He wasn’t really looking to leave.
Jon Sweet was happy at Purdue University, where he was assistant director and drill designer of the marching band and also conducted the concert band and a pep band.
Then, a friend alerted him to the position at Washington State University and encouraged him to apply. “I looked at it, and it seemed like a really great fit,” says Sweet, who—after six years at Purdue—started as the new director of Cougar Marching Band last June 1.
Sweet holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from Abilene Christian University in Texas, a master’s degree in conducting from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, and a doctoral degree in conducting from the University of Kentucky.
He directs Washington State University’s athletic bands as well as its symphonic band and is hoping to grow the program. Here, he talks about his approach to and goals for Cougar Marching Band and the student experience—and more.
Why were you interested in WSU Pullman? I wasn’t really looking to leave Purdue. I was really happy. But, I was an assistant. And, in the back of my mind, I knew I would eventually be interested in a director role. A friend told me about the job and encouraged me to apply.
What were your first impressions? I’d been to Seattle a couple of times. I’d been to the Pacific Northwest. But when I landed in Pullman, it was not what I expected. I was expecting mountains and trees, not wheat fields. It’s different out here. It’s kind of a long way from things. But when you’re here you see the beauty and how unique it is. The thing that sold it for me was the people. That is kind of the narrative you get when you come to WSU. But it’s really true. The people make this place special.
What do you love about Pullman so far? I loved my time in West Lafayette, Indiana, but it was flat and all you could see was corn. I think I loved Pullman from the get-go. I love that we have hills. I love how friendly our university is. I love how friendly our town is. People come up and say hi because they know who I am. It’s such a small community. To me, it’s really cool. I can’t go into a store without somebody saying hi. To me, it’s really lovely.
Who did you come here with? My wife and my dog. My wife and I have been married 19 years this year. She used to teach elementary music. Now she works in WSU’s graduate school administration department. I love that we can occasionally have lunch together. We were both in marching band. She played French horn. I played euphonium.
Talk about your own experiences in marching band. I loved band from the day I started in fifth grade. I lived in northern Illinois when I started. I just felt this connection to it. When I got to marching band I found a home. I loved every single minute of it. I had some great performances in high school that formed core memories. I started writing marching band shows, doodling in my geometry class in tenth grade. In addition to my responsibilities at WSU, I write shows professionally. I didn’t start that until 2004. I’ve been writing shows professionally for 20 years now. (Learn more at sweetmarching.com.)
What’s your favorite music for marching band? I love soundtracks, and I love classic rock.
How did you decide to make a career out of marching band? I think I knew I was going to be a band director maybe as soon as my freshman year of high school. I just kind of knew that’s what I was going to do. Everything happens for a reason. I really believe that. When I started working on my master’s I realized I really liked college band. I thought, “This is a lot of fun.” I’m really fortunate that the people I came across helped set me up to do what I’m doing now. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the people who took a personal interest in me—mentors, teachers, educators that I worked alongside. If it wasn’t for all of those people, I wouldn’t be here now, doing something that I love, every single day.
What do you love about marching band? As a fan, I love the loud music. There’s just a certain rush from a bunch people playing drums and winds along with the color guard performing and all of that working together. I love the pageantry. Right now what I love, the thing that keeps me going all the time, is the students. The students give me so much energy, watching them come off the field after they perform with smiles on their faces. There’s nothing better than that for me. My focus is the Cougar Marching Band and the music department and helping these students be great versions of themselves.
Talk about the commitment and dedication of the students in CMB. They rehearse on non-game weeks on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 5:15 to 7 p.m. And on game weeks they also rehearse Friday at the same time as well as Saturday morning before the game. It’s just in the fall. In the spring, they can join basketball pep band, but that’s different from marching band. Maybe half do both. We also encourage students to participate in different musical ensembles, such as jazz band or concert band or orchestra. We encourage them to keep playing. We want them to be lifelong participants in the arts. That’s important to us.
Walk through a typical home football gameday for CMB. It’s a 10- or 12-hour day. We have a one-hour rehearsal six hours prior to kickoff. Then we feed the students. Then some students go to the tailgate drumline. Butch’s Bones—the trombones, baritones, and tubas—have a performance. Then the students go and do Cougar Prowl at the fieldhouse. We do a parade around the RV lots. Then we do a performance at Cougville that’s about 30 minutes long. Then we go to the stadium to get ready for pregame.
How long do members have to learn a new halftime routine? The time in between home football games. Sometimes, it’s one week. Sometimes, it’s two weeks. It’s not as much time as it seems. It’s never enough time.
How many routines do they learn? We learn seven shows a year. One of those is the pregame. Then we have six different halftime shows. The pregame gets the crowd fired up. There are five different pictures that we form. The script of WSU, the Cougar head logo, and a USA shield which goes back to at least 1972—I found it in the archives—and we spell out WSU to both sides of the field, then we end with the iconic W with the serif on it. It’s meant to be the greatest hits of WSU.
What’s the prerequisite for being in CMB? The prerequisite is that they have to have high school band experience. There is no audition component currently. I don’t anticipate that ever changing. We find a way for students to participate. We’re very accommodating and flexible. We have students in almost every single discipline at the university as members of Cougar Marching Band, and that is important to us. It’s not just music majors. We also have students of all levels joining the band. We have a broad range of ability and experience, and we encourage that. We absolutely encourage that. With that, though, there are high standards. We want to do as much as we can and be the best that we can in a positive and nurturing environment that’s accepting and inclusive.
How big is your staff? It’s four faculty members: myself; Sarah Miller, associate director; AJ Miller, assistant director; and Christopher Wilson, percussion coordinator. On top of that, we have a color guard director, Kristen Morris, and graduate students who help. Dean Luethi is the voice of CMB. Danh Pham is the director of bands and orchestra.
How has CMB changed since you came on board? In the whole scheme of things, the biggest changes have been procedural stuff—how we learn visuals, how we learn music. We’re building on the things we did in the past; we’re not tossing anything out.
What are your long-term goals for CMB? I just want to grow the program and get more people involved.
What else are you looking forward to? When they graduate and come back for alumni band and say hi and I get to see how they’ve grown and matured and they bring their families to games and eventually their kids are in marching band and we have those connections.
And what else should Cougs know about you? I want Cougs to come say his when they see us. Come say hi to the marching band. Come say hi to the students. We love supporting all Cougs. If you want a picture with the marching band, we’ll get you a picture with the marching band—as long as we’re not in the middle of performing.
WSU Video Services
More about the Cougar Marching Band
Video: Catch the Cougar Marching Band spirit (A football gameday in the life of the band)
Cougar Marching Band memories from band alumni
Voices of Cougar Marching Band students: The band life in their own words