Leader of the Band
By Liz Babiarz
Being a soloist in The Cadets, one of the nation’s oldest and most honored drum and bugle corps, could be the pinnacle of a person’s musical career.
But for Chester Phillips that was just the beginning.
He is currently facing his biggest musical challenge and perhaps greatest professional opportunity – building the Georgia State University Marching Band.
“It’s a big task,” he said. “It’s exciting but it’s a huge responsibility and weight on your shoulders to get it right.”
The 33-year-old Georgia native started at the university on Aug. 10 as the director of athletic bands and associate director of bands. He has wasted no time getting started defining the identity of the marching band.
“We want a band that is relevant to the culture of the university, which is urban and contemporary, but at the same time heralds back to a lot of tradition,” Phillips said. “We want every performance to be something that the audience sees and says, ‘Man, those guys are working hard, they’re great.’”
Phillips is also in the process of designing the uniforms, reviewing samples submitted by designers to see what will be the best fit for GSU. He’s been making trips to area high schools, advertising the nascent GSU Marching Band and trying to recruit band students to join.
Designing the pre-game show is another top priority, Phillips says. He’s been working with a composer to write a new fight song and developing traditions that the crowd will remember and become excited to take part in.
This spring, Phillips will begin auditioning musicians and in the summer, he and Director of Bands Robert Ambrose will be designing the half-time show. A week or so before the Fall 2010 semester, they’ll head to band camp, the location of which is still to be determined, to teach students the music and drill.
“And on Sept. 2, 2010, we’ll be ready to step off 14 minutes before the football team,” Phillips said. “It’s definitely countdown to touchdown.”
Phillips won’t say what music he’s considering for next year’s half-time show because several titles are in contention. But he’s sure whatever he selects will make folks “want to clap their hands or taps their toes.”
Of course, starting a marching band program on an urban campus with limited resources can be difficult. Many logistics are still unknown, such as where the GSU Marching Band will rehearse and store their instruments and gear.
But Phillips is undaunted and Ambrose knows he has the right guy for the job.
Following a national search, Phillips was selected from a talented pool of applicants, Ambrose said.
Phillips was a strong contender because of combination of experience and education. He spent 9 years teaching band and orchestra in public schools, including seven years at Harrison High School in Cobb County. While there, he was the assistant band director leading a marching band that is among the best in the nation.
Phillips also has a Master of Education from the University of Illinois and his doctorate from the University of Georgia, which is focused on the skills of conducting.
“Chester’s knowledge and love of marching is infectious,” Ambrose said. “He is a fantastic musician. He is well entrenched in the public schools and knows people throughout the country in the marching band idiom. He has an incredible level of preparation and knowledge of how to start a marching band in challenging circumstances.”
The GSU Marching Band was created at the same time as the GSU Football Team. In October 2007, the Mandatory Student Fee Committee unanimously approved an increase in the student athletic fee, which was later approved by the Board of Regents.
“It’s going to bring a more traditional feel to campus,” Ambrose said. “Football is a massive step toward that and so is the marching band. It brings about a legitimacy that says we have arrived.”
Phillips agrees that the marching band will bring a stronger sense of school spirit to GSU.
“When you go to a football game in Georgia, there are two things you can count on: a cheering crowd and a playing band,” Phillips said. “There’s something about music that sparks your emotion and spirit. It ties it all together for the audience and the team. And for the students in the band, it gives them an amazing family of friends and people they can work hard with and trust.”