Strike Up the Bands!

A Brief History of Wind Bands at ISU

I. The Beginnings

This content was written by Professor Emeritus of Music David H. Watkins and is posted here with his permission.

Indiana State Normal School began classes on January 6, 1870. As a “Normal School,” its mission was to train teachers for the public schools through a two-year course of study. The first music faculty member was William H. Paige, who also taught in the Terre Haute public schools. [Later he opened the music store which evolved over the years into the present-day Paige’s Music in Indianapolis.] Important over long periods of time were Lowell Mason Tilson (1915-1940), who headed the department and taught vocal music, and William H. Bryant (1921-1950) whose specialty was instrumental music.

Much of the information available about early bands comes from the Normal Advance, the student publication which appeared monthly during the school year. The June issue looked back over the year’s activities. The earliest copy available in the ISU Archives is Volume II, No. 9, dated June 1897. Around 1913, the Advance became a weekly but continued to publish a yearbook each June. The last Advance appeared in June 1923. Beginning in 1924, the yearbook carried the title Sycamore. [These sources are available in the ISU Archives. The author wishes to acknowledge the willing help of the archivist, Susan Davis.]

An additional source of information is the 1945 master’s thesis, “The History and Growth of the Music Department of Indiana State Teachers College from 1870 to 1945,” by Julia E. Hall.

The First Band?

There were several “first” bands. Considering that some students attended school for no more than two years, it would be easy for a group to fade away, and to be forgotten by succeeding generations. From the Normal Advance of May 1904:


Under the direction of Miss Parr and Mr. Thomas, a thorough canvass of the school was recently made for material suitable for the formation of a brass band. The success of this undertaking was better than anyone dreamed. Within a very few days sixteen men had volunteered their services to the undertaking and were at hard practice immediately. They made their first public appearance on Friday evening, April 22, in Normal Chapel Hall. Again everyone was surprised by the manner in which they rendered their selections. It is really surprising how much this little body of students has accomplished in the short time it has been formed, and also how much enthusiasm is added to the school by its appearance. (emphasis added)

From the Advance of June 1907:


The Normal Band is much better this spring than ever before. This is largely due to the fact that many of the members of last year are back. The original purpose of the Band was for the pleasure and profit in the practice it afforded. It is now felt that steps should be taken to make it a permanent organization with the support and direction of the student body….

Members of the 1907 Normal Band with their instruments

The picture of the 1907 band shows fourteen brass players, two drummers, and one lonely clarinet!

To reinforce the transient nature of the bands, the February 1913 Advance admonishes:


It seems as if it were about time to organize that band. The baseball schedule is being made out and the ball season will open before we realize it. It would take quite a little time to get a band into first-class working order, and we must not be without one, least of all, during the baseball season. Let us not have cause to be ashamed in this regard, but let some one who plays the cornet or some other instrument call a meeting and start the ball rolling. Immediately.

Obviously the plea worked, for in the June 1913 yearbook, there appeared a picture labeled

Mervin Swango, Director


Shown are sixteen brass players, two drummers, and TWO clarinets! The conductor is not holding an instrument.

Concerning this group, a wonderful document exists. Decades after 1913 one of its members, J. Clarence Tranbarger, wrote an account which he titled ISU’s First Band. Here are some excerpts:

Sole credit for that first band must go to an alert, active, and ambitious student by the name of Merle [Mervin] Swango. Swango made a personal and thorough house-to-house canvas of the men’s rooming houses near the campus to discover who owned band instruments. Mere ownership merited an invitation to meet at a certain time and place to try to organize a band. A fair number responded. They elected officers, arranged rehearsal hours and transacted any other business that they deemed essential.

The personnel and instrumentation of this first band were unique. The school painter, a man by the name of Schweigle, played the bass horn. His instrument was a small upright E flat tuba. He could read music well. Though he was suspected of doing some improvising, it was never at the expense of harmony. It was interesting to watch Schweigle play. Every tone that came from his horn gave him apparent pleasure. It was not difficult to picture him as a member of a four piece German band playing. . . on a street corner for the sheer love of producing music. A man by the name of Offutt, [? handwriting is unclear] who was the school carpenter and the Mr. Fix-It of the campus, handled the drums. . . . He played snare on parade and traps when the band was sitting as at football games.

Also mentioned are two trombones, “one slide and one valve,” and an “upright alto or ‘peck’ horn” whose player “was not sorely missed” if he failed to attend a rehearsal. Tranbarger led the three cornets, and Swango played the baritone well.

At that time, Mr. Will Bryant had charge of the instrumental music on the campus. . . it seemed logical to invite him to direct the new band. . . The success of the band can be attributed wholly to Mr. Bryant’s genius for organization, his superb musicianship, and his infinite patience.

This first band had many handicaps. Perhaps the hardest to bear was the complete lack of interest by administration and faculty.

A REAL First Band (At Last)!

Members of the 1923-24 Normal Band pose with their instruments

From the 1924 Sycamore:

A school band! Yes, at last we have one. One that does credit to I. S. N. . . . several hundred dollars was raised [to buy instruments]. Provisions were also made so that any one doing work in the band would receive the same credit as for other prepared work.

