Kiltie Marching Band’s centennial year continues tradition and teamwork under Dave Zerbe

The 2022-2023 school year at Alma College marks the 100th anniversary of the Kiltie Marching Band – an instrumental student organization for the college and the community.

Established in the fall of 1922 by Alma College students as a pep band for athletic events, the kilt-wearing marching band has welcomed generations of musicians to entertain audiences across the country in various festivals, parades, and at performing arts centers with well-known musicians. However, for mid Michigan residents, they’re known for their memorable halftime performances at Alma College Homecoming football games. 

The Kiltie Marching Band’s current director is Dave Zerbe. He has led the band for the past 26 years. In 1988, Zerbe initially came to Alma College as a percussion instructor and to teach private lessons; the next fall he worked with the drumline and continued that for two years. In the 1990s, Zerbe juggled several band roles while being a full-time graduate student at CMU, including leading the CMU drumline. Zerbe taught at Mona Shores High School in Muskegon, at Alma College, and was a part-time faculty member at CMU.

Dave Zerbe, Kiltie Marching Band director, celebrates his 26th year leading the instrumental student group. (Photo: Courtney Jerome/Epicenter)Zerbe’s first fall as director of the band was in 1997. “26 years later, here we are at the 100th anniversary of the band,” says Zerbe. “That was the 75th year anniversary of the band, the year I took it over. So, no pressure!” he laughs, commenting on how he recognized the impact of his leadership timing, and needing to “take things over the top.” 

“We had a great first year," says Zerbe. "One of my clarinetists of the time said it was the ‘foundational year.' Previously, the band had done more than one show each year, and I made the decision to do one show a year so that we could do more intense music, more intense drill, make it more of an educational learning experience – while at the same time, making it interesting and exciting for the folks that are listening in the football crowd. So that’s the way we’ve functioned for the past 26 years.” 

The Kiltie Marching Band is not only one of the oldest organizations on campus, it’s also one of the largest. This year the band has 74 members (slightly smaller than the average band size of around 100 each year). The hard-working students are involved throughout campus in addition to the band; you’ll find the band full of student athletes also on the softball and track teams, as well as members of other organizations such as Model UN. 

From the classroom to their extracurricular activities, being involved and working in teams is an important part of growth and gaining new perspectives, shares Zerbe.

“It teaches them to work together and in groups,” he says. “You have to be open. You have to listen. You have to try things out even if they might fail. It’s all about opening up and giving them the tools. So, when they leave, I want them to have all the tools they need to be successful right off the bat.” 

It can be easily said that Zerbe is teaching his students more than how to be great musicians – he’s teaching them skills they will use throughout their lives. “I don’t know if that was necessarily intentional at first. After a while, I thought: I’m really missing the boat here. Because when I say these things and they look at me funny, I should be telling them that this is life! It’s just life as it’s currently being mimicked by this musical situation. But this is you and your partner with the checkbook. This is you and your boss. You have to learn how to navigate. You have to learn how to work with people. And that’s everything we’re doing here.”

“We all go farther if we work together rather than if we’re lone rangers,” says Zerbe.

“My parents both attended Alma and met here,” shares Audrey Merrifield, a sophomore from Kent City who plays in the drumline. “My dad was in the drumline as a bass drum when he was here. When I was in 8th grade, he and Professor Zerbe were close friends for a long time, and they arranged for me to come see one of the rehearsals. I got to go up top and see his process of how he arranged a rehearsal and his process. We came back for Homecoming, too, and that really hooked me.” 

Audrey Merrifield and father, Todd Merrifield, on Alma College's campus. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Merrifield)Comparing what she thought she was going to experience prior to attending Alma College, to what she’s experienced the past two years as a member of the drumline, “it was definitely everything I wanted it to be,” she shares. “Everyone is super supportive – it’s a safe area. They’re supportive, helpful, and comforting. We’re all working together.”

“My dad was able to come to Homecoming with the alumni playing – so, my dad was able to play with us,” she shares. “I love that I am able to carry it on for them, but for me, too. It’s important.” 

Pictured here is Audrey with her father, Todd Merrifield, on Alma College’s campus in full uniform, clad with the Alma tartan.

“When you’re in the uniform, you represent more than you,” explains Zerbe. “You represent the group. And even more than that, the college now, and in a way, the whole Alma college diaspora – 100 years worth of alumni. Everything you do reflects on them.”

