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Backstory: Rose Bowl's brassy Trojan general

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 2005


Floating in blue southern California sky, the MetLife blimp seems to be held aloft by the hot air of mass bedlam below. Inside packed Los Angeles Coliseum, two crosstown rival football teams clash - and the crowd reacts as if the future of the free world is at stake.

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Amid earsplitting sound where neither conversation nor one's own thoughts can be heard, a lone figure gestures animatedly toward the stands from a stepladder on the sidelines. He rolls his arms, lassos the air, stomps his feet. He shakes his fingers, shimmies his shoulders, pumps his fists. He bleats, barks, and snarls - apparent commands lost in the tumult. "Do NOT allow so much as a nanosecond of peace or quiet in this stadium," his cries and actions seem to say.

He is Art Bartner, and he is standing in front of the University of Southern California Trojan marching band. His carefully cultivated ├╝berconductor routine - part drill-sergeant, part mime - is the engine for one of the biggest success stories in the history of college marching bands. As he'll demonstrate on national TV Jan. 4 - when his school battles for the national championship vs. Texas in the Rose Bowl - the arm-flailing and dragon persona are all about personal excellence and school spirit. By most accounts he has achieved both in 35 years at USC - teaching students the meaning of passion and self-discipline through music, marching, and having a ball.

"Art Bartner is unquestionably one of the great elder statesmen of the American college marching band," says Mark Spede, chair of the College Band Directors National Association. He says Dr. Bartner has developed a high-energy, high-stepping style known for its free-wheeling creativity, swaying horns, versatility, and surprises. Other bands, he says, are usually bestknown for a particular style - military precision at Texas, Ohio State, or Michigan for instance, the show-style of many southern university bands, or the iconoclasm of Yale or Stanford. Bartner's Trojans do it all.

Bartner will perform on the sidelines and on field in the Rose Bowl.

"It's outstanding and unique," says Bartner, that the broadcast contract with ABC guarantees that each band's halftime show will get about three minutes of coverage. "Over the years, the networks have sold halftimes for commercials - that 20-minute period where bands used to shine."

Play by play, from kickoff to final buzzer, Bartner cues his players from a full menu of fight songs, charges, cheers, and musical tributes keyed to the on-field game. (First down means "Fight On;" third down is "Charge;" a quarterback sack means "Another One Bites the Dust;" and a Trojan fumble or lost interception brings "All Right Now.")

"He doesn't allow one second of down time ... we're either yelling, or chanting, or playing, or screaming - it's all about focus," says Julie Mattson, a clarinetist and the band's student general manager. "We train for music and marching but we also practice spirit."

On field, Bartner will direct carefully crafted, meticulously drilled marching, dancing, gliding, boogieing, and high-stepping with over-the-top energy. Bartner calls his style "driving it," requiring lifting each leg until the calf is perpendicular to the ground with toes pointed down - more difficult than the common glide step.