Spotlight on Leadership: At the Helm of Game Day

Brene Brown said that “culture is the way we do things around here.” It supplies drive to achieve excellence and encourages leaders to develop, not for themselves, but for those around them. As a director at the helm of the oldest college marching band in the nation, Barry Houser of the Marching Illini knows a bit about leadership. For 152 seasons, the band has maintained and honed the four pillars that, as Houser states, “represent the spirit of being a member of the Marching Illini: Tradition, Pride, Loyalty, Excellence.” In Houser’s tenure as a director, he has reshaped the leadership election process to focus on these pillars, and pushes the 100+ students who audition for his ranks to challenge themselves to uphold not only these standards, but the standards of any great leader. The Marching Illini culture is one that, since 1869, has graduated performers and leaders of many generations who share a desire to carry on the University of Illinois tradition.

Creating a “First Class Experience.”

The Marching Illini carry a great deal of pride in their status and visibility as a college marching band. Not only are they the oldest college band in the nation, but they are also a part of the BIG Ten Conference. They affiliate as part of a greater marching cohort, with many young performers dreaming of one day marching with a BIG Ten band.  While, Houser states, leading a college marching program is really quite similar to leading a high school program (best practice blends across education levels), the rigor of college marching is quite different from high school. Are they competing? No. But from a teaching standpoint, Houser explains that the pace and learning curve move significantly faster. The Marching Illini (like many other in the BIG Ten) don’t spend 5 months perfecting 1 show. Rather, they churn out new shows for every performance. “Most people do not understand what it takes to turn around 30+ pages of drill, at least 3 new pieces of music, and fight through the weather to put a show together in a week or two,” Houser explains.” He has discovered that, while he leads students who come from both competitive and non-competitive marching backgrounds, the pace is a shock to both. But he is continually proud of his students for stepping up to the challenge and making it happen. “My hope,” he affirms, “is that my students have a first class experience in being a part of the amazing pageantry and tradition of the Marching Illini.”

Electing a Culture of Excellence.

I keep the standards of our organization very high based on professionalism, integrity, and valuing the daily experience.                                                                                                                                           – Barry Houser, Director of Marching Illini

To Houser, a great leader is one who continues to learn. They are students who act the role no matter the eyes that watch them. They meet the demand of a highly-engaging and rigorous marching program, all while helping their peers and maintaining academic achievement. The 375-member Marching Illini contains leaders who not only come from every academic college on campus, but also continue to be “students of their craft” on and off the field. 

With 100+ students who desire to hold a leadership position in the band, Houser chooses students who meet and exceed the ideals above as well as uphold the 4 pillars of any Marching Illini member. Students have the option to audition for a marching or music position. Each section contains both leaders, allowing for more detailed feedback and on-field assistance. Students submit an essay on leadership coupled with a video illustrating why they would like to serve the MI in this capacity. There must also be a teaching component in the video submission. The teaching portion allows Houser to evaluate “how each student will potentially operate in this position.” Additionally, Houser has opened the auditions to the band, Each student is allotted an opportunity to provide their feedback to their section’s candidates through an electronic form. This allowance gives students direct ownership in their band experience. What Houser stresses most is that this is not a “one event” process. “The leadership application,” as is true with life, “is taking place daily as soon as my students walk in the door on day one.” This expectation creates a culture of excellence in which every member, no matter their title, is expected to act like a leader. One of the most visible roles in any college band is that of the Drum Major. This position is a highly visible role that requires talent, tact, professionalism, and the utmost school spirit. The Marching Illini drum majors are faces in the band, on campus, and in the community. They conduct at halftime, in the stands, and help with leading the student staff (section leaders). Houser meets weekly with the DM team to get a pulse check on the organization from a student perspective. Additionally, they are “figure heads” for the band. They conduct interviews with media and participate in university and athletic videos.  Their process is 4-fold. They must still submit an essay and must also sit down for a face-to-face interview with Houser in which they discuss topics like “leadership, conflict resolution, teamwork, cultivating a positive environment, and overall school spirit.” Part 3 is a live interview with the band. They are expected to speak, conduct (technique and engagement with the band), and teach fundamentals. The final component is for them to memorize and perform the MI run on step, the back end of pregame, and the iconic mace routine to “Illinois Loyalty.” Final candidates have approximately 3 months to learn these requirements. Student and staff feedback are critical factors in this decision, and typically 3 drum majors are chosen.

It’s All About Relationships.

Above all, Houser believes that what keeps students around isn’t just the music…it’s the culture students are an active part of. At the college level, students have a myriad choices of how to spend their time. If they don’t love what they’re a part of, it’s easy enough to find another activity. “There’s no way we could achieve what we do,” explains Houser, if we are not providing a positive environment for the students. “They won’t necessarily remember what show we performed at the Redbox or Rose Bowl. They remember the positive interactions with other members.” Beyond these interactions though, the other gear in the culture generator of any great organization is tradition. The Marching Illini, now entering their 152nd season, understand the sanctity of an upheld tradition. Houser explains: 
‘The Incomparable Three in One’ is a medley of three pieces of music written for the Marching Illini…It is something that is performed at every home game at halftime…that brings our current students and alums together since all members, regardless of age, have performed this iconic tradition. It was established in 1926 and continues to bring all ages from many generations together to share in this cherished music, drill, and tradition at the University of Illinois.

Being a member of the Marching Illini means working together to advocate for school spirit, always supporting our athletic teams, and constantly working towards excellence in all that we do… Being a member of the Marching Illini has set me up for lifelong success by teaching me to bring perseverance, dedication, and excellence to all that I do.

Ashley B.

3rd year student

I am a member of a family that works together to attain perfection while promoting respect. WE are loyal, proud, and always willing to lend a hand. It is an honor. [I return each year for] the thrill of performing on the field and the roar of the crowd! The opportunity to unite with the MI family and for a few moments recapture what was one of our most important college experiences.

Maureen D.

Marching Illini Alum

The bonds, the friendships, the experiences all help create stories. When I was a student, I would always love to hear alumni tell stories from days they were in the band. Now, I am able to tell current students stories of when I was in the band. My closest friends today are people I met in the MI… Alumni come back to be in that positive atmosphere and tell stories…and see the tradition continue.

Justin P., MD 

Marching Illini Alum

Membership in the Marching Illini means being a symbol for the University of Illinois and being a part of a connected family… From a confused new member to becoming a section leader, I have seen first hand the impact membership in the MI can have on a college career… While these opportunities have provided me with incredible memories, it is my relationship with the people in MI that I cherish the most… I believe alumni continue to return…because of these relationships and the feeling of importance, pride, and belonging that accompany it.

John G.

MI Alto Sax Marching Section Leader

To Be an Influential Leader.

The mark of any great leader is their ability to bring out the best leadership qualities in those around them. They raise up their subordinates, students, etc., and inspire them through action to be stewards of the organization. This is how a positive culture is created. Houser finds students who lead on a daily basis “when people aren’t watching them.” He rewards students who show a “genuine love and dedication for the Marching Illini,” and share their talents with those around them. “Our culture is always about passing on knowledge,” Houser believes, “so we [can] continue to strengthen our culture and level of excellence.” This is what it means to be a member of the Marching Illini. For more information on the Marching Illini, visit:

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