In 1933 the band began wearing signature Scottish attire: the MacPherson tartan. Wearing kilts and full uniformed attire has been a tradition that has continued through the years. While the band was still wearing the MacPherson tartan when Zerbe took over the band, they were the first organization on campus to utilize the Alma tartan when it was established, and they wear it exclusively. 

“I know of three marching bands in the collegiate level that wear kilts, and it’s us, Wooster, and Carnegie Mellon,” shares Zerbe. “It’s unique.”

Historic image of the Kiltie Marching Band performing at Alma College. (Photo courtesy of Alma College)“I feel like the Kiltie’s exemplify Alma College in so many ways,” shares Timothy Rath, director of college communications at Alma College. “From the tartans to the hard work that they put in – kind of like that Scottish heritage.” 

How does the Scottish heritage play into the band’s music? “Until this year, I’d say we never do Scottish music shows because that’s just too obvious!” laughs Zerbe. “And after a while, it would just all sound the same from the average audience’s perspective.”

“This year, given it was the 100th anniversary, the show was absolutely Scottish music, Celtic music.”

From this year’s centennial performance filled with Scottish and Celtic tunes to classical music, rock-n-roll and heavy metal, the band has performed a variety of music under the leadership of Zerbe. 

“The Kiltie Marching Band’s history and alumni traditions are held and respected; it's really telling how many people come back for him, and the KMB,” explains Aaron Krause, an Alma College alum and current percussion intern/marching percussion instructor and arranger. 

“When I was getting involved in music, I was part of a percussion ensemble, and the director turned me to Alma, as that’s where Dave Zerbe was.” That connection pushed Krause forward to become a member of the Kiltie Marching Band during his undergraduate studies, and ultimately an instructor within the program.

Krause describes Kiltie Marching Band student members as passionate, compassionate, diligent and driven.

“They know they’re part of something that has a legacy and that’s bigger than themselves. They're not only happy to be a part of that, but they’re excited to connect with the members that came before them,” he says. “They’re excited to use their art in that format, to further the program, as well as further themselves.”

Alma College senior Matthew Garland can relate to that ideal of carrying on a legacy. The trombone player from Atlanta, Georgia, sometimes forgets that he’s carrying on a legacy. He is the fourth generation in his family to attend Alma College and the third generation of his family to be part of the band. His great-grandfather marched in the 1923 Kiltie Marching Band (the second year of the marching band), as well as his grandfather, who also played the trombone.

“Sometimes I forget that I’m carrying on a legacy,” says Garland. “It’s big when I think about it. Wow. My family has been doing this band for almost 100 years now – but at the same time, it’s just fun!”

Garland shares that his grandfather speaks fondly about the school as a whole, and how he had a great time learning a lot throughout his experience, including how to perform as a unit.

And now, Garland is experiencing similar teachings.

“It’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had before,” describes Garland about what it’s like learning from Zerbe. “Mr. Zerbe is a very fun individual to be around. He makes jokes; it doesn’t feel like schoolwork – and that’s the main thing. It’s weird that it’s class for me, as it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like fun.”

The pre-law student continues, “The band is full of people from every discipline that just enjoy playing music, which is different from a lot of college bands.”

The Kiltie Marching Band performing at Alma College Homecoming in October 2021. (Photo courtesy of Alma College)“I would tell students that are in junior high school, if you’re thinking of not doing band in high school you’re making a mistake,” states Zerbe with confidence. “Go forward. Stay involved. You’ve put in the hard work, now get the rewards. Don’t give up on your passions because you think you need to devote time to whatever.”

“There’s always time in the day for the things you really want to do. You just have to make sure you spend your time doing the things that you really want to do.”

“Arts are too important,” he concludes. “If you think about it ... The arts always get the cut, and yet, it’s everywhere. You walk in the grocery store or any store – I’ve never been in a store that didn’t play music. There's no aspect of our life that music is not present, and how can that be happening if it’s not important.”

Read more articles by Courtney Jerome.

With 15 years of professional media experience, Courtney Jerome has found a passion for storytelling and showcasing our region in a positive light. She's written stories for television broadcasts, numerous magazines, and digital publications. In addition, she owns a boutique creative marketing agency that focuses on social media, photo, and video storytelling for small businesses across Michigan and the country — courtneyjeromemedia.com. Contact Courtney, the managing editor of Epicenter, at editor@epicentermtpleasant.com.