NORMAL — Polly Middleton, the new director of Illinois State University's Big Red Marching Machine, knows the exact moment she decided she wanted to be a marching band director.
“I distinctly remember I was at Chiddix (Junior High School) and we were marching in ISU's homecoming parade and I thought, 'This is the coolest thing ever,'” she recalled, sitting in her Centennial East office.
But she never could have imagined that dream would bring her back to her hometown's university.
So it's appropriate that one of the songs that band will play Saturday during halftime of ISU's first home football game is “Don't Stop Believing.”
Middleton, 38, attended University High School and graduated from Normal Community High School, receiving her bachelor's and doctoral degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She started playing piano in kindergarten and also played French horn. Her parents, Randall and Jane Middleton, “have always been so supportive. They made sure I had lessons,” she said.
Her grandparents lived on Broadway in Normal and she grew up a block away on Fell Avenue.
“I remember sitting outside and hearing the band practice,” she said.
But becoming the marching band director at ISU wasn't part of a grand plan — even though all four of her grandparents were alumni.
“It's kind of surreal,” she said. “I always focused on the kind of position I'd like to be at rather than the geographic location.”
When the ISU position became available, she went for it. "The band is an important part of the fabric of the university," she said.
The band serves both the university and the community, said Middleton, who started her job Aug. 1. Band members have a busy weekend with the first home football game and Monday's Labor Day parade.
Anthony Marinello, director of bands, said, “As far as we can tell, she's the first female band director.”
He and Middleton first met as rivals while still in college.
She was a drum major for the Marching Illini and he was a drum major for Louisiana State University when their football teams met at the Sugar Bowl in 2002.
Marinello said Middleton brings a combination of talents that make her a good band director.
“She's a great musician, great teacher and great person,” he said.
Middleton likes the creative and artistic elements of directing a marching band.
“I write the choreography,” she explained. “I write all the drills for the shows, which I really enjoy doing.”
Her attention to detail was obvious at a recent rehearsal on a parking lot marked with yard lines near the football stadium.
Watching from an observation tower overlooking the lot, she critiqued the crisp lines, how musicians pointed their feet while marching, even when they should — or shouldn't — take a breath.
But she was also quick to notice and praise what was done well and what improved as the students moved from one measure to the next.
Her goal for the band is to “capitalize on the strengths of all the band members to make the band better.”
She said another goal is for every student — about 300 are involved in the band — to know they have a place “and understand the importance of their contributions to the band.”
When the Big Red Marching Machine walks on the field at Hancock Stadium this Saturday, it won't be the first time Middleton has had a band on the field.
When she was a high school band director in Palatine, she brought her band to the annual Band Day competition at ISU. She also took part as a high school student.
This year's Band Day, officially known as the State of Illinois Invitational High School Band Championship, will be Oct. 14, with 42 high school bands from across the state competing.
Being a good band director requires many skills, including being a good musician and teacher, but “the biggest one is you have to love working with the students,” said Middleton.
Ben Stiers, assistant director for five years, “has been fantastic to work with,” said Middleton, who also praised the student leaders in the band. Each section — percussion, horns, saxophones, etc. — has at least one visual and one musical leader. “They take on a lot of responsibilities,” she said. “They're very diligent.”
The band's four drum majors also do a lot of work behind the scenes, she said.
Middleton is looking forward to the first game.
“It will be exciting. The students have worked so hard,” she said.