Written by: 
Jessica DeLeĆ³n
U

NT's Green Brigade Marching Band -- the largest spirit organization on campus -- plays an essential part in creating a winning atmosphere for the football team. Director Nicholas Williams ('97, '04 M.M., '09 D.M.A.) leads the nearly 400-member band to pump up the fans and athletes at the games. Band members start practicing at Fouts Field before the first day of the fall semester, putting in "almost 40,000 hours of work" with three practices a day, Williams says. The band not only provides entertainment, but it also serves as a music education lab.

Nicholas Williams
Nicholas Williams ('97, '04 M.M., '09 D.M.A) (Photo by Michael Clements)

While any student is encouraged to try out, many are music majors and go on to be band directors for high schools and colleges. Others play for highly selective military and professional marching bands. On their resumes, they can say they've played with the best. The Green Brigade was recognized as the Best Damn Band in the Land by the Bleacher Report in 2011 and Best Drumline in 2012.

"Being part of college athletics is exciting -- the game, the fans, pregame and halftime events, parades and spirit marches, "Williams says. "When I hear the drumline approaching for the first time, I get goosebumps."

Becoming the music

Williams' first try in the music world -- playing the clarinet -- wasn't easy on the ears.

"I made a lot of squeaks and squawks," he says.

His mother made him switch to the trumpet in sixth grade, opening opportunities for him. He rose from high school drum major to Green Brigade director, putting in countless rehearsal hours.

"It is a lot of time, especially in high school," Williams says. "But the rewards are definitely worth it."

After playing in the Green Brigade and earning his bachelor's degree, he taught high school band in Plano ISD and was an instructor at Drum Corps International, a nonprofit organization for junior drum and bugle corps. He landed the director position in the Green Brigade in 2002 and completed his graduate studies. In addition to leading the Green Brigade and the Basketball Pep Band, he is assistant director of wind studies at UNT and conducts the Wind Ensemble and Brass Band. He also produces, conducts and arranges projects for various artists.

Williams chooses the Green Brigade's songs for their entertainment value. Popular tunes on the playlist include "Fly Like an Eagle" by The Steve Miller Band and "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the musical Carousel.

The band's formations are all computerized, created by a professional drill writer. One of the most popular formations has been a breast cancer ribbon. And favorite band Halloween costumes have included Pac-Man on a bass drum followed by Pac-Man ghosts down the drumline. The band also performs each year during the Homecoming parade, marching through campus and the town square. The shows are memorable, with music composed and arranged by Williams, percussion coordinator and assistant professor Paul Rennick, and other professionals.

"We go through this process of learning the music, practicing the music and then becoming the music," Williams says.

He notes that much of the hard work begins in public school. He doesn't have to talk much about music lingo or procedures like starting rehearsals on time.

"We have so many great teachers building cultures and processes," he says.

Delivering 100 percent
Mary Brown ('08) (Photo by Michael Clements)
Mary Brown ('08) (Photo by Michael Clements)

Teaching that culture to her students is Mary Brown's ('08) aim. She tells them they have to give music their all, just like they will for a future job.

"If you become a brain surgeon or pilot, you have to be 100 percent," she says. "I expect you to play all the right notes."

Brown, the band director at Ryan High School in Denton, says it's a job she's wanted since elementary school. As a fifth-grader in Beaumont, she was fascinated by an older girl playing the clarinet.

"I just loved the sound and how her fingers moved really fast," she says.

Sitting in her first music class in the sixth grade, Brown knew she would major in music in college.

"I loved playing the instrument so much I wanted to teach it," Brown says. She first came to the university with her twin sister, Emily Standlee ('08), who is a band director at Ann Richards Middle School in Dallas ISD. Brown joined the Green Brigade, where she met her husband, Zach Brown ('09), a euphonium player who works in data analysis. She completed her student teaching at Ryan High School, which hired her after graduation.

Now as head director, she teaches lessons learned from UNT. She says Williams influenced her rehearsal techniques, etiquette and marching fundamentals. Her teaching philosophy comes from Nathan Kruse, former assistant professor of music education, and music professor Darhyl S. Ramsey -- both who provided a welcoming environment to their students.

