Arkansas State University was created in 1909 by the Arkansas General Assembly. While music has always been present on the campus, in 1929 the first evidence of an organized band program appeared. This 16 member band was led by the first Director of Bands at A-State, Mr. Guy French who at that time was also a student. Mr. French became a faculty member in 1932. The first ROTC unit appeared on campus in 1936 and the A-State Bands merged with this newly formed group. Mr. French, now a commissioned lieutenant, led the band for an additional year until 1937 when Captain John Horn directed the band. In 1938 Lloyd Hancock served as Director of Bands followed by Lester Somers in 1939.
World War II ushered in an era of great change at A-State. The university was very involved in the war effort and as a result intercollegiate athletics were temporarily disbanded and the ROTC program was put on hold. In 1941 activities within the A-State Bands were suspended.
In 1946, the A-State Bands resumed with 26 members and were led by Director of Bands, James Patty. The bands performed in a number of different venues including the Memphis Cotton Carnival Parade. Some of the traditional elements of our pregame performances which are still used today began to emerge during this period. Kenneth Appleton became the Director of Bands in 1950 and in 1952 the marching band participated in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade.
Donald R. Minx became the Director of Bands at A-State in 1954. This marked the beginning of an unprecedented era of growth and accolades for the A-State Bands. Many of the items enjoyed by current members of the A-State Bands can trace their history back to Mr. Minx. In 1956 Mr. Minx helped the university establish the A-State Band Scholarships. In January 1961 the marching band represented the state in the Inaugural Parade of President John F. Kennedy. In 1965 the band membership grew to over 100 musicians for the first time. Mr. Minx introduced the color guard to the marching band in 1970. He led the band during the 1974 football season, the first season in what is now known as Centennial Bank Stadium. Mr. Minx is also responsible for the first “Band Day” on the A-State campus. Tragically, Mr. Minx passed away suddenly in the spring of 1982. However, during his 28-year career at A-State he left an indelible legacy on both the A-State Bands and the literally thousands of students whose lives he enriched. To help honor is legacy, the current rehearsal room for the A-State Bands was renamed Minx Rehearsal Hall shortly after his passing.
In 1982, Tom O’Connor became the Director of Bands at A-State. Dr. O’Connor continued many of the A-State Bands traditions but also incorporated new ones such as the first performance by the A-State Bands at the College Band Directors National Association Conference in 1986. Dr. O’Connor stepped down as band director in 1988, but remained a member of the theory/composition faculty until 2013 retiring after 34 years of service to A-State.
Pat Brumbaugh was hired in 1988 to replace Dr. O’Connor. Brumbaugh was the first woman hired to direct any of the ensembles within the A-State Bands. Brumbaugh also led the A-State Bands in another CBDNA performance in 1992. Also in 1992 Tom O’Neal was hired as the next Director of Bands. Highlights from this era included the first of three compact disc recording projects, a performance with special guest, composer Karel Husa at the 1998 CBDNA conference, and the hiring of Associate Director of Bands, Mr. Ed Alexander in 1997.
Ed Alexander became the Director of Bands at A-State in 2001 and also conducted the first performances of bands in the Fowler Center. He also hired Dr. Ken Carroll in 2002 as the Associate Director of Bands and Director of Athletic Bands. Together they increased the enrollment of the A-State Bands by over 50%. They also led the marching band to their first FBS Bowl game in 2005, the New Orleans Bowl.
Current Director of Bands at A-State, Dr. Tim Oliver, was hired in 2007. In 2008 the university officially adopted the Red Wolves as its new mascot. Dr. Carroll and Dr. Oliver re-named the Marching Indians to the current name, The Sound of the Natural State. Other new initiatives included the A-State Conducting Colloquium, The Mid-South Honor Band, the Young Musicians Workshop, and hosting the Arkansas Open Marching Band Festival. The A-State Wind Ensemble performed at the 2010 CBDNA Conference in Las Cruces, NM and the Sound of the Natural State performed at the 2011 GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile, AL. In addition, new enrollment records for the A-State Bands were set and broken each year.
In 2012, Dr. Carroll became the Director of Jazz Studies at A-State and a new Associate Director of Bands and Director of Athletic Bands, Dr. Sarah Labovitz, was hired. Dr. Labovitz continued to build upon the athletic band traditions by guiding the Sound of the Natural State to four consecutive bowl games. She also led the Howlers Basketball Bands, and initiated the formation of the Volleyball Band. She also increased the profile of the Symphonic Winds. Other items which developed under the leadership of Dr. Oliver and Dr. Labovitz included a performance by the A-State Wind Ensemble at the 2014 CBDNA Conference, the revival of the Band Day, and the completion of the 25th new composer commission by the A-State Bands since 2007.
Due to the sustained growth of the A-State Bands, the surge in instrumental music education enrollment, and the increased profile of the athletic bands, for the first time in 2016 the A-State Bands added a third band director to their faculty with the hiring of Dr. Polly Middleton as the Assistant Director of Bands and Director of Athletic Bands. Dr. Sarah Labovitz shifted her responsibilities and is now the Associate Director of Bands and Coordinator of Instrumental Music Education.
In 2018 A-State Bands welcomed a new Director of Athletic Bands and Assistant Director of Bands, Dr. Steven Riley.
Dr. Tim Oliver remains the Director of Bands and Coordinator of Wind and Percussion Studies, and has the second longest tenure of leading bands at A-State behind the legendary Mr. Donald R. Minx. The A-State Bands is one of the only band programs in the nation with this type of structure to best serve the needs of all its students.
As our Alma Mater reminds us, “the red and black shall ever wave on high for ASU,” and for nearly 90 years the A-State Bands have been an essential part of our university.