Logo: University of Southern California

Engineering the Spirit of Troy

Ben Murray
October 17, 2007 —
When Viterbi School of Engineering freshman Nick Rice joined the Trojan Marching Band this fall, the 18-year-old mellophone player found he was among friends.
Computer Engineering-
Computer Science major Nick
Rice at a recent game.
More Photos
All around him, resplendent in cardinal and gold uniforms, carrying trumpets, trombones or drums, were a surprising number of like-minded students who came to USC to study computer science, structural engineering or aeronautics.
In fact, a quarter of the USC’s renowned 300-strong marching band, the Spirit of Troy, consists of Viterbi students, the largest single contingent from any school in the university.
Longtime director of “The Greatest Marching Band in the History of the Universe,” Dr. Art Bartner, says he often finds himself addressing engineering majors, but didn’t realize that a quarter of his band hailed from the Viterbi school.

It may seem incongruous: Putting aside chemical, biomedical or electrical engineering texts for flutes and trumpets to become part of Bartner’s exuberant and talented band of musicians on the football field every weekend Saturday.
But it does make a lot of sense. Bartner notes music is very mathematical. And he quickly adds that the diagram for the complex maneuvers that members must master for each performance looks an engineering schematic, with arrays of numbers and symbols.
“Engineers pick up the [moves] faster because they understand this stuff,” Bartner says, holding a diagram for the trombone section’s maneuvers. “They see it and have an aptitude to really understand this stuff faster.”
Matt Warren, a senior mechanical engineering major thinks “that engineering majors pick up the visual stuff better than others.”
“The people who march well and hit their spots – the visual stuff – they’re engineers.”
Rice, a computer engineering/computer science major, says his predilection for structure and design helps him see and remember movements on the field while playing a catalogue of songs he had to memorize.
“The marching thing is easy for me,” he says. “It’s so methodical as to where you go on the field and how you have to play at the same time. I really like combining all those different applications.”
Glen Howell, 22, a Mechanical Engineering major 
yells during warm-ups at a recent game.
Asked whether performing in the band was a creative outlet during a semester spent otherwise entombed in a lab or crunching out equations in a rigid academic setting, members and administrators said that’s only a partial motivation for engineers to join.
“They’re not mutually exclusive. Creativity goes hand in hand with science,” says Tony Fox, associate director and arranger for the marching band. “The reality is, all engineers, all scientists are creative people.”
Rice agrees.
“I think it’s an outlet, but you’re still using your engineering mindset,” he says. “You’re using your engineering mind with the creative side of you.”
Candace House, the Viterbi School’s director of career services, says that another reason for the strong interest in the band by Viterbi students is that the band is a community within a community, helping students meet others and get involved in the university.
House, who was a business major and a clarinet section leader in the band when she was an undergraduate, says the marching band gives students a ready-made group with common interests and a similar schedule – which can also help their grades.
The discipline needed to keep up in classes and attend band practices and games requires shrewd time management skills and keeps students focused. And it looks great on a resume.
“It’s a huge selling point. Companies like to see life outside the classroom,” says House. “They know you know how to multitask.”
Ross Danielson, far left, a Computer Science-
Game development major in Viterbi, plays 
with the trombone section at a football game
Band members say there’s also an incredible rush of blowing off steam by marching onto football field and playing in front of 90,000 screaming people.
“It’s such a release,” House says. “To be in a lab all week and then be able to perform on Saturday – it just makes it all worthwhile.”
Viterbi students often rise to leadership positions in their sections. In fact, a quarter of the 12 section leaders, including Warren, Chris Norton (trombones), and Kristen Mineck (percussion) – are in the Viterbi school.
“They tend to become the leaders,” Bartner says. “Their intellectual prowess seems to correlate with musicianship.”
“Engineering majors make great bandsmen. Send me more,” he concludes.