MURRAY – From a logistics standpoint, longtime Murray State University Racer Band Director John Fannin said putting together the key piece of Saturday’s inaugural Band Day at Stewart Stadium was quite challenging. 

Simply, he had never tried to design a band performance that featured so many performers, more than 700. It easily was the largest Racer Band production in his 25 years and probably surpasses any other halftime show in the program’s history, with this year’s outfit of about 225 students being joined by an estimated 500-plus high school students for a halftime presentation of Michael Jackson’s ‘80s smash, “Thriller.”

Once all was said and done – and the ringing in his ears had begun to fade from the raucous standing ovation the performance had received – he was looking back at the day’s events with much pride. 

“It was the best-case scenario. Everything went really smooth. They did great,” Fannin said of the performance that had featured every performer in a Halloween costume to simulate the video for the song, the title track of Jackson’s monster album that produced such hits as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” 

“I thought the high school kids were really prepared. The ‘Thriller’ dance looked great. The sound was good and the great thing was that I didn’t really have to do a lot other than cheerlead.”

Interestingly, though, it was not Fannin – known for multitudes of ideas that have come to fruition for the Racer Band over the years – who was behind this plan. The genesis came from the mind of Racers Director or Athletics Kevin Saal, who has experience with band going back to his high school days in Manhattan, Kansas. 

He said he still can recall a Band Day at Kansas State University about 35 years ago, of which he was part. 

“The band director at the time, Frank Trace, did a phenomenal job of wrapping his arms around high school bands, and (shortly after Saal had accepted the Murray State job in March) I recalled how I was part of a Band Day at Kansas State,” Saal said. “With ours, we combined that with Military Day, which was also known as Fort Riley Day (in honor of a U.S. Army base near the campus), so we would do the ‘1812 Overture’ and you’d have artillery going off at the same time (for a part that calls for live cannon fire) and it was just an awesome environment.

“So when I met John for the first time after taking the job, of course it’s one of those things where your brain is going about 1,000 mph and you’ve got all of these ideas in your head, so I said, ‘Hey! What do you think about doing a Band Day?’ He’s jumped all over it.”

At the center of this idea is student recruitment. Back in March, during an interview with the Ledger & Times, Saal, who was an associate athletic director at the University of Kentucky in Lexington before coming to Murray, talked about how athletics events can have a major impact on attracting non-athletics-minded students and the need to tap into those opportunities in the name of improving the university’s overall enrollment. 

Now that the football season has reached November, though, Saal said he has had enough time to see how much of an effect the Racer Band has on ticket sales. He said Saturday’s Band Day was designed to become an annual event, with the idea of turning as many of the high school participants into Racer Band members in the coming years. 

“The beauty of Murray State University is that we’re all connected very, very closely. What’s good for the university as a whole is good for athletics and what’s good for athletics is good for academics,” Saal said, noting how not only was Saturday Band Day, but it also was Faculty/Staff Appreciation Day at Stewart. “(The Racer Band) is a fun group and an energetic group, and I’m blessed to have had the chance to work with John for this one year (Fannin will retire at the end of the current academic year). I’m still trying to convince him to stay for another five years because of how well he’s done with his kids.”

The high school participants were not able to practice with the Racer Band in person. Instead, the miracles of modern technology prepared the high school students (who represented about 50 campuses from five states), mainly through instructional videos Racer Band leaders posted on social media. 

“I liked it a lot,” said Murray High School senior Dylan Hicks, who was one of an estimated 20 Tiger Band members participating Saturday. “At first, I really wasn’t too interested in doing this, but then a lot of others at school started signing up. Then they started talking about it and it looked like a lot of fun, so I went ahead and signed up too.

“It’s been pretty cool.”

Calloway County HIgh School senior Nathan Shelby said he believes Band Day might have helped him decide where he wants to attend college. 

“I think it was life-changing. It was an amazing experience,” Shelby said, giving credit to the Racer Band leaders. “All of the seniors, especially, were very helpful. It was kind of weird (not having any practice sessions), but when we got the chance to warm up with them, it was great.”

Along with the halftime performance, all of the high school participants sat with the Racer Band during Saturday’s game with visiting Tennessee Tech. This meant joining in some of the Racer Band traditions on game day. These include saying hi to everything from the cheerleaders to the scoreboard to the day’s public address announcer, a role taken by Aaron Clayton on Saturday. Also included are renditions of popular songs over the years, including Neil Diamond’s classic “Sweet Caroline” and the Bruce Channel song “Hey Baby” in which the entire band sings the opening line, “Heeeeeeeey, hey baby! I want to know (oh whoa), if you’ll be my girl.” 

“Out of that group we have today, we’ll have a hundred or two (eventually become Racer Band members),” Fannin predicted. “We recruit about 100 students a year, but the difference today is that we had every grade level here, not just seniors. From this, we may have another 30 or 40 from every grade level, at least, and many of those are not even seniors yet.” 

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