When Barry Bernhardt was hired as the university’s band director in 2010, he had more than 20 years of experience at schools across the country. At first, he tried to build the program in the same way he had at other universities, but to engage the students at FIU, he discovered, the Panthers needed their own music, dress code and style.
“I realized I have to bring that South Florida twist. I have to bring that Latin culture twist. I’ve got to be in that entertainment mode. I’ve got to do like Ultra. We’ve got to add electronics. We’ve got to do different stuff,” Bernhardt said.
The band is different. Dressed in floral FIU shirts, khaki pants and gold caps, the Panthers look more prepared to take a stroll down South Beach than to march in a halftime show. Don’t be fooled: This band can still throw its shoulders back and blast the stadium with classic marching music—but the Panthers do a lot more too.
In the middle of the 2019 football halftime show, the Panthers laid down their instruments for a dance break. The DJ flipped on some hip-hop, and the students whipped their arms, twerked their hips and got low.
“I think it’s cool that they have this confidence,” said Jamil Sayih, a professional dancer who teaches choreography to the band. “They can be super upright and do more military style, and then they can go and do stuff like Trick Daddy.”
Creating a family
To play the tuba, you have to be tough. The 50-pound brass instrument doesn’t get any lighter while you are exhaling and inhaling your entire lung capacity into a mouthpiece. Add marching and dancing throughout the process, and playing the tuba qualifies as an athletic endeavor.
To prepare his section of tuba players, senior Alesandro Cafferata started a new tradition: conditioning. An hour before every practice, his section does push-ups, sit-ups, bicycle kicks and more.
All 12 sections of the band have their own ways of bonding. The students who play the version of a French horn adapted for marching celebrate “Mellophone Mondays,” and dress up to a theme such as “pajamas” or “rainbow.” In the drum line, the students have sleepovers before early rehearsals.
“I have no family or friends down here,” said Hope Burkett, a freshman marine biology major from Tennessee. “It was really hard for me. I came here to drum line camp, and immediately everyone was super nice to me.”
The students agree: Once you are welcomed into the band, you want to help it grow.
Freshman Shane Starman remembers the first time he wanted to be a marching Panther. He was a senior in the band at Coral Reef High when his school invited Bernhardt to be a guest instructor. After working with the ensemble, Bernhardt talked up the FIU marching band. Starman was interested and applied to the university.
Now a freshman and a music education major, Starman wants to join Bernhardt the next time he visits high schools to help him recruit.
“I was sitting in their spot a year ago. And I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do this.’ It’s been one of the best experiences of my life,” Starman said.
The marching band has successfully created a family. And once you have a family, you can create the traditions that a thriving school spirit is made of.