Stars and Stripes and Sousa

Every two years, Dr. David Vroman, director of band activities, takes on the persona of John Philip Sousa to lead the Bradley Symphonic Winds in a tribute concert to the great conductor and composer.

Every two years, the audience at Dingeldine Music Center is transported back to the early 1900s as Dr. David Vroman pulls his white band uniform from the closet and dresses as the great bandmaster John Philip Sousa. Bearded and bespectacled, he leads the Bradley Symphonic Winds in a tribute concert to the great conductor and composer.

Marching band isn’t in the curriculum at Bradley, and when Dr. Vroman, director of band activities, approached his students with the idea for a Sousa tribute concert in 1993 the group was less than enthusiastic.

“They worked hard, but I could sense they were not too thrilled. They thought I’d lost it,” he says. “When the concert was over, the consensus was that it was the most enthusiastically received concert they had ever played.”

Now, senior musicians tell freshmen and sophomores the history of Sousa and their concert, how veterans stand at attention when they play patriotic marches, and the positive responses at earlier performances.

While Sousa concerts have become more common in recent years throughout the nation, Dr. Vroman was among the first university band directors to offer a fully costumed, turn-of-the century performance. His interest in Sousa dates back to the early 1980s and graduate school at the University of Illinois, where the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music is housed.

At the time, a New Sousa Band was being formed and its members wanted to be as historically accurate as possible. Since the archives did not have a full-time curator, Dr. Vroman and other graduate students frequently went to the archives to do their research. They took photos and measured Sousa’s podium and other items Sousa owned to assure historic accuracy.

“I looked at the music stand and the podium and thought about him standing and conducting thousands of concerts, sometimes three in one day. I’d pull open a drawer and see the music that had been conceived and written by him,” Dr. Vroman says. “The best part is having your hands on history. Sousa is such a big part of the tradition of bands.

“It was fun to look through old programs, and I gained respect for what he did. I knew how diligent he was and how carefully thought out these programs were. I want to instill that same sense of history in my students.”

Dr. Vroman decided to plan his own Sousa tribute concert, knowing that Sousa had brought his band to Peoria. He now organizes the concerts to follow Sousa’s formula of nine main selections plus encores, typically the famous Sousa marches.

He strives to make each concert as authentic as possible, from the timing of the music to featuring instrumental soloists and a vocal soloist. “The vocalist was always called the ‘Lady in White.’ She had to be a top-notch soprano, and she had to be pretty. This was a show and was always part of his request.”

Dr. Vroman dresses as Sousa in a white costume, parting his hair down the middle, sporting a beard, and hiring a makeup artist to give him the proper appearance. He’s gained an understanding of Sousa’s actions and statements from his research. Students turn up the collars on their uniforms to look more authentic and fully embrace their roles.

Dr. Vroman does not let a learning opportunity pass by. A pre-concert lecture offers the audience a glimpse into the life of Sousa and his famous band. Just as Sousa would have wanted, the concerts are fundraisers for the Bradley Band program.