Despite some changes in tune in 107 years, the Mighty Sound of Maryland plays on

Courtesy of the Mighty Sound of Maryland

Published on November 19, 2015

On the first floor of McKeldin Library sit two glass containers.

Students whiz past the boxes, rushing upstairs to study or off to their next class. Aside from receiving an inquisitive glance every now and then, the two tables sit largely unobserved, with most passersby seemingly ignorant of its existence or the tale it tells.

Junior Emmalee Murrell, a regular visitor of the library, is one of many who noticed the exhibit in passing but never took the time to investigate its contents.

“Usually when I come to the library, I’m on a mission to study and not dilly-dally,” the kinesiology major said. “I didn’t know what it was about, but I knew something was in there. I just never cared to look at it.”

But what’s inside conveys a decades-long story, one of struggle and triumph, setbacks and accomplishments, strenuous work and well-deserved achievements.

More specifically, encased inside are roughly 30 artifacts that document the 107 years of history of the University of Maryland’s marching band, also known as the Mighty Sound of Maryland.

There’s a silver baton belonging to Murray McColloch, a drum major and twirler in the band in the late 1940s. McColloch proudly brandished the metallic stick both in his time as a member of the university’s marching band more than 60 years ago and decades later when he returned as an alumni for the band’s homecoming halftime show in 2008, which celebrated the organization’s 100th anniversary.

Next to that sits a copy of the manuscript for the “Maryland Fight Song,” written in the summer of 1941 by Ralph Davis, a band member at the time. The song, with slight alterations over the years, is still played by the band at football games. A halftime chart from the Terps’ football game against UCLA also resides within the glass cover, depicting how the marching band planned its formation of the Maryland “M.”

Organized by archivist Amanda Hawk, the collection, titled Musical Milestones, is a smaller version of the display set up in Hornbake Library in 2008 for the band’s centennial. Hawk compiled artifacts and information about the organization and broke them up into four sections: the early history of the band, special events and parades, band traditions and important milestones, which include the first female and black drum majors.

With a storied past spanning more than a century and only two small containers, Hawk encountered a problem: how to accurately pinpoint the band’s significant moments for the exhibit in a way that would appeal to the student body at large.

ABOVE: Inside a Mighty Sound of Maryland practice. (Alexandra Sara/The Diamondback)

“I mostly had to select a smaller portion from that larger presentation in 2008 to decide what to focus on in the McKeldin exhibit … and choose what would be of interest to students,” Hawk said.

Despite Hawk’s effort, dated artifacts and decades-old pictures tightly packed into two boxes can only show so much about the band. The stories and experiences they represent, however, can say so much more.

The Mighty Sound of Maryland practices in front of Memorial Chapel near Route 1. (Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)


(Evan Berkowitz/The Diamondback)

Thom Shipley arrived at this university in September 1952 as an introverted country boy immersed in an unfamiliar environment. That all changed when Shipley, who joined the band his freshman year as a saxophone player, had a conversation with Robert Landers, the director of the band at the time.

One day during rehearsal, Landers looked at the marching band assembled before him and asked, “Who has any experience as a conductor?”

Shipley, a former student conductor for his high school band, said nothing, fearing he would be outclassed or come across as a presumptuous newcomer. But his roommate sitting next to him knew of his previous role as a conductor and told Landers of Shipley’s experience.

Landers, also the conductor of the world-famous Singing Sergeants choral troupe, invited Shipley into his office and dropped a bombshell. The conductor would be absent for several weeks as he toured with the Sergeants in the Middle East, and with a halftime show quickly approaching, he needed a capable student to assume his role.

Forty-four years after 25 students formed the military-style Cadet Band, the genesis of this university’s marching group, the teenaged Shipley found himself responsible for many of the band’s administrative and musical duties.

“You might as well say I started right off of the beginning planning halftime shows along with the drum major, William Stokes,” Shipley said. “I laid on my dorm floor with little lead soldiers and planned halftime shows at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning when I should have been doing my homework.”