. . . on Wednesday and Friday of each week all other work was suspended above the “B” floor due to the fact that so much noise was made. . . The members attended the basket-ball games and helped a great deal to put the old fight in our “Scrappin’ Sycamores.”

The picture shows twenty-four players—eleven women and thirteen men—five clarinets, two saxophones, four cornets, two alto horns, three trombones, two baritone horns, one tuba, one bass drum, and four players whose instruments are not visible. No names are given. Of some significance is the appearance of an African-American trumpet player. Examination of class pictures through the years show that a few African-Americans were part of the student body from the beginning of the school. However, this trumpet player is the first to appear in a picture of an instrumental musical group. Significant also is that the students were given college credit for their participation in the band.

In the 1925 band picture only five women are in the group, but there are still woodwinds as well as brass and percussion. “The band followed every football game loyally and led the songs and cheers which spurred our boy on to victory.” The 1926 band contained only men. Of the nineteen players, only five played woodwinds. The Advance page dealing with the Music Department said:

Efforts were made during the year to provide uniforms for the Normal band of 25 pieces. This organization made a rapid growth. It furnished music at many of the athletic contests, and made one public appearance in a civic parade in connection with the Armistice day celebration.

ANOTHER “First Band”

From the 1933 Sycamore:

Here Comes the New Marching Band

Members of the 1932-33 Marching Band stand with their instruments

Forty-two members besides the Drum Major (Joe Harris). This new organization, the members of which were given four hours of credit in physical education, [emphasis added] played at every football and basketball game, and the Purdue and Indiana baseball games. The Band also made the trip to Muncie with the football team and was royally entertained by the Ball State officials. Within an amazingly short time the boys executed letter formations with the precision of professionals, and this feature, together with the excellent playing, added greatly to the school spirit. Professor Bryant directed the playing, Professor Bright the marching evolutions.

Plans are being made for a bigger and even better band next year.

Harold Bright played an important part in the growth and development of bands at Indiana State Teachers College. According to the thesis by Julia Hall:

The increasing interest in band music was reflected in the growth of the college band under the direction of Mr. Harold Bright. It added color and enjoyment to many college activities, beside providing training for students planning to become leaders of high school bands. The activities were varied; it functioned both as a marching and a symphonic band, for which the students did the music arranging. Over a period of several years, the organization grew to approximately eighty pieces in the marching band and to one hundred in the concert band. In 1939 Mr. Bright left the music department to become Assistant Director, Division of Teaching.

In a 1940 letter to Mr. Bright, John F. Sembower, Director of Public Relations wrote:

Certainly it would be most appropriate for you to have the title of “Director Emeritus” of the band . . . You were the founder of the band, and you piloted it to its present high prestige. Seldom is an institution so completely identified with one individual as the Indiana State Teachers College band has been with you.

A major turning point in the Indiana State band program occurred in 1939, when Joseph A. Gremelspacher arrived. Over a period of ten years, he had developed the Crawfordsville, Indiana, school band and orchestra into national award winning ensembles. His impact at ISTC was immediate. For instance, the Homecoming rally of October 20, 1939, heard the first performance of the Indiana State fight song, “authored and arranged by Joseph A. Gremelspacher, Professor of Music.”

Among his other strengths, Gremelspacher was a talented promoter. The Sycamore of 1940 contained a two-page spread of band pictures, as opposed to the single small photo of earlier editions.

Service in World War II interrupted his efforts at Indiana State, but following his return the program continued to flourish.

Facts about Some Intriguing Personalities

Mervin E. Swango (1885-1948) first studied at Indiana State Normal in 1906, took classes over many years, mostly in summer terms, and graduated in 1919. He also studied at the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh. Swango served as a Lieutenant in the Infantry during World War I. He majored in and taught Manual Training in Wiley High School and the public schools of Pittsburgh. Under his senior picture in the 1920 Advance is listed “Band Director ’10-’13.”

J. Clarence Tranbarger (1887-1968) played cornet in the 1913 band and played baritone saxophone in a Navy band. Tranbarger earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Indiana State. In 1925, he became a faculty member in Industrial Arts; from 1939 to retirement in 1953, he served as the head of printing services.

William H. Bryant (1879-1950) earned degrees in music from Findlay College (Ohio), Indiana State Teachers College, Syracuse University, and completed additional graduate work at Indiana University, Bloomington. Bryant was “Teacher of String Instruments” at Normal Schools in Muncie and Anderson, Vincennes University. He taught at ISTC from 1921-1947. Bryant directed the College Band from 1924 to 1933. As an “extracurricular activity,” he started the Terre Haute Civic and Teachers College Symphony (now known as the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra) and served as its conductor from 1926 to 1950.

Harold Bright (1881-1946) Bachelor’s degree in 1925, Master’s in 1930 from ISTC. County Superintendent of Schools 1914-1927, joined ISTC faculty in 1930. Honored for his work with ISTC bands by the creation of the Harold Bright Distinguished Service Medal, awarded annually since 1935.