Ending on a high note
Photos by Evan Krape, UD Athletics and Mark Clodfelter December 14, 2023
Heidi Sarver retiring after 29 years leading UD Marching Band
Heidi I. Sarver is one of the University of Delaware’s most influential professors of the last 30 years, but she is rarely found in a classroom. Instead, the director of UD’s Marching Band (UDMB) is most often found on a tower next to a football field, giving directions to her students through a sound system.
Sarver, who came to UD in 1995, is retiring at the end of the academic year, making 2023 her final season leading the UDMB.
“Heidi Sarver is a rock star in the world of marching bands, and it has been a privilege and an honor to work with her,” said Chrissi Rawak, director of athletics, community and campus recreation. “She has left a legacy here at Delaware that she should be very proud of and I am grateful for.”
Sarver’s reputation for professional excellence and dedication spans the country. Under her leadership, the UDMB grew from 100 to 300 members, with students from departments across campus and a strong alumni network. Sarver has led the marching band in two presidential inaugural parades as well as on tour for the first New Year’s Day parade in Dublin, Ireland. UDMB also participates in the annual Allentown Collegiate Marching Band Festival and at exhibitions at high schools in Delaware.
“Heidi Sarver is a model example of what a college marching band director should be,” said John Milauskas, director of marching bands at Towson University, who also appears annually at the Allentown festival. “I’ve seen her teach in front of her band. She is a true leader, a sincere leader — one who does it to serve others.”
“Heidi is a consummate professional. She is so dedicated to those students and to her program, and she’s just fabulous,” said Barry W. Bernhardt, director of bands at Florida International University and who worked with Sarver on Sugar and Orange Bowl halftime productions.
More than a marching band
When Sarver joined the UD, she was charged with making the UDMB the largest, happiest, most fun organization on campus. She succeeded, and in the process created an extended family of Blue Hens who remember marching band as their best time of the college career.
That connection begins with band camp — 10 days in August when the band learns the half-time show and an intense experience with long, hot days on the practice field. It is also where new UDMB members begin to forge life-long friendships.
“It’s like you start college two weeks earlier than everybody else,” said senior drum major Andrew Steinberg. “You walk into the first day of classes with 300 friends, and it makes the University feel a little smaller.”
Those friendships extend to the alumni band, a tradition going back to 1970. Current students meet alumni during Homecoming games, when former UDMB members are invited back onto the field for halftime and the post-game show.
“It’s not just the people in the band right now. You get to see the people that came before you, and you understand them because they did exactly what you did,” Steinberg said.
Sometimes band alumni meet their own former students. Samantha (Bisaro) DeLuca, who teaches instrumental music at Newark Charter High School, returned for Sarver’s final Homecoming.
“I attribute a lot of what I do in my work life to Sarver,” she said. “I couldn’t miss sharing this amazing memory with my own former students.”
A driving rain at this year’s Homecoming game didn’t keep the oldest alumni band member, Gene Carlisle, from participating. Carlisle graduated in 1961 and has played with every alumni band since it started.
“You come to band year after year to see your friends,” he said. “Even if they didn’t go to school with you, you got to know them in the band. Everybody is friends with everybody, even if they’ve never met before.”
Sarver instills a sense of responsibility in her students, and she offers opportunities for students to lead the band themselves. The four drum majors and various section leaders are part of the instruction process as an extension of the directors. Students help each other learn, providing them with a priceless opportunity to gain leadership skills that will serve them beyond their years at UD.
Hiring local band directors and technicians could create a more polished program, but it is more important to have the student-centric experience.
“Having the Student Leadership Staff provides ownership of the program to the students. They have skin in the game, and that is invaluable,” Sarver said.
“It’s definitely a good building experience to have,” said Steinberg, a senior honors music education major. As one of the UDMB drum majors, Steinberg values the chance to build leadership skills. “As a music education major, I’m on the podium in front of the band before I’m in a classroom in front of students. Everyone in the band is looking to you, and you have to have your game face on. It’s like training in critical thinking and being prepared.”
Alumna Lauren Reynolds, who serves as UD’s director of concert bands and associate professor of music, started as a first-year flute player in UDMB. She remembers Sarver’s encouragement and support spurring her interest in pursuing a professional career.
“Her legacy is to encourage her students to go beyond what anyone could dream,” Reynolds said. “Reach for the moon. Go beyond these walls. She wishes more for her students than she wishes for herself.”
Game day surprises
The final home game of the regular season is a time to recognize athletes and band members in their final year at UD. It marks the culmination of countless hours of rehearsal and preparation. The Nov. 18 game also held a few surprises for Sarver.
During the second quarter, UD Athletics presented her with a framed football jersey to honor her work supporting athletics during the past three decades.
“I knew something was up when I was told not to ‘disappear’ during the second quarter, but receiving the framed jersey caught me by surprise and was a complete shock,” Sarver said.
UDMB traditionally takes the field after the game for the “5th quarter,” a short post-game performance that includes the band playing the “band song” to close out each performance. UDMB’s song is The Beatles' “In My Life.”
During the Nov. 18 performance, UDMB surprised Sarver with a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which was the band song at her alma mater, University of Massachusetts.
“Hearing ‘My Way’ is visceral for me. It goes right to the core of who I am. I completely fell apart when I heard UDMB play the first chord,” she said.
The road ahead
UD is currently conducting a national search for a new director.
When Sarver made her announcement at band camp, students were surprised and in disbelief. First-year student Roman Norquest was disappointed that Sarver is leaving; however, he knows that the band is bigger than just one person.
“I hope the new director keeps some of our traditions, but if they want to add new things to it, that’s what it’s all about,” Norquest said. “They’re going to have a new perspective and a new take on things.”
“Delaware is poised to become whatever it needs to become at this point. It's big. I hope whoever comes in next maintains what we've created, but takes it to the next place, whatever the next place is,” Sarver said.