"I'm hard on my kids, but I'm definitely a nurturer," she says. "By being a motivator and encourager, I can push them."

Her concert band students received straight superior ratings in UIL competition for the first time this past year.

"The looks on their faces after a long time of hard work meant a lot to me," she says. "For them to achieve that, it was so good for their confidence."

Teaching the future
Christian O'Donnell ('86) (Photo by Michael Clements)
Christian O'Donnell ('86) (Photo by Michael Clements)

Like Brown, Christian O'Donnell ('86) was inspired by music early on. As a high school student, he traveled with his school band from Ardmore, Oklahoma, to Denton to see the performance of Lab Band Madness -- all nine Lab Bands -- at the Super Pit. He was stunned.

"You could tell the groups were professional musicians, but college kids," he says.

After entering the University of Oklahoma to study geology, he became a music major, transferred to North Texas his sophomore year to study music education and joined the Green Brigade.

He says he was intimidated by the program at times. He became familiar with faculty member Rich Matteson, who played the same instrument -- jazz euphonium -- and had opened for jazz legend and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. But he soon established himself at North Texas, too, going on to be drum major of the Green Brigade as a senior. He played a role in the naming of the band in 1984, his junior year.

"We'd been called many things, including 'the Mean Green Machine,'" he says. "So, the students of the band settled on 'The Green Brigade,' complete with a tag line, which was included on our T-shirts, 'No Prisoners.'"

He and his fellow bandmates became a tight-knit group, even though sometimes they were competing with each other.

"We spent so much time in the practice room," he says. "We were pretty close."

The advice of faculty members such as Don Little, Regents Professor of tuba, remains with him.

"He always inspired me to play as musically as I could and to always have a musical reference in my mind before I played a note," says O'Donnell, who plays trumpet as well as euphonium.

After graduating, he earned master's degrees in music education and conducting from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in music education from the University of Oklahoma. He later became a director of the nationally acclaimed Lake Highlands High School Bands in Richardson ISD. Today he's the director of fine and performing arts for Ardmore City Schools and also maintains a studio teaching woodwinds, brass, guitar and string bass at The Brass Ring Center for the Performing Arts in Ardmore.

Many of his students are now band directors or performing in community bands and orchestras.

"I love seeing how they have become more complex humans through the study of music," he says. "You have to have a love of music to teach the next generation."

Middle of the action
Ashley Mendeke ('11) (Photo by Torin Olsen)
Ashley Mendeke ('11) (Photo by Torin Olsen)

Ashley Mendeke ('11) loved playing the flute so much as a child that she practiced during car rides to her soccer practices. But she never wanted to be in the marching band because she thought it was for nerds.

Now she's a member of the West Point Band, one of the U.S. Army's premier bands.

After Mendeke's mother persuaded her to play in her high school band in Austin, she discovered she loved it. Enrolling at UNT as a music major, she played for three ensembles and the Green Brigade, serving as drum major her senior year.

Mendeke says she is most grateful for how UNT faculty and peers believed in her, but also motivated her to work harder. Regents Professor of flute Mary Karen Clardy told her, "Push yourself."

"To this day, I still find those words to be so true, that ultimately, it's what is inside of us that matters," she says. "The inner drive to continually grow is irreplaceable."

She taught private lessons after graduation but missed playing and performing. Having heard many of the military bands play at UNT's Murchison Performing Arts Center, she auditioned with the West Point Band. After a very competitive process, she accepted a position in the band in 2014, enlisted in the U.S. Army and completed Basic Combat Training.

Now a staff sergeant, Mendeke performs alongside 10 other alumni in gigs from the Macy's fireworks show to daily performances for the cadets' breakfast and lunch formations, which she says brings her joy.

She also gets to preserve history -- playing traditional tunes for the fife on its successor, a modern piccolo -- and she serves as an ambassador for her country.

"I love thinking of new ways to approach old concepts," she says. "Being in a band I can do that while reaching out to others."