Anyone who has been in marching band for any length of time is bound to have played at least one march by John Philip Sousa. The famous American composer, known to history as the “March King,” wrote plenty of them, including the classic “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
My interest led me to propose a study of Sousa and the touring band he led for 40 years, which was accepted by the Office of Undergraduate Research. My project took me to the University of Texas at Austin, where the Harry Ransom Center holds an archive of materials related to Sousa.
The experience was amazing. As a musicologist, I know that the type of archival research that I did in Austin will play a huge role in my career, and that being able to do this kind of research as an undergraduate will help me immensely in graduate school. More than that, however, it was almost surreal to know that I was handling originals of documents that were almost 100-years old.
Much of the archive’s contents consist of business correspondence by Jay G. Sims, the personnel manager for the Sousa Band. The papers range from contracts for performers in the band and letters by players asking to be accepted into the band, to order forms for instruments that were needed on the road. They provided a glimpse of what the band’s day-to-day workings were like, in an era where communication was mainly done by mail or telegraph — there was no internet in the 1920s, and even telephones were not yet commonplace.
Sims’ letters allowed me to see how the band addressed issues that came up in the processing of preparing for and performing tours. Many of the order forms for instruments were for equipment that was needed while the band was travelling — in one case, a tuba broke and had to be sent in for repairs on short notice. In other instances the band had to make arrangements to have equipment sent ahead of them mid-tour, so that it would arrive in a city they were going to be playing in time for them to have it.
It was an interesting glimpse into the daily workings of a touring band.
My travel to Austin was funded by a grant from Lamar’s OUR. The process to apply was pretty competitive — I had to submit a proposal containing an abstract and narrative describing what my research project would entail and why I wanted to do it, as well as a résumé and a letter of support from my mentor professor, Bryan Proksch, stating that he would oversee my work. This was the third time that I applied for this grant. I had been denied twice before I finally received it — persistence paid off.
It was worth it, however. Not a lot of students get the opportunity to do these sort of projects, so for me to be given the chance was special. I plan on pursuing a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate in musicology, and I know doing undergraduate research is going to make me more competitive when I apply to graduate school — especially since I’m going into a field where archival research is often immensely important.
I would recommend undergraduate research to anybody who is competitive and wants to do something extra during their college career. Research is so important, and the earlier you begin those experiences, the better.
Persistence is key, though. I didn’t receive my grant the first time I applied, and neither did a lot of the people who’ve applied. The important thing is that I didn’t give up after that first rejection — I kept applying until I finally got it. I’m glad I did.
UP staff writer