A talk with Barry Houser on maintaing pride, excellence with Marching Illini


Assistant Director of Bands Barry L. Houser conducts the University Summer Band during a performance on July 16 on the Main Quad.

By Ben Lash

Barry L. Houser, assistant director of bands and director of athletic bands, is perhaps most noted for directing the Marching Illini. This week, The Daily Illini sat down with Houser and talked about his life leading up to working at the University, as well as his experiences here.

Daily Illini: What made music such a focus for your life?

Barry Houser: Originally, my parents introduced me to music pretty early. My dad was more of the jock, and my mom had a little more of the musical qualities at that point; my dad was more on an athletic path. It was a mixture of those two things throughout school.

Really, I was planning differently at first. I was accepted into the pre-law program at Notre Dame and accepted here at Illinois. Since third grade, I had thought: “I want to be a lawyer; I want to be a judge; and I maybe want to even get into politics.” On my mom’s side, there were a number of folks who were legacies at Notre Dame at that point, so it kind of made sense.

Well then this whole music thing kept going. You know, I played in the band; I had been playing violin in the orchestra and sang in the choir, so it kept growing on me. I thought, “Wow, this really is pretty cool and is a lot of fun.” And the idea that you could make a career out of this? In looking at that, after that first winter break, I really looked at things very differently. I knew I’d really ruffle some feathers with my family but really looked at going the musical route. And I’m very happy with that choice.

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DI: What was your career and life like after college?

BH: I was very very fortunate that I had some great teachers and made some great connections along the way when I was studying at (the University of) Florida. There were two women who worked in the Gainesville school system, which is where the University of Florida is housed. I observed them and thought, ‘Wow, these ladies really have it together.’ 

I was getting ready to student teach; they had been teaching for 22 years at that point and had a variety of experiences in Florida. I was just so impressed with how they interacted with the students; the students just adored them, but they also ran a really tight ship as well. I thought, ‘You don’t see this that often.’ 

You know, you see really good programs, but you don’t always see the inner workings as tightly put together as that program was. Thankfully, magically, mysteriously, I was able to student teach there, and I learned a tremendous amount.

Evidently, they were impressed enough to the point where that’s where I got my first job, where I student taught. It was a great program; they played at the Midwest Clinic, they did Macy’s and a number of other things, so I really learned a lot from them and owe a tremendous amount of where I am today to them.

DI: What happened between then and working on your Masters at U of I?

BH: After I taught down in Florida, I thought, maybe it’s best to start moving back closer to family, and most of my family lived in the Midwest. 

I taught at the public schools in Indiana for a good eight years. I really loved the programs there, but got a call from Pete Griffin, who was director of the Marching Illini at that point, and said, “If you want to do any kind of masters work with Jim Keene” – one of the last old-school conductors out there – “you’re going to want to do it now because he’s going to be retiring soon.” 

And I said, “OK, I guess I better look at this.” I had experienced the campus before — like when Smith Walbridge camps were here — but never truly experienced the program before. That opportunity came up, and I felt that the job I had was a hard job to leave, but I thought if I don’t do this now and do my master’s, I don’t know if I’m ever going to do it.

So I did that and had some great experiences. Football was great here that year, so I had some great opportunities planning for the Rose Bowl trip, writing for the band, and doing some really great things. Then, that’s when Jim Keene retired, and I still had another year left.

Then Eastern Illinois called and said they’d really love to have me come and be their Associate Director of Bands, so they offered me the job before I even interviewed for it, which was really bizarre. It kind of gave me a taste of what collegiate-level teaching was like, and I was still unsure if I wanted to do that or not, and then the job opened up here at Illinois, and I got a phone call from faculty here saying, “You need to do this.” I was unsure but went ahead and did it, and here we are now. This’ll be my fifth year here.

DI: After attending and performing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade seven times in the past, what kind of excitement do you feel for performing with the Marching Illini this November?

BH: Yeah, there’s really something to be said there. I really should be freaking out about the Macy’s band when you look at how you get these kids in on Sunday and you perform in front of millions of people basically four days later. And they’ve never played together, they’ve never marched together and they have to learn everything right there. 

So here we (the Marching Illini) are. We’re going to have our music for several months going into it, and I think I’m more nervous about this, not because of our students by any means. This is a true tell of who we are and where we are with things, especially because we’re not in the national spotlight. Nothing against Illini football, but because we’re not constantly on national television on every game, one of the reasons that I wanted to do this is so that we could highlight our students, and that’s what I’m really excited about.

So the nervousness is in a really positive way to make sure that we truly represent who we are, and I know we will. It’s just a matter of making all that happen in a short amount of time.

DI: How has your experience with the Marching Illini and the School of Music here at Illinois been, and what are you looking forward to in the future?

BH: Well I’ll tell you, my first year here, I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my career. It was pretty tough, and I knew I was coming to a place where I was just studying about four years previous to that, so what could have changed? Well, there were a lot of things that had changed. It was a pretty significant change for the students at the time; there was a new person coming in who hadn’t been a part of the Illinois program as long as my predecessors, who had also been my mentors.

I was trying to tighten some things up as to truly capture what our potential could be. In looking at that, we’ve made some tremendous strides, and some of those people who had posed some opposition have come up and said, “Oh my god; the band is great!” So it was pretty trying the first year, but the next year: far better. And the next year: far better, and obviously last year was just fantastic, so it’s really at the point where it’s still a tremendous amount of work, but it’s really getting to be a lot of fun. It’s kind of a cheesy and hokey thing to say, but it’s a really a great blessing to be able to have this job.

And the main reason is because of the students! It has nothing to do with anything really beyond that. We have a great history and tradition here that’s very important but again I don’t do it because of that, I do it because of the great students that we have here that work so hard to represent the University and do so much greater good across the University. And to represent our state even, with what we’re going this November. By the time we finish in December, we’ll have been in front of almost 72 million people, between football games and exhibitions.

This is just a huge year of Marching Illini. I don’t want to say that that’s such a huge part of why I like my job, but honestly, if the Marching Illini were not a part of my job, I don’t think I’d be here at Illinois. It’s the one thing that if I was ever asked to give anything up, this would be the last thing to go.