Marching band captures the “Spirit of the Mountain” in current season

  • From luaus to “Hancock Time” to long bus rides, senior band members reflect on an eventful year for the marching band.
  • Preparations for next year’s show will begin in February, and Band Director Stephen Kerr is already recruiting for next year.

Before Liberty plays a home football game, “The Spirit of the Mountain” marching band gathers at the Hancock Welcome Center for “Hancock Time.”

They tune their instruments, perform drum rolls and present a rendition of “Be Thou My Vision.”

“It’s our get-out-all-the-nerves time before we perform for the preshow,” senior Jameka “Princess Jameka” Tuppince said. “It’s just a time for the Lord before we go out and perform for the Lord. It’s my favorite part of (those) Saturdays.”

This Saturday, when the Flames play the Presbyterian Blue Hose, the band will congregate at the Welcome Center for the last time this year as the marching band season comes to a close.

“But we’re not winding down,” Band Director Stephen Kerr said. “It’s a ramp-up until the end.”

It’s been a busy season for the Spirit of the Mountain.

The band began preparing for the season at band camp in August—since then, they’ve performed for five home games, hosted an Oct. 28 regional competition and co-hosted the Sept. 23 Blue Ridge Festival of Bands.

They were also invited for the first time to perform an exhibition at the United States Bands Virginia State Championship in Virginia Beach Oct. 20-22. There, they played in Virginia Beach’s town square. The band capped off the trip with some time on the beach.

“It was definitely a highlight. It was a really enjoyable weekend together,” Kerr said. “Some of our band members said it was the most enjoyable thing they have ever done.”

They also took part in “Banding Together: Be the Match,”  a program geared toward college marching bands to help find bone marrow matches for patients in need. According to mellophonist Daniel Gregory, program volunteers traveled to Liberty in August and recruited students to sign up to donate bone marrow, should they be a match.

“I was blown away by the support,” Community Engagement Representative Dan Gariepy said in an email. “We had 80 people join the registry!!!! [sic] Typical registry events yield 30 or so—so 80 is off-the-charts amazing.”

“I love that we get the opportunity to do that,” Gregory said. “If somebody else needs it to survive, and you ended up being a match with somebody, that’d be really cool.”

But seniors like Tuppince, who came to Liberty for the marching band, will hang up their uniforms and leave the band after graduation.

“It’s bittersweet,” Tuppince said.  “Marching band has been part of my life for 10 years. That’s like, half my life. I can’t imagine my life without (it).”

Tuppince fondly remembers band trips to Dollywood and the Coca-Cola factory her freshman year, annual luaus and Putt-Putt golf games — social functions she says allowed her to form those deep bonds.

She also recalls grueling hours on the road and the inescability of seeing each other at their worst.

“(These) trips test your friendships,” Tuppince said. “You’re with them 24/7. So if you can survive a band trip, your friendships will last forever. “

And Tuppince did survive those band trips. As a result, the business major plays in more than just a marching band.

“They’re my family,” Tuppince said. “I rely on them for everything. If I’m sick, they’re there. If I’m sad, they’re there. ”

And Kerr is more than just a band director.

Tuppince marched with both Kerr’s son and daughter, and says that the relationship  between Kerr and his kids is very similar to the way he interacts with the band.

“I also get to be Band Dad,” Kerr said. “There are students who come in and they’re struggling with something, whatever it might be. I’m here for that. They know—and I tell them this—that I have their back.”

And it makes sense why he would be Band Dad—for 27 years, he watched it grow up.

Kerr joined Liberty faculty in 1990 as Assistant Band Director, but the baton was passed down to him at the turn of the century. Back then, the band had only 34 returning members and 56 new.

“The band…needed some additional attention,” Kerr said. “Little by little, we’ve seen steady growth.”

The band now consists of 251 students, nearing the “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” of 300 is in the near future, according to Kerr.

Kerr constantly ensures that band members have meaningful experiences because they deserve them.

“They work really, really hard together, and they get very little individual notoriety,” Kerr said. “We make them look like clones out there.  But they love this marching arts thing that we do.”

Not many people realize just how much work goes into marching band, Kerr said.

“What the crowd sees is the marching band come out for pregame, they see them in the stands playing, then they see us at the halftime show, and then they disappear for the rest of their lives,” Kerr said. “But there’s a lot more that goes into putting this together behind the scenes.”

He says that planning the performance starts In February to generate ideas for a theme. The next three months are dedicated to selecting music for the theme, along with designing the visual elements—all the way down to the color of silks used by the color guard.

When the semester starts, the band members gather five times a week for a couple of hours to practice. Tuppince says it can be brutal.

“People don’t realize that marching band is a sport,” Tuppince said. “When we’re on the field, half the time, we’re running. During practice, Dr. Kerr’s like, ‘Run there. Run here. Hustle. Run.’”

Over the course of the fall semester, the band continuously learns new things to implement in their show.

“We build the show as we go through the semester,” Kerr said.  “About the last 25-30 percent, we have a full show. All of the bells and whistles are involved.”

Saturday will be the last time students can watch the band perform their show, which revolves around the central theme of “Feeling Good.” The show incorporates songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Ode to Joy,” featuring at one point a color guard member in a large wheel, off of which a trumpet player backflips.

“It’s about the enjoyable ideas of life,” Kerr said. “They’re very entertaining. It’s the enjoyable aspects of the music and feeling good about life.”

According to Gregory, this season’s theme resonates a lot more with the crowd than last year.

“The growd gets more engaged with this year’s music,” Gregory said. “People enjoy the songs because they recognize them. You can see them dancing along as we play.”

But the theme also resonates with seniors like Tuppince who are now anticipating the next step.

“I feel good about leaving college and starting a career,” Tuppince said. “It took so long to (get) there. I switched my major four times, and I finally feel good about it.”

She will be heading out in May, hanging up the piccolo to pursue a career in the business field, leaving behind the luaus, Hancock Time and the thousands of glide steps it has taken to get there. But marching band will stay with her for the rest of her life.

Meanwhile, Kerr is already recruiting prospective band members for next year, and ideas for next fall’s show are already flying around.

“People ask, ‘What’s your secret?’” Kerr said. “It’s not me, it’s the Lord. It’s undeserved favor from the Lord on this ensemble. There’s nothing special about me. Yeah, I work hard, but it’s the Lord’s ensemble.”

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