Along with learning the ins and outs of what it takes to lead a marching band, Shipley soon discovered the tough set of financial circumstances the musical organization was dealing with.

Working with only a $250 budget, the band scraped by to purchase suitable uniforms, instruments and music to play at halftime shows. The band rehearsed in temporary office quarters on the campus, Shipley said, with walls so thin “if you were practicing flute in one room and you had a saxophone in the next and a tuba in the next, it was just a bedlam.”

On overnight trips, band members often would have to sleep in barracks or “other horrible places,” Shipley said. There would be no official music department until 1954 and no full-time band director until 1955.

“There was very little respect for the band,” Shipley said. “It was terrible trying to establish ourselves as an integral part of the university, but we did the best we could.”

To compensate, Shipley befriended the Naval School of Music’s quartermaster, who supplied the university marching band with old instruments the Navy band no longer needed. Shipley penned many guest pieces to The Diamondback, stating his case for increased support for the band and defending the ensemble’s inability to attend every sporting event in the face of its challenges. After the formation of the music department during his junior year, he pleaded with the department to appoint a full-time director to the band. He also continually asked Jim Tatum, coach of the Terrapins football team, for additional funds for new halftime show music.

Confrontations with Tatum proved critical moments that established the band as an organization no longer willing to be treated as “second-class citizens,” Shipley said.

When the Terps football team made it to the Orange Bowl in the 1953 season, Shipley, filling in for Landers, had to arrange for trains and find hotels in Miami for the band. On top of that, Shipley said, Tatum wanted to supply band members with only $5 a day for meals — an insufficient amount.

So Shipley marched to Tatum’s office and bargained for more money.

“I remember thinking, ‘What in the name of heaven are you doing? You’re just a dumb country kid and you’re arguing with the head football coach at the University of Maryland about money,’” Shipley said. “But he did end up giving us $20 a day for the kids to eat with, and we thought that was a success because we had established ourself with Jim Tatum as someone to be reckoned with.”

But that didn’t stop future tension between the band and the football program. During the 1955 season, the first of 10 years under full-time band director Hugh Henderson, Tatum often wouldn’t allow the band to do dress rehearsals on the field. He also refused to let the band play at a halftime show during the 1955 home opener against UCLA because of rain the night before.

The Diamondback came to the defense of the university marching band, writing in an editorial published Sept. 30, 1955:

“Then for fear the ‘thunder of marching feet’ would tear up the green, the athletic department refused to allow the group on the field to present the show. But it seems to us that after Tatum’s cleat-footed angels got through, the band, providing they were willing to sacrifice their uniforms, should have been allowed to march on the Most Valuable Plot during the half. … Oh well, maybe next year!”

Under the direction of Henderson, who became the first full-time director after the band spent five years without one, the relationship between the university’s Military Department and its marching band became increasingly strained.

In 1955, the Military Department, which had claimed the band as its own since 1917, made travel arrangements for the marching band’s weekend trip to Syracuse but failed to rent out a place for the band members to sleep during the overnight stay. There were also problems with the chaperones the department chose for overnight ventures, as they often traveled separately from the students and, on some occasions, condoned drinking alcohol on trips.

These were some of the final straws for Henderson, and the university marching band integrated into the fledgling music department by the conclusion of the 1955-56 season.

Much changed between Shipley’s arrival in 1952 and subsequent graduation in 1956. The band now had a committed band director, shed its military ties and received recognition from the music department.

Shipley’s actions proved on multiple occasions that, if sufficient provisions weren’t given, the students in the band would fight for what was needed.

“This was the highest-ranking people at the University of Maryland interfacing with a kid,” Shipley said. “Not interfacing with another professional. Not interfacing with a paid employee, but a 19-, 20-year-old boy who had the enthusiasm to say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not treating us fair, and we’re not going to put up with that.’”

The Mighty Sound of Maryland practices in front of Memorial Chapel near Route 1. (Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)


On the morning of May 23, L. Richmond Sparks checked his Google calendar and found he had no events scheduled for the day.

