They Engineer the Spirit of Troy

A quarter of all members in the USC Marching Band hail from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
By Benjamin Murray
According to one member, the band gives students a ready-made group with common interests and a similar schedule.

Photo/Benjamin Murray
When USC Viterbi School of Engineering freshman Nick Rice joined the Trojan Marching Band this fall, the 18-year-old mellophone player found he was among friends.

All around him, resplendent in cardinal and gold uniforms and carrying trumpets, trombones or drums was a surprising number of like-minded students who came to USC to study computer science, structural engineering or aeronautics.

In fact, a quarter of the USC’s renowned 300-strong marching band, the Spirit of Troy, consists of USC Viterbi students, the largest single contingent from any school in the university.

Arthur Bartner, the longtime director of the band, said he often finds himself addressing engineering majors, but he didn’t realize that 25 percent of his band hailed from the USC Viterbi School.

It may seem incongruous: Putting aside chemical, biomedical or electrical engineering texts for flutes and trumpets, the students become part of Bartner’s exuberant and talented band on the football field each weekend during the fall.

But it does make a lot of sense. Bartner noted that music is very mathematical. And he explained that the diagram for the complex maneuvers that members must master for each performance resembles an engineering schematic filled with arrays of numbers and symbols.

“Engineers pick up the (moves) faster because they understand this stuff,” Bartner said, holding a diagram for the trombone section’s maneuvers. “They see it and have an aptitude to really understand (it) faster.”

Matt Warren, a senior mechanical engineering major, thinks “that engineering majors pick up the visual stuff better than others.”

“The people who march well and hit their spots the visual stuff they’re engineers.”

Rice, a computer engineering/computer science major, said his predilection for structure and design helps him see and remember movements on the field while playing a catalog of songs he had to memorize.

“The marching thing is easy for me,” he said. “It’s so methodical as to where you go on the field and how you have to play at the same time. I really like combining all those different applications.”

Asked whether performing in the band was a creative outlet during a semester spent otherwise entombed in a lab or crunching out equations, members and administrators said that is only part of what attracts engineers to the band.

“They’re not mutually exclusive. Creativity goes hand in hand with science,” said Tony Fox, the band’s associate director and arranger. “The reality is, all engineers, all scientists are creative people.”

Rice agreed.

“You’re using your engineering mind with the creative side of you,” he said.

Candace House, the engineering school’s director of career services, said another reason for the strong interest in the band from USC Viterbi students is that the band is a community within a community, helping students meet others and get involved in the university.

House, who was a business major and a clarinet section leader in the band when she was an undergraduate, said the marching band gives students a ready-made group with common interests and a similar schedule which also can help their grades.

The discipline needed to keep up in classes while attending band practices and games requires shrewd time-management skills. And it looks great on a resume.

“It’s a huge selling point. Companies like to see life outside the classroom,” House said. “They know you know how to multitask.”

Band members said there’s also an incredible rush that comes from marching onto a football field and playing in front of 90,000 screaming people.

“It’s such a release,” House said. “To be in a lab all week and then be able to perform on Saturday it just makes it all worthwhile.”

USC Viterbi students often rise to leadership positions in their sections. In fact, a quarter of the 12 section leaders, including Warren, Chris Norton (trombones) and Kristen Mineck (percussion) are in the school.

“They tend to become the leaders,” Bartner said. “Their intellectual prowess seems to correlate with musicianship.”

His conclusion: “Engineering majors make great bandsmen. Send me more.”