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How to Build a Great Marching Band

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Marching Duke

Take a tradition of musical excellence, a Southern gentleman, a football team, enthusiastic students, talent, hard work and mix them together in the right place at the right time. Voila! You have an award-winning marching band recognized internationally.

In a nutshell, that's the story of JMU's acclaimed Marching Royal Dukes.

The band was first organized around the fledgling 1972 football team when Malcolm Harris recruited 100 members to form the Madison College Marching Band. Accompanied by nine sequined baton twirlers dubbed The Golden Girls, the band performed on Godwin Field wearing tuxedo jackets with white overlays emblazoned with a golden M.

From their inauspicious 1972 beginning, the band grew under the direction of Ken Moulton and bloomed under the directions of Mike Davis, quickly moving out of the shadow of the football team and into their own spotlight by recording music and playing throughout the country.

In 1982, Patrick “Pat” Rooney arrived on campus from Oklahoma bringing, along with a good dose of Southern charm, a standard of excellence that would, over the next 25 years, propel the marching band to national pre-eminence.

Pat Rooney at a pep rally
Patrick "Pat" Rooney at a pep rally

Rooney's attention to musical and technical detail, along with a personable manner, took a good band and made it great. The year after Rooney's arrival, the band played the first of many national events, the halftime show of the National Football Conference championship game, Dallas vs. Washington. A fortuitous – for JMU – television glitch resulted in the broadcast of the band's entire halftime show to a national audience.

More accolades and opportunities followed. Members of the Marching Royal Dukes were selected to play at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the 1986 rededication of the Statue of Liberty and more halftime shows.

The Marching Royal Duke's precision drills and musical excellence received the ultimate accolade in 1994 when the band won the coveted Sudler Trophy, an award chosen by 680 NCAA band directors to recognize the nation's best collegiate marching band.

JMU was the first I-AA school to earn the Sudler Trophy, an accomplishment easily equivalent to one of the Duke's football players receiving the Heisman Trophy.

Performances for presidents and kings followed.

Marching Royal Dukes

In 1997 and 2001, the Marching Royal Dukes marched in the inaugural parades honoring Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, as well as in the inaugural ceremony for Virginia Gov. Mark Warner.

In 1997, the band made its first European tour, performing for the 700th anniversary of Monaco's Grimaldi family.

JMU's marching band welcomed the new millennium in Athens, Greece, participating in the celebratory return of the Olympics to its inaugural location. The next year, the Marching Royal Dukes marched in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

In 2003 and again in 2006, the Dukes performed in Dublin, Ireland, as part of New Year's celebrations.

After 25 years leading the band, which under his direction swelled to more than 400 members – many of whom were not music majors, Pat Rooney retired in 2007, leaving a legacy of excellence and a band program second to none.

-- Martha B. Graham