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A New Band Director Has Some Hoping FAMU's Band Will Return This Fall

In the halls of Florida A&M University’s band room, a lone baritone burbles along. It’s a sound that hasn’t been heard much in the year since FAMU’s Marching band was placed on suspension as a result of the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion. Today, the band room is in a state of disarray. Bookshelves, boxes, piano’s parts of instruments and garment bags are strewn about. Equipment manager Donald Beckwith says the department is doing a bit of Spring cleaning.

The man responsible for the clutter is new band director Sylvester Young. The 66-year-old came out of retirement to take the job. His new office is above the band rehearsal hall with a window that looks out over the chaos. His first day was June 14th. But he’s two days early. Young says he and his wife are renting for now. And he’s got plans for the band. Not only does he want to change the culture, he wants to clean up the performance fundamentals.

“Bands should be about precision," Young explained. " When the Roman army marched, they always had a drummer and they marched in step because they could go further. Precision is important. We’re going to tighten the belt and bring Dr. Foster’s dream back to reality.”     

Dr. William P. Foster is FAMU’s legendary band director who created the Marching 100’s signature performance style. Outside the door, a man dressed in a suit and tie waits anxiously to speak with Young. So we take a break and he goes out for a moment to chat. His visitor turns out to be Kofi Hemmingway, a tennis instructor and minister from Atlanta. Hemmingway is also band alumni, having marched in the 1990’s.

And that’s how it goes. Young walked down the stairs from his office and was greeted in the corridor by a trio of excited students, who are eager to meet him:

“I’m just really excited," said Brianna, who didn't give her last name. She plays clarinet. "There are no words to describe it...I’m just really happy to meet the next man behind the baton.” 

She’s also excited about the rumblings that the marching band could be back on the field by the fall.

Fueling rumors of the band’s return is FAMU’s course registration website, which shows open registration for MUN 1110—the course number for the fall marching band class.  Young says the music department has a list of names of current students like Brianna who could be called upon on to reconstitute the band. Young says the suggestion that former band members be barred from participating is unfair. And starting over from scratch is an extremely tough deal:

"There are so many good kids in this band who are clueless as to the nature of the underground workings within the organization. You can’t punish those kids. Everyone should have an opportunity to come back and have a positive experience here.”  

The time has passed for recruitment. New members would have to be trained—a lengthy process and FAMU’s song-book is massive—something hard learn in what’s becoming a matter of weeks, rather than months. Time is running out.

As the baritone continues to play, more people come outside of the adjoining buildings that make up FAMU’s art and music complex. Among them, members of the Sigma Alpha Iota music fraternity. They’re commemorating founder’s day, and sing to mark the occasion.

The music is slowly coming back to FAMU, along with the hope that the band program may have finally turned a corner. Young says a pre-drill is in the process of being scheduled for the fall. That’s the time band members come together to begin practicing. Young says he’s determined to make sure the “traditions” that led to the hazing death of Robert Champion a year and a half ago, won’t be returning if the band does.

“When we get to that point, there will a process to provide proper re-entry into the program.  there will be a sense of accountability that will exist for that process to exist," he said.

FAMU’s interim president Dr. Larry Robinson says he won’t make a decision on whether to lift the “Marching 100’s” suspension until after the next Board of Governor’s meeting. Some say it’s still too soon, and that FAMU needs to focus on other issues—like ongoing accreditation and legal woes, before considering whether to reinstate the ensemble. But others, like students and alumni, are ready to see a band back in place for the Fall 2013 football season.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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