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Music

The man behind the band at USC

It was move-in day for the new term at USC, and the campus was in chaos — packed parking lots, disoriented freshmen, students emerging from the university bookstore with bags containing alarming quantities of information to be absorbed into brains by exam time.

But in the middle of campus on Cromwell Field, things were moving in clockwork order — well, almost — on this hot, mid-August day. That’s where Trojan Marching Band director Arthur C. Bartner was putting students through their paces during the university’s annual band camp.

“It’s a crazy day!” observed Bartner, seemingly unfazed by the blinding sun and heat that caused one female musician to stumble off the field for a few minutes in the shade to hydrate with Gatorade. But he knows everything will work out just fine. After all, Bartner, 71, has been conjuring up the Spirit of Troy as band director for 41 years. This season begins his 42nd.

Photos: No swan song in sight for USC conductor

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Although it was the first day on campus for some students, it was already Day 5 of camp, where 300 band members, more than 100 of them freshmen, already were putting in 14-hour days to get ready for football season. Five years ago, Bartner gave up his 28-year summer gig directing Disneyland’s All American College Band in order to make up for lost vacation time with wife, Barbara.

Besides revving up for the first game of the season this weekend, the band also was looking forward to upcoming concerts (Friday and Saturday) at the Hollywood Bowl, where 40 senior members will be joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the 1812 Overture to close the all-Tchaikovsky fireworks program.

Playing the Bowl with the Phil is a 30-year tradition, Bartner said. “We started it on the Fourth of July because the Philharmonic didn’t want to play for the fireworks show; all the ash and debris from the fireworks came down and messed with the fiddles. So they brought us in to play Sousa marches.” Being part of the 1812 Overture “is one of the great traditions,” Bartner said.

Back on Cromwell Field, players seemed a bit befuddled by the logistics of staying in a pinwheel formation, but for the most part patterns were beginning to look startlingly clean and crisp after just a few days of practice. Section leaders and assistants, experienced upperclassmen, are on hand for individual work with specific instruments, the Song Girls, twirlers and Silks (the flag bearers).

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Bartner has a tendency to roar — he actually says it: “ROAR!” — charging at the students with hands up like bear paws. He’s about as terrifying as Winnie the Pooh, but the energy is infectious. He does not hesitate to jump into a gaggle of musicians to demonstrate the high-stepping “drive it” marching technique that has become the band’s signature.

On the podium, Bartner lavished the band with praise — they’re doing better this afternoon than in the morning. “I can’t tell you how much cleaner it is — turn on ‘fight,’ drive it down the field … it looks awesome!” he shouted. Band members took the moment to break into a tribal dance of joy. It didn’t last long. “Now, let’s review pinwheels,” commanded their leader.

Even with a microphone, keeping up the high-decibel rant is enough to make a Trojan hoarse. Bartner’s voice is consistently raspy, but also consistently loud. “It’s amazing I have a voice at all,” he said cheerfully. “Doctors have looked at it, I have nodes, my vocal cords are all stretched out, but it still works.”

He must be doing something right; he’s only missed one home game, and not due to illness but for a special event: leading an international band of 400 students including USC musicians for the opening of Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., in 1982. “I don’t believe in getting sick,” Bartner asserted.

Bartner joked that students know his voice better than his face. “I’m probably more of a nuisance to this campus than the band because I get excited,” he said — excitedly. He shouts at the band and they shout back. “I want to know kids are out there. It’s call and response,” Bartner said. “This is the Trojan style, and they’ve embraced it.”

What is the Trojan style, exactly? Bartner is the best guy to ask — he developed it. Raised in Maplewood, N.J., a trumpet player and jazz enthusiast with a doctorate in music education from the University of Michigan, Bartner was teaching high school music in that state when he was recruited by USC because of his history with the highly regarded Michigan band. Upon his arrival in 1970, Bartner, then not much older than his band members, recalled being taken aside by assistant football coach Marv Goux, who told him bluntly: “This band is a non-entity.”

At the time, the band was composed of 80 students, mostly unenthusiastic music majors who marched because it was required for them to keep their scholarships. Bartner worked to free music students from that obligation, and expanded the group to 300 (some music majors still play, but Bartner says the band now has more engineering students than any other major).

His first mistake was to try to impose his Michigan sensibility on an L.A. band. It didn’t work. “It’s a Midwest band,” he said of the Wolverine ensemble he had played for. “William D. Revelli, my band director, came from the Toscanini school of conductors, very strict. You didn’t talk during practice…. Marv [Goux] said: ‘You need an identity. You’ve got to be tied into our football team, and treat it like a team.’”

