Leader of the Band

By Ann Cipperly

Carrying on his family’s love of music, Dr. Corey Spurlin has directed the Auburn University Marching Band for 17 years, planning innovative and spectacular halftime shows. The professor of music also teaches and conducts other Auburn bands, as well as being in outreach programs at other areas. This coming June, Corey will conduct a national collegiate mass band for a special 80th Anniversary celebration of D-Day in Normandy, France.

Corey grew up in Anniston surrounded by music leaders. His father was his band director in middle and high school. His grandfather also had a love of music and taught singing schools for churches, with Corey’s father playing the piano.

“My father and grandfather passed on a love of music to me,” says Corey. “I began as a trumpet performance major at the University of Alabama, but I found myself talking and thinking more about teaching than performance. I changed my major to music education.”

When Corey graduated from Alabama in December 1999, he began teaching middle school in Tuscaloosa. After one semester, he became the band director at Tuscaloosa County High School. “I really wanted to direct a marching band,” he says, “and teach a higher level of band music. The opportunity to move to the high school level fit my career goals.”

Two years later, he had the opportunity to return to the University of Alabama as the interim assistant director of the marching band, pep band director, and conductor of the Symphonic Band while working on his Master’s degree.

He then attended Louisiana State University (LSU) for his doctorate. A year after his move to Baton Rouge, Corey married his wife Ashley, who had been a violinist in the orchestra when they met at Alabama. While at LSU, Corey was a graduate assistant for the concert bands, Tiger Marching Band and Pep Band for basketball, directing them at the 2006 Final Four.

He received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in wind conducting in 2007. In spring of that year, Corey was hired at Auburn University as the Marching Band director, associate director of Bands and assistant professor of music. He has since been promoted to associate professor with tenure and now professor of Music. He also directs the Pep Band for basketball, conducts a concert band, and teaches under- graduate and graduate courses in music.

Corey’s halftime shows have been innovative over the years. “The halftime shows are a team effort,” he says. “We get music suggestions from students and fans. Nikki Gross, assistant director of Athletic Bands since 2015, and I typically brainstorm different ideas.”

Eight years ago, he decided to enhance halftime shows by collaborating with other entities that are not typically associated with the band. In 2017, they collaborated with electrical engineering students to build LED light strips to fit around band member’s hats. For a night game, they can turn lights down in the stadium and light up the band. They can individually program every band member’s hat, and the lights can create patterns and designs.

Corey and his team once collaborated with NASA to create a space-themed show that celebrated Auburn’s pivotal role in training astronauts and aerospace engineers. The show, which recognized space center directors on the field, included a replica of NASA’s space launch system. Corey and his staff took images and sound bites from NASA archives and combined those with band music and the video board for an amazing halftime presentation.

One of the landmark performances for the band was the 2015 “Back to the Future” halftime show, which featured collaborations with Aubie, the AU Industrial Design Department and Coach Bruce Pearl.

Aubie played the part of Marty McFly from the movie. They were able to acquire a DeLorean car, and then collaborated with the industrial design department to create a fake DeLorean using a golf cart. “Our students played the parts in the movie with Aubie,” Corey says. “We had a video board plot line that corresponded with everything we were doing on the field, and we made it look like we sent Aubie back in time. Then he returned from the future during the halftime performance in the fake DeLorean flying out on the field and saving the day.”

The band collaborated with Pearl a second time with a halftime show that promoted his AUTLIVE Cancer campaign. Just last season, the band received acclaim for their military appreciation show that featured children’s choirs from every elementary school in Auburn. “It has been fun and exciting to brainstorm over the years and come up with different halftime shows,” says Corey.

When the football team plays out of town, some contingency of the band is usually there to support them. Only 50 to 120 members travel to certain destinations during the regular season. The full band typically travels and performs on the field for Auburn’s biggest rivalry games and for post-season events. If it is a long trip, such as the national championship games in Phoenix and Los Angeles at the Rose Bowl, the full band will typically fly together.

“Those trips are among my best memories,” the director says. “We chartered a 747 for the full marching band and cheerleaders, and we completely filled the plane. It is quite the sight to go up the stairs and look down the aisle to a sea of our band students and watch their excitement. Those are special memories.”

When it is a full band trip, they pack their equipment in an 18-wheeler that leaves ahead of the band. On smaller trips, some- times they will ship tubas and drums to the location.

Some music the band plays is traditionally performed at every game, while new songs are added each year. “We try to make sure there is fun and excitement in the stadium and the arena,” Corey says. At foot- ball games, they play certain selections for offense and others for defense.

During timeouts, all of the music is timed down to the second. Corey is in touch with the marketing director about advertisements on the video board. He will look at script sheets to see how long they are, then go to timing sheets to find songs that length. “There is a lot to think about dur- ing a football game,” he says. “I am usually mentally tired at the end.”

About 30 band students play at each basketball game. They strive to get the crowd involved and provide unyielding support for the team, as well as distract the other team.

Corey and Ashley have a special connection to Auburn and Opelika and are involved in both communities. Their children, Harper, 11, Hannah, 10, and Lucas, 4, are active in sports and music in the Auburn area. Harper plays tennis and is a member of the Drake Middle School Robotics Team. Hannah attends Pick Elementary and is a junior golfer, participating in US Kids Golf tournaments and Drive, Chip, and Putt events locally. The Spurlin family are members of Trinity Church in Opelika, where Ashley often performs as a violinist.

As a professor, part of Corey’s job is to complete research and creative projects in his area. He has served as a guest conductor, adjudicator, and/or presenter for honor band events, band festivals, and conferences in 21 different states.

Corey has been asked to direct a national collegiate mass band at the special 80th anniversary of D-Day celebrations in Normandy. He is assembling a large band of college students and college alumni from across the country. They will meet in Washington, D.C. in early June to practice before flying to Paris. This anniversary is especially touching as it will be the last major celebration for aging veterans who were involved in D-Day.

“This will be a momentous ceremony educating college students about the sacrifices veterans made,” says Corey. “Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. This is an opportunity for me to combine my profession with my past to honor my grandfathers and their involvement in the war. I feel honored to be asked and want to do something special for those veterans still living.

“I also feel honored to have my position at Auburn,” adds Corey. “One thing we try to teach our students is when go somewhere, leave it better than you found it. For me, I inherited a great band. The band was good when I came here, so I have simply strived to make it even better.

“I have always tried to have a positive impact on the students that I teach and not just marching and playing, but in life skills and helping them professionally in different ways.” Twelve of Corey’s former students have held band director positions at other colleges since graduation.

Under his direction, four performances by the Auburn University Marching Band have been selected for recognition and viewing at national and regional con- ferences of the College Band Directors National Association.

He has written a chapter for the popular marching band textbook The System, and he is published in five volumes of Teaching Music Through Performance in Band and the National Band Association Journal.

“In 17 years we have created a lot of mem- ories,” Corey says. “The bands have had a lot of success that we are proud of, and I credit the students with that. I have been blessed to have really good students and good student leaders over the years. They are passionate about the band and serving as great ambassadors for Auburn. I feel like our students have represented the univer- sity and community really well. I am really proud of that.”