The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

‘Immediately irreplaceable,’ Sarah Miller leads WSU pep bands

Sarah Miller has led WSU basketball, volleyball pep bands, Trombone Studio for 10 years
Sarah Miller selects all of the music that the Cougar Marching Band plays in the stands on football gamedays. Courtesy Sarah Miller

A jazzy, brassy variation of the “Ghostbusters” theme fills the chilling November air. A group of about 15 trombone, sousaphone and baritone players are performing in the plaza outside the WSU field house. In just a few minutes, the WSU football team will arrive on buses, walk through the aisle formed by members of the Cougar Marching Band and into the field house surrounded by hundreds of Cougar football fans before their final home game of the year.

As students take turns playing improvised jazz solos, their director stands to the side with a smile on her face.

Sarah Miller is the WSU assistant director of Athletic Bands and associate music professor overseeing the trombone studio.

Sarah gives private trombone lessons to students and directs Butch’s Bones, the small ensemble of low brass instruments associated with the Cougar Marching Band. Butch’s Bones performs before every WSU football home game and at select other events throughout the year. Though Sarah did not create the group, she inherited it from a prior CMB director and ran with it.

Sarah hopes her students know her as someone who is available.

“I hope they’d say that I’m really honest with them,” Sarah said. “Like if things are really good, I tell them I don’t think I’m harsh with them with they’re not good, but I like to think that I’m really honest about their progress, and hopefully really encouraging.”

Sarah Miller and members of the WSU Trombone Studio at the 2023 International Trombone Festival in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Sarah’s job as the assistant athletics band director allows her to call the shots of a game day. Every song the band plays at each specific moment at a football, volleyball or basketball game, Sarah selects.

Sarah Miller, athletic bands assistant director, conducting at a WSU women’s basketball game, Feb. 23, in Pullman, Wash.

Butch’s Bones allows Sarah to mentor students on the trombone and other instruments, give her students the chance to perform before football games and provide the opportunity and guidance to arrange their own music for the group.

The students in Butch’s Bones said they appreciate who Sarah is and what she brings to the CMB program.

“[She] really helped me want to stay involved,” senior Dalton Cardoso said.

Junior Skylar McDavid said Sarah provides honest space for him to learn and grow as an arranger in addition to a musician. He can tell Butch’s Bones is Sarah’s passion project and he appreciates the quality of the experience.

“Butch’s Bones isn’t a perfect replication of the CMB but it’s a replication of her personality,” he said.

Sarah said she recognizes Butch’s Bones as a perfect combination of everything she values in the job: mentoring students and making good music that impacts people’s day.

“It’s just a really cool cross-section of a lot of aspects of my job. And it’s really rewarding to do,” Sarah said.

Sarah was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Augusta, Georgia. She followed in her brother’s footsteps in picking up an instrument in school.

Her choice to attend University of Georgia was a relatively easy one, and her decision to become a music educator was largely inspired by her private lessons teacher in high school, Kate Jenkins, who was a graduate student at Georgia at the time.

In college, she played euphonium but picked up trombone when she received advice that playing gigs would be easier on a more in-demand instrument.

She pursued her master’s degree at University of Arkansas and her doctorate of music at Kansas University, holding a nose for where the best teachers were. At KU, she served as the graduate assistant to the KU Marching Band, directing the Jayhawks pep bands.

She said she did not see herself jumping into marching band music early on in college because she thought it was lesser than other types of music.

“I was a little pretentious about it not being “serious music,” Sarah said. “But then as I got older, I kind of realized, ‘Oh, man, this is a way to bring music to a huge mass of people, and also really affect the games that I love to create cool experiences for students.’”

Sarah has worked at WSU since 2014. She met her husband AJ in 2010 while auditioning for University of Arkansas.

Sarah Miller and her husband AJ Miller at the 2022 LA Bowl at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Both Sarah and AJ hold doctorates in music and direct the Cougar Marching Band.

AJ was a graduate student at Arkansas. Not wanting to do a long-distance relationship and valuing KU’s reputation, Sarah auditioned for KU to complete her doctorate degree after completing her master’s at Arkansas.

She faced a difficult decision of whether to attend Texas Tech, which offered her a fellowship, or KU, which did not have an athletics band teacher’s assistant opening at the time, but was where AJ was going to school.

An Arkansas professor of theirs encouraged Sarah to go to KU, so she did.

“And Sarah did what she always does and made herself like, immediately irreplaceable. Played her butt off, did all the things,” AJ said. “And then her second year she was offered an athletic band assistantship. And that ended up being the best thing that could have ever happened to her. That’s what got her this job here at WSU.”

It is no secret that KU basketball is big. The pep band directing responsibilities for KU men’s basketball typically remain with the director of athletic bands.

However, Sarah got the opportunity to direct the Jayhawk pep band during several high-profile games.

AJ said Sarah was nervous for her first game in charge of the WSU pep band but quickly realized she was up to the task. AJ said Sarah texted him during her first game.

“‘This is like the easiest thing I’ve ever done,’” AJ said Sarah texted. “I was like, ‘Yes, awesome.”

AJ said Sarah has succeeded at virtually every challenge she has faced because of her organization, solutions-seeking attitude and musical aptitude.

She also succeeds as a teacher because of her approach to mentorship, AJ said.

“She’s so approachable,” AJ said. “I think that the students really feed off of that.”

McDavid said he appreciates Sarah’s approach to teaching.

“She’s been a great influence for me because she’s always very kind and she just, even if someone deserves something she always goes with kindness and chooses to improve make the person a better person instead of disciplining them harshly,” McDavid said. “And that’s just worked every single year.”

Not only do her husband and students recognize her strengths, but Jon Sweet, her boss, co-worker and friend, does as well.

Sweet arrived in Pullman in the summer of 2023 as the CMB’s new director of Athletic Bands. Sarah served on the committee to identify and hire Sweet as the faculty member who would spend the most time with the new hire.

“I had some students ask me, if I was nervous about the search and all this kind of stuff, and I was actually mostly excited. It’s like, I can pick a new friend,” Sarah said.

Sweet said AJ picked him up from the airport in February 2023 for his interview. He had dinner with Sarah, AJ and other members of the search committee and immediately felt a connection.

As soon as he was hired, Sweet and Sarah got to work planning the CMB’s 2023 season.

“I mean, immediate friendship,” Sweet said. “And so there’s an authenticity about Sarah, there’s not like a veil of trying to figure out what’s going on. She’s honest and open and forthright and, she’s really knowledgeable about her job.”

As a sports fan, Sarah loves the athletic elements of her job, particularly the impact she has on the volleyball and basketball games.

Sarah Miller and members of the WSU Pep Band at the 2023 women’s basketball Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.

In fall 2023, then-head coach Jen Greeny invited Sarah and the volleyball pep band to attend a practice and hold a meet and greet.

Sarah said WSU libero Karly Basham taught her how to serve, and the players told members of the band which tunes and cheers they liked.

“Having coaches that really support you and value what you bring to the table at a game is just huge,” Sarah said. “It makes everything a lot more personal.”

Sarah was present for all five days of the 2023 women’s basketball Pac-12 Tournament as the Cougars won the Championship. When WSU advanced to the finals, the team invited the band to stand behind them at the Pac-12 Network’s courtside set. When the team won the Championship, the band celebrated the victory on the court and posed for a picture with the team.

“So those two teams [women’s basketball and volleyball] in particular, I think are just really great about showing appreciation back to us for what