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Bartner liked the concept, and since the early ‘70s, the Trojan Marching Band has been whooping and hollering, dancing and screaming like cheerleaders. “Our rehearsals are like one big pep rally,” Bartner said. An appropriate snippet of their signature fight songs, “Fight On,” “Tribute to Troy” and “Conquest,” accompanies virtually every play. When not on the instruments, raised hands are in constant motion, pumping the victory sign.

A touchdown calls for a full rendition of “Fight On.” “This [cue] is ‘Fight On,’ from the top,” said Bartner, demonstrating by patting the top of his head. “But I have to be careful — I get excited and start pounding my head so hard, I think, ‘Gee, that’s not such a good thing to be doing.’”

Ken Dye, music professor and director of the Band of the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame, was a trombone player with the USC band when Bartner arrived in 1970. Bartner, he said, was instrumental (no pun intended) in Dye’s decision to switch his major from physics to music education.

“I got to see it before he was there, and it wasn’t very good,” Dye said. “He took some of the tools that the bands in Michigan or Ohio State had and added his own identity. He built on the idea of the Trojans, the pageantry of the Coliseum and the [white horse] mascot and the Trojan outfit with helmets. They have their own style and identity and that’s what he’s done that’s really special at USC.”

In fact, Dye played a role in cementing that image — during Bartner’s fourth year on the job, Dye was among a handful of seniors who came up with the band’s lasting nickname, “The Spirit of Troy.”

These days, the band is a self-selecting group. The university has come a long way since Dye’s undergrad years, when, he jokes, the school was known as the University of Spoiled Children. Now, increased academic rigor can make it difficult to find students willing to commit to the grueling band schedule. But on the bright side, Bartner said, with tougher USC admission standards, those who do join the band are quick studies, sharper and more disciplined than the band members of his early years.

Most associated with USC agree that Bartner’s spirit remains a necessary ingredient. Said John Baxter, the football team’s associate head coach and special teams coordinator: “Dr. Bartner is the band … the band is the heartbeat of the game-day environment.”

Though many college bands are now playing pop hits, Bartner’s USC contingent was among the first to create an extensive “rock book.” In 1973, they wowed the crowd at Notre Dame with a rendition of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein.” “We had our song girls, dancing girls in short skirts on the field … it was like the air in the stadium disappeared. That was the beginning,” Bartner said. This season, the band will play LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and attempt a version of the dance routine from the wildly popular music video.

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Bartner’s unorthodox approach guides training that is in fact disciplined, almost military. Band members wear sunglasses with their Trojan helmets, but this California band is light years away from the nutty antics of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band. “Make a mistake, do a lap,” said freshman Heidi Schroepfer of Lake Tahoe, who added that Bartner does not hesitate to single out an errant band member for a run around the field. “He takes so much pride; he just wants us to be the best. It’s regimented for a reason.”

Band members call him “Dr. Bartner.” Freshman Brian Lentz, a tenor sax player from Iowa City, Iowa, called Bartner’s approach “extremely intense” but added that if Bartner yells, “We yell right back at him.”

Bartner has also steered the band toward the entertainment industry — most notably recording the video for the title single of Fleetwood Mac’s double-platinum album “Tusk” in 1979 at Dodger Stadium.

“It’s an urban band, it’s a Hollywood band,” he continued. “We have a very aggressive, athletic, physical style … we’re very contemporary, we try to play Lady Gaga before the rest of the bands are playing Lady Gaga.” And, he added, “We’re very entrepreneur-ish. We’ve played for George Lucas, we’ve played for [Steven] Spielberg.”

The band also has appeared at the Academy Awards and the Grammys, and has been featured in guest spots on “Glee,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “American Idol,” among many other TV shows and movies. In 2007, the Trojan Marching Band and the Grambling State band appeared in the Sports Illustrated music-themed swimsuit issue with the magazine’s models.

For his part, Bartner said the highlight of his career was not a Hollywood event: It was leading musicians, including USC band members, from all 50 states for the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. “That was my greatest moment,” he said.

This year marks the band’s 300th consecutive game appearance, at home or away; Bartner’s 250th home game as band director will be the USC-UCLA game in 2012. He acknowledges that his recent 40th anniversary with USC has called for some introspection. In an interview, he answered the obvious question without being asked.

“The first question is, how did you survive for 40 years? The second question is, when are you going to retire?” he said. “I refuse to put a date on it. I might be getting older, but every year you get 100 new kids — it’s like starting all over again. I get tremendous support from the university athletic department and alumni. It’s a pretty good gig.

“I don’t know — 71 doesn’t flow easy from my mouth, because I don’t feel that way,” Bartner added thoughtfully. “I don’t know what you’re supposed to feel like. So I’m going to keep doing it as long as it’s still fun, the kids are still great … I’m having a great time.”

Photos: No swan song in sight for USC conductor

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