint performance of “You Are My Sunshine,” Louisiana’s state song.
With that, the Spirit of Northwestern gained a whole new fan base.
To Demon fans, no surprise. It’s what they are used to, those who have been in Turpin Stadium on a Saturday for consistently outstanding SON performances, from pre-game to half-time to the swaying post-game a capella alma mater serenade with the football team. They’ve played some memorable shows, paying tribute to America, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Broadway, 80s music, soul, James Bond…. The list goes on.
As Northwestern State’s largest and loudest spirit group, the Spirit of Northwestern is as steeped in tradition as any college coterie or Greek organization and this year boasts its largest numbers in history. The 2019 SON has 340 members, which includes three veteran drum majors, 226 wind musicians, 27 percussionists on the field and 13 in the front ensemble, 55 performers in Demon Heat Color Guard and 16 Demon Dazzlers.
As such, it is the largest band in Louisiana and its members and directors enjoyed the televised stage on which it performed in Baton Rouge.
“Our students were talking for days after the event about the experience of playing for such a large crowd in Tiger Stadium,” said Director of Bands Dr. Jeff Mathews. “Many of them are from the area and their parents were able to get tickets and see their student perform in their own backyard.”
Mathews is only a little bit hesitant to toot the band’s horn.
“There was lots of buzz on social media and the band staff received many texts of congratulations,” he said. “People don’t expect a school our size to have as big a band as we do. Anytime we take the band to an FBS school there are a lot of surprised people.”
With the Demons playing away the weekend following the LSU game, Mathews was headed out on a recruiting trip through the Baton Rouge area. Earlier in September, he and his staff hosted Young Performers Day, a recruiting initiative that drew about 265 middle and high school students who joined the band on the field for the On the Road Again show. The staff is also preparing for another big annual event, the Classic on the Cane marching contest, set for Nov. 2. Last year, more than 2,500 high school students representing about 30 bands from Louisiana and Texas participated.
The Spirit of Northwestern begins preseason practice 10 days before the first day of class when they rehearse from 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. in the sweltering August heat. During the school year, they rehearse six hours per week with the full band. Color Guard and drum line rehearse 10 hours per week. Directors put in about 100 hours of preparation prior to the band having their first rehearsal, fine tuning drill design, show concept, music preparation, music arranging and logistics. It takes about three weeks of rehearsal to have a show in shape for performance. The On the Road Again show was conceived last fall.
“Generally, we try to begin the design concepts right after the last football game each year,” Mathews said. “The concept of the show is usually done in March with the drill design and music arranging being completed during the summer. Professor or Music Theory, Dr. Adam Hudlow is our music arranger.”
“It’s a labor of love!” said Mathews, who performed with the band as an undergraduate from 1985-1990 and returned as an assistant director in 1998. He has been director of bands since 2013.
“The thing I think is most special about the SON is the camaraderie and collegiality in the group,” Mathews said. “Any large organization can experience factionalism and cliquishness. This group just has never had that problem. They are extremely supportive of their bandmates, the School of Creative and Performing Arts and the University.”
What does Mathews consider a trademark of the SON?
“BIG SOUND!!! Our number one priority is making sure we sound great and that people are impressed with both the quality and quantity of that sound.”
Hunter Horton, PA announcer for NSU Athletics, had the honor of introducing the Spirit of Northwestern for the game in Tiger Stadium.
“The SON family that has embraced me as a member with far less talent than any of their performers, is one of my proudest accomplishments,” Horton said. “They deliver flawless performances each and every time they march onto the field and my role is very simple. As Dr. Mathews told me before the LSU game, ‘Go up there and tell them who we are. We are the 342-member strong Spirit of Northwestern and let them know we’re here.’”
Mathews said it would not be possible to develop a band the size of the Spirit of Northwestern without the support of NSU President Dr. Chris Maggio and a dedicated group of band instructors.
“Dr. Maggio and his team as well as leaders across campus make a meaningful contribution to the success of the SON,” Mathews said. “We also have an incredible team of teacher leaders involved with the band. Dan McDonald, SON director; Oliver Molina, percussion; Jena Elfer and Estelle Murr with the Color Guard, Renee Oates with the Dazzlers, Adam Hudlow, our music arranger, and I myself as director of bands and drill designer, have really found a synergy in preparing the band for performance. It takes this team many hours of preparation and perspiration for us to have the kind of performances we have had in the last few years. I am truly proud to say that the SON has never been better than it is right now. In the SON you see an outstanding combination of quality and quantity.”
Membership in the Spirit of Northwestern is open to all students, regardless of major and about 60 percent of its members will pursue careers not related to music. The band performs at parades and university functions throughout the year.
“We love doing what we do,” Mathews said. Following the On the Road Again show, the band’s upcoming performances will feature Marvel movie music.
“We were incredibly proud of our students after the [LSU] performance,” Mathews said. “Their work ethic and commitment to excellence is second to none. My number one takeaway was that we must have the best band students in all of college football.”