Director Russell Gavin helps the Stanford Band play on
Russell Gavin, the new director of Stanford’s famously irreverent student scatter band, reflects on what makes the group special, how they are doing in the wake of a suspension that resulted in organizational changes and what the future holds.
This fall, Russell Gavin joined Stanford from Baylor University to serve as director of the university’s famously irreverent and occasionally wacky scatter band, the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band. Scatter bands don’t march as much as run around during humorous football halftime shows created by a team of student writers.
Gavin started his job as the Dr. Arthur P. Barnes Director of the Band on the heels of sanctions being lifted that allowed the popular performance group to return to “good standing” as a student organization. The approximately 200-member band was suspended in December 2016 for the academic year after an investigation revealed violations of university policy, including hazing, sexual harassment and alcohol abuse.
In an interview with Stanford Report, Gavin reflects on his Stanford tenure so far, the progress the Stanford Band is making and aspects of the musical group that might surprise even its most ardent fans.
How is the Band doing in light of last year’s suspension?
They are doing amazingly well. The Stanford Band culture I experience today, two months into the job, does not resemble the one described to me from several years ago. The culture I experience is one of great sensitivity to each other and to inclusiveness. It’s filled with energy and fun. They took the admonitions quite seriously. Not only are they doing a good job, but in many ways, they’ve become a model group.
How are you helping them maintain their unique character as they change their organizational culture?
They don’t need my help to do that. They are smart enough to know that jokes that might have seemed funny in the past might not be appropriate now. The current students are hilarious in their own way, and the students who write the shows are doing a great job engaging our fans. During the field show planning, I often find myself laughing out loud.
Your background is with marching bands whose formations are more traditional. How is it working with a scatter band?
I enjoy working with a scatter band just as much as working with a drum and bugle corps, which are all about regimentation. To me, bands are about the people and the experience. They are not about whether or not you can form a straight line at the 40-yard line. A successful band experience is about sharing the music and feeling the camaraderie and building a sense of community. The key questions are: Are the people engaged in the group glad they did it and is the audience glad they were there?
My primary job here is music director. I help them sound better. But how they sound is related to everything else. It’s not just about tuning, phrasing, instrument upkeep and level of attention at rehearsal, although the fundamentals are key to sounding better. My position should touch on almost everything that relates to the student experience. It’s not my job to tell them what to do, but rather to ask, “Are you thinking about how this action is going to land with the world?” My job is to get them to think beyond their own perspective, and they’ve been very receptive.
In terms of musical impact, we’ve only just started. The introduction of lessons and the musical opportunities to get better will come in winter and spring. The fall has mostly been about me learning. One of the challenging musical aspects for this band, however, is that they keep around 70 songs in the folder. Most collegiate bands have between two and 20 songs. We have three to 10 times that number. That’s a lot of songs.
What has struck you most about the history and tradition of the Band?
The commitment of the Band alumni is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s been very positive most of the time. I grew up in Alabama, and I knew all about the Stanford Band. Hearing their stories, meeting people I have read about and sharing the experiences of the alumni has been wonderful.
It’s interesting to me that the Stanford Band has been on the right side of history in some infamous performances, like the spotted owl show in 1990 at Oregon. They criticized the effect logging was having on the spotted owl habitat. The logging in national forests that contained spotted owls was later stopped. They weren’t wrong.
That said, I’m pretty sure there is no ill will that is completely undeserved when it comes to the Stanford Band of the past. I’m sure in some cases, past members would have chosen to do things differently. And people forget that none of these current students were in the Band when most of these incidents happened. They weren’t even born in 1990.
When you have the reputation they have, you can make 99 good decisions, but it’s the bad one that people comment on. This band is always going to disappoint people who prefer a traditional performance. But this band also has the potential to deeply engage people in a way a band that focuses on standing in line can’t.
What have you been focusing on in your work with the Band?
I have spent a lot of time talking to people to understand where the Stanford Band fits into the university and how we best serve. I have really appreciated that so many doors have been opened to me and so many people have emailed me their thoughts, whether they are fans of the Band or not.
I’ve heard from people from every perspective, and I’ve been soaking it all up. I’ve received tremendous support from athletics and student affairs. They have been incredibly helpful. All of these experiences will lead to an articulated vision for the future and a wide-ranging discussion with the students about how we should best serve the Band members and the university.
What in your experience with the Stanford Band would surprise most people?
I would invite anyone to spend even five minutes with these students. They will come away impressed. I think a lot of people would be surprised, too, to learn how many charitable functions the Band plays at. They do as much community service as they do university service. I think people would also be surprised – I was blown away – to learn that 30 to 40 percent of Band members are new to their instruments. Often a student who played the cello or piano in high school suddenly picks up the trumpet or saxophone so they can play in the Band. They are very bright and can learn the instrument very quickly. I like that the Band opens its doors to anyone who wants to learn and participate.
What’s next for the Band?
I’m certain the Band’s unique character will carry on. The group will stay a scatter band. Their numbers will increase, and they will develop musically and as an organization that everyone can be proud of. They have a unique power to inject fun and energy, and that will grow.