Yet Sparks, who served as the head of the marching band from 1984 until his retirement last spring, had no idea that a retirement gala was planned in his honor later that night.

Hundreds of alumni flew from all over the world to celebrate the achievements of Sparks in The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Alumni made a presentation called “This Is Your Life,” which documented Sparks’ involvement in musical ensembles all the way back to his years in high school, and former band members formed an alumni ensemble to play iconic marching band songs.

“It was a complete surprise to me,” Sparks said. “I didn’t expect it at all, and actually felt that I didn’t need to have that, but it was so apparent to me in the end that not only did the students have to have closure with that, but I did, too.”

After the two-hour gala, Sparks stood in a receiving line for more than four hours as former band members and colleagues showered him with praise until the clock struck midnight. Sparks and the remaining attendees then traveled to R.J. Bentley’s, where they waxed sentimental until 3 a.m.

“It was unbelievable how important it was for these folks to be able to express their gratitude and equally important for me to express my gratitude for their contributions to the program,” Sparks said. “Four hours and 15 minutes in the receiving line ­— when does that ever happen?”

It happens, it seems, for someone like Sparks, who played an integral role in establishing the band as a sturdy organization with nationwide recognition.

When Sparks arrived to the university in 1984 as the associate director of bands, much had changed since Shipley’s graduation in 1956.

The organization had grown to about 150 members, women and racial minorities had ascended to student leadership roles as drum majors, and three directors of bands — including Henderson — had come and gone. John Wakefield, then-overarching director of bands until his retirement in 2005, had already established the band on solid footing.

Sparks, who previously served as the associate director of the 800-member All-American College Marching Band for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, brought with him many opportunities for marching band members to participate in high-profile events.

ABOVE: The Mighty Sound of Maryland performs at the Penn State game on Oct. 24, 2015.

In 1985, Sparks led 500 college band students — 125 of them from this university’s marching band — to participate in Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural parade as a part of the All-American College Marching Band. Two years later, the Mighty Sound of Maryland marched in the “We the People” parade in Philadelphia to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.

But the band’s most notable public appearance came in 2000, when it marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The football team had not made a bowl game in 10 years, but Sparks desperately wanted to give his students an opportunity to play in the postseason. The parade served as a way to do that, but Sparks, aware that networks often went on a commercial break during the band portion of the procession, feared his group wouldn’t receive any airtime.

So he devised a plan to stop that from happening. Marching down Broadway, the band played a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and, at the conclusion of the song, unveiled a massive rainbow banner emblazoned with the NBC peacock. The band then ended its solo performance with the closing chords of the NBC jingle.

“Not only did they play the ‘N-B-C,’ but when that was over the band then reformed into the parade block and we started the next tune,” Sparks said. “As we’re marching down the street, the camera stayed on that band longer than any other band in the parade that year.”

Far from solely seeking publicity, Sparks also had a vested interest in teaching valuable life lessons to his students. After the band played in the Champs Sports Bowl in 2006, its members packed their belongings and traveled to New Orleans to assist Habitat for Humanity in rebuilding the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The band members built homes from scratch, Sparks said, and impressed officials from Habitat for Humanity who feared the band students would have no idea what they were doing.

Although it wasn’t a musical accomplishment, Sparks considers the trip one of his finest moments in his 31-year tenure.

Habitat for Humanity “said they went through more building materials in the time we were there for 11 days than they had gone through in the past four months, which was really exciting,” Sparks said. “In my walk of life, there is no better learning experience or rewarding experience than to have done a project or a favor for someone else, and that’s what it turned out to be.”

Andrew Heck, a former drum major for the marching band who graduated from this university in 2008, was one of those students who volunteered in New Orleans. For Heck, the trip was just one of the many experiences that encapsulates the influential role Sparks played in the lives of all who worked under him.

“He’s one of the best teachers I’ve had, period, in the story of life,” Heck said. “He’s a very gifted music teacher, but he’s an incredible mentor, and he’s very focused on personal development and not only developing extraordinary musicians, but developing extraordinary people.”

By the time Sparks retired, the marching band boasted about 250 members and stood among some of the nation’s most recognizable collegiate ensembles. A new challenge loomed, however: thriving among Big Ten marching bands — widely considered the nation’s finest — after this university departed the ACC.

(Courtesy of the Mighty Sound of Maryland)



As Eli Osterloh takes over the reins as interim band director this year, he feels a heightened pressure to succeed among the renowned Big Ten marching bands.

He always feels pressed to improve the quality of the group’s performances, he said, but he especially felt it when the band traveled to Ohio State during the football team’s 49-28 loss on Oct. 10. After all, Ohio State’s band is nicknamed “The Best Damn Band in the Land” and boasts a storied history as one of the nation’s most well-funded and premier ensembles.

“We know that we’re being judged by a much higher standard than we were in the past,” Osterloh said. “We as the administration of the band need to make sure that the students have the instruction to meet that bar of expectation.”

The shift from performing in the ACC to the Big Ten will be a difficult experience for the marching band, said Dick Taylor, a former band member who graduated in 1972. Arguably the creme de la creme in the ACC, Taylor said, the university marching band now finds itself in unchartered territory.

“They’ve been pretty much the predominant marching band in the ACC since its conception in the ’50s,” Taylor said. “Now they are going to compete with some very big-name schools: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and so forth.”

It’s something that worries Shipley, who said, “We are still not in competition with the Big Ten bands like we’re expected to.” In his eyes, more support from the music school and the athletic department — especially in terms of funding — are required before the band can be on even footing with Big Ten ensembles.

Heck, who grew up in the Midwest watching Big Ten football teams and their bands — said the conference transition is a positive one. It will attract more talented musicians to the group and bring an increased level of competition, he said, as well as build on Sparks’ work to establish the program as one to be respected.

“It’s a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ type of theory, in that we are already an elite marching band program in and of ourselves, but I think being around excellence breeds further excellence,” he said.

Alumni opinion aside, junior Elizabeth Green, currently a drum major for the marching band, isn’t all that concerned. Although the Big Ten bands are “phenomenal” in terms of their fiscal support and musical style, Green said, the university band is up for the challenge.

“I would absolutely put us on par with the rest of the Big Ten bands,” the ecology and evolution major said. “Even though we don’t get as much funding as many of them, we definitely step up our game when we’re getting down to the bar and getting ready to perform.”

Osterloh is optimistic about the effect the switch to the Big Ten will have on students’ perception of the marching band. University students will be exposed to finely tuned ensembles on game days, Osterloh said, which in turn can drum up their support for the Mighty Sound of Maryland.

Osterloh said there’s also reason to hope for additional monetary support for the band. The L. Richmond Sparks Mighty Sound Of Maryland Fund, an endowment fund that accepts donations from alumni, should start paying dividends once “contributions to support this fund have reached a sufficient level” by the end of 2017, according to

“These endowments allow for enrichment of the experience for the students, so we are able to take more trips, we’re able to buy uniforms more frequently [and] we are able to replace instruments more frequently,” Osterloh said.


Considering all the band has gone through — from its origin as a military-style Cadet Band to fighting tooth and nail for every little bit of recognition to now standing among the most respected collegiate marching bands — Sparks said he is honored to have played a role in that history.

As he looks forward to seeing how the band fares in the Big Ten, Sparks said fielding a superior ensemble solely for the sake of coming out on top should not be the end goal. In that respect, he said, the band is markedly different than the football team it travels with across the country.

“There are no wins; there are no losses; everything is a win because everything we do is there for the pleasantry and the pageantry for the university,” Sparks said. “Moreover, it’s all for the musical experience for those students who are partaking it.”

Josh Magness is a staff writer for The Diamondback. You can reach him at and on Twitter at @josh_mag


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