Introducing the 13th SMB Director: David Thornton
The Music Building is tucked away in North Campus’ West Circle in a thicket of white pine trees. Melodies drift out of the brick building — harmonizing voices and riffs of a trombone in practice.
The 13th Spartan Marching Band Director sits in his office working through a piece of music for an upcoming halftime show. His walls are plastered with past band paraphernalia, alongside sits photos of his family of three. A silver-grey keyboard runs the length of his desk.
Although David Thornton is the new director, he is anything but foreign to the culture of the Spartan Marching Band — this is his sixth year of involvement, and Director of Bands Kevin Sedatole estimates he is one of the best the band has ever seen.
Thornton began his 20-year-and-counting involvement with marching band in high school. From there, he went on to Florida State University where he took on the role of drum major. After receiving a degree in music education and clarinet performance, he added another role to his portfolio by teaching marching band at Leon High School in Tallahassee, Florida.
His next move was to MSU for graduate school where he would earn his masters and doctorate, teach music classes and become the associate director of the Spartan Marching Band.
Drum Major Nikki Sanford has been involved with every step of his climb to SMB Director at MSU.
He has always been centered in student development, she said.
"Thornton brings a youthful energy to the position that I think the students really like," Sedatole said.
He has brought in brand new technology that allows band members to see the formation aligned with the music and study it on their personal devices before they show up to rehearse.
That brisk, no-nonsense kind of practice contrasts with how things were run prior.
“The biggest difference is he’s much more fast paced,” Sanford, a music education senior, said. “The marching band has always been efficient, but he really makes sure you’re on your toes. He’s constantly pushing the top percent to keep going.”
Although he spends rehearsals and performances physically above his band in what is coined “the tower,” Thornton doesn’t see himself any higher than the students.
“It’s your passion for whatever it is that you do that the students feed off that,” he said. “That’s just part of being an educator and, what I hope, is being a good role model for them. I would never ask them to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.”
A new leader
Thornton was selected to fill the shoes of John T. Madden shortly after he announced his retirement from the program this past summer. Madden was reprimanded last academic school year for sexually harassing a band member after 28 years in the role.
International relations senior and SMB president, Peter Richey, said the transition has been interesting.
When Thornton was first introduced to the band, he was a graduate assistant.
“That’s a completely different relationship that grad assistants have with students than directors have with students,” Richey said. “It’s been interesting going through my five years, transitioning, figuring out how to change how I should interact with him.”
Richey said having that original foundation with him as a fellow student has helped the adjustment significantly.
“There’s a much different feeling of talking to someone that you had a more peer-to-peer relationship with than someone who has been the director of the program for 25 years who kind of has this aura about him,” he said. “Especially in a very tough transition where the director of 28, 29 years retires, there’s a lot can be lost in a transition if we’re not careful.”
But members emphasized nothing has been lost.
“Because he was so embedded in SMB culture before, just being the associate director, the band was really able to embrace that it wasn’t a stranger walking in,” Sanford said.
The same community
Thornton was not expecting to receive a phone call from College of Music Dean James Forger regarding his selection for the newly open position.
Afterwards, he sat down with Sedatole to discuss his acceptance.
“I was excited for the opportunity and this is a school that’s got a lot of tradition and history and it’s just an honor,” Thorton said. “I was elated for the opportunity.”
Thornton revived the moment he stood up to conduct the band for the first time this year as the head director.
"You just never know what it’s going to be like until you’re in that moment and it was something that I’ll always remember," he said.
It is etched in his mind, he remarked smiling.
Although the moment seemed fleeting, he was more excited to present the 2017 Spartan Marching Band for the first time.
Upon his acceptance of the promotion, his workload has increased significantly both at home and at work — He and his wife Holly welcomed their first born girl, Taylor, four months ago.
Despite everything on his plate, Thornton feels support from nearly every corner of MSU.
Sitting on one the bookshelves in his office, an adorned football rests.
“Mark Hollis came to rehearsal a couple days after the first game,” he said.
The ball has clearly been through the ringer, with the exception of one panel of leather where the details of the game win are spelled out as well as a congratulation on Thornton’s first ‘victory’ as director.
“It’s one of the game balls from the game and he came over as just a show of support and enthusiasm for my first game," he said.
The football team had given Hollis the ball to get "engraved" and gifted to Thornton.
"It comes back to the community here and everybody being in everybody’s corner," Thornton said. "It was certainly unexpected but also really nice and something that I’ll cherish forever for sure."