At the turn of the 19th century, Wichita was a growing city with the arts at its core. During this time, several music conservatories, local colleges and professional bands, choirs and orchestras flourished in Kansas. While many colleges and conservatories close their doors after just a few years, several colleges continued to grow and thrive, most notably Fairmount College in Wichita. Fairmount College became the Municipal University of Wichita (WU) in 1962 and Wichita State University (WSU) in 1964.
From its start in 1895, Fairmount College was arts-minded, offering classes in music theory and history along with lessons in voice, piano and orchestral instruments. In 1902 the college established the Music Department. Associated with the Music Department were ensembles, some sponsored by the department, others loosely formed by students and often augmented with community members. It was these fledgling 1902 ad hoc student-community groups that provided the birthright for the infant WSU band. By 1909 the Fairmount College Band was adorned in traditional band uniforms of the day and boasted a membership of twenty students, including three violinists!
In 1924 there was a very active Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) on campus that established an ROTC band. Student musicians directed the ROTC band until 1929 when Otto Culvert was brought to campus to lead the group. This band was organized mainly for the purpose of supplying musical enjoyment to its members and for ROTC functions. In 1930, a Women’s Drum and Bugle Corp was established on campus and performed at sporting events and parades. The Women’s Drum and Bugle Corp was short-lived, flourishing for approximately four years. The ROTC band continued to grow with the coming years and became known for its fine musical ability. In 1932, Walter Duerksen, after whom the present fine arts center is named, assumed directorship of the ROTC band. He was the first band conductor to be full time in the Music Department. The ROTC band’s main purpose at that time was to supply musical enjoyment, prepare formal concerts and to perform at football games. Duerksen established a second band, not associated with ROTC, in 1939. By 1941, Duerksen was in charge of three WU bands: a ROTC Marching Band, a ROTC Concert Band, and a University Concert Band.
The WU bands were flourishing organizations prior to World War II. With the onset of the war, many colleges and universities experienced declining enrollments as men were shipped over seas. In 1941, the WU bands, in order to bolster enrollments, formally admitted women to the University Band and suspended the ROTC bands. In 1946, James Kerr, who had been a highly successful high school band conductor in Norton, Kansas, became the Director of WU Bands. At the same time, Duerksen became the director of the WU School of Music. Kerr held the post of Director of Bands, with distinction, until 1970.
Under Kerr’s legendary leadership, the university bands experienced unprecedented growth in numbers and quality, becoming nationally recognized for excellence both in the concert hall and on the football field. During his tenure, Kerr led the concert bands in regional and national convention performances of the Music Educators National Conference, numerous Kansas state conventions, and was invited to perform at the College Band Directors National Association National Convention. The Marching Band received national recognition for its creative pre-game and half time shows. Kerr, as a result of his work with the WU bands, was inducted into the prestigious American Bandmasters Association, Kansas Music Educators Association Hall of Fame, and was named Outstanding Kansas Band Director by the Kansas Bandmasters Association.
The twenty years following Kerr’s tenure found the Wichita State University Bands under the leadership of several band directors. These included:
During these transitional periods of WSU Bands leadership, Dr. Donald Corbett, Professor of Music Education, provided stability for the bands. Dr. Corbett, a WSU Bands alumnus and a student of Kerr, served twice as Interim Director of Bands (1979 – 1980 and 1982 – 1983). Corbett retired in 1994 as Associate Director of Bands Emeritus. In 2002 the WSU Bands celebrated their Centennial of 100 years of Excellence. During the fall of 2016, Dr. Tim Shade was hired to lead the WSU bands.
The strength of the WSU band program lies in the quality of private instruction available to all band members. Recognized as artist performers and master teachers, the WSU Winds and Percussion Faculty have distinguished themselves nationally and internationally through solo performances and membership in the school’s resident artist quintets: the Lieurance Woodwind Quintet and the Wichita Brass Quintet. WSU’s Winds and Percussion Faculty members also serve as principal players in the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. In such professional arenas, they demonstrate publicly the skills and artistry transmitted to their students. The excellence of their teaching is evident, for example, in the fact that many former members of the WSU Bands can be found performing with professional orchestras, major United States military bands, and serving on the faculties of colleges, university, and public schools across the nation.