Time marches on
Kiltie Marching Band celebrates centennial anniversary
The Alma College Kiltie Marching Band has changed a lot since its founding 100 years ago.
The marching band is now accompanied by a pipe band, Scottish dancers, color guard, drumline and more, which wasn’t the case in 1922. Its members now wear kilts, which is a practice that was not in place until 1937. But what hasn’t changed about the Kiltie Marching Band (KMB) has been its authenticity to the mission and values of Alma College.
While administrators, alumni and friends have been preparing for the band’s 100th anniversary reunion, scheduled to take place this year at Homecoming on Sept. 23-25, they are looking at the Kiltie Band as a valuable part of the student experience at Alma — something distinct and enduring that has stood the test of time and united Scots from many generations to come together as one.
“On the surface, I think the Kiltie Marching Band touches on so many things that are distinctly Alma — the kilts, the bagpipes, and the fight song, which has embedded in it, part of ‘Scotland the Brave,’” said Dave Zerbe, who for the past 25 years has served as director of the KMB. “But what I think really has made people connect with it for so long as been a sense and a tradition of playing well.
“Ultimately, people want to be a part of something that is good. I think that tradition of excellence has continued and allowed me to carry it forward as the college’s numbers have grown.”
‘WE WANT TO BE HERE WITH EACH OTHER’
Founded in the fall of 1922 by students, the Kiltie Band has evolved from its original pep band status to a contemporary marching ensemble. Membership is open to all Alma College students by audition. The band has held steady at about 100 members strong for many years, according to Zerbe, which aids its reputation among colleges and universities around the state as a band that “punches above its weight class.”
Throughout the band’s history, one of its most prominent qualities has been the sense of community it imbues in its members. Different generations of marching band alumni agree that the friends they made in the KMB were some of the closest relationships they developed at Alma, and the most likely to continue after graduation.
“It was just a very happy place for me,” remembered Diane Falk ’72, who played timpani in the band and was a baton-twirler majorette. “I always enjoyed being a part of it, working with other people toward a common goal. There was always a spirit of, ‘We want to be here with each other and make good music together.’ It was a special place.”
John Wilson ’90, a snare drummer with the band and a current member of the Board of Trustees, shared the sentiment: “We say often, the percentage of students at Alma College who play a sport. The percentage is enormous and it’s growing every year. But for those students who aren’t in sports, the KMB is our team.
“It broadens your horizons and makes you a better musician. It gives you someone to sit next to at lunchtime and someone to help you study in math. It absolutely speaks to the values of a liberal arts education and the mission of Alma College.”
‘I KNOW YOU CAN DO IT’
Today’s students feel a similar sense of community, Zerbe says, but under his leadership, he also wants students to feel a sense of responsibility. Over the past quarter-century, Zerbe has worked hard to develop student leaders who represent the band well both when they are performing and when they are not. He has delegated certain responsibilities to section leaders, for example, which frees him up to focus on the bigger picture.
“I have students who teach technique, and that responsibility rotates. I tell them, ‘If I put you in this position, that’s because I know you can do it,’” Zerbe said. “When you have more voices saying the same thing in a different way, I feel like you reach the widest-possible audience.”
Matt vandenBerg ’02 was once one of those student leaders. VandenBerg was a drum major with the KMB who later went on to serve as vice president for advancement and external relations at Alma College. Now the president of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, he remembers his time as a drum major as being one of his first experiences in a leadership role.
“It was a really cool confidence-booster to see everyone waiting to start or stop on your command, and a unique challenge to keep people who are 50 or 60 yards apart from each other in time with one another,” vandenBerg said. “I’m so grateful to Dave Zerbe for the opportunity to serve in that capacity. It helped me realize that I could be a leader on campus at Alma and anywhere else.”
‘THE NEXT 100 YEARS’
Organizers hope to see as many alumni as possible come to a celebration of the Kiltie Marching Band, set to commemorate the group’s 100th anniversary, at this year’s Homecoming event. Alumni band members will be welcome to participate in morning rehearsal, pregame performances, and the march to the football stadium. A reception will take place after the game, which is at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24.
An event specifically dedicated to the KMB, with a sit-down meal and a live performance, will take place in November. Details will be announced online as the date draws closer.
“I feel so blessed to have had the support of alumni, family and friends of the Kiltie Marching Band for so long. I hope to see so many of them come out to Homecoming,” Zerbe said. “For me, this is about celebrating the first 100 years, but it’s also a launch point for the next 100 years.”
For more information, visit alma.edu/homecoming.
— Material from “Within Our Bounds: A Centennial History of Alma College” (1986) and “A History of Alma College: Where Plaid and Pride Prevail,” by Gordon G. Beld and David C. McMacken (2014), was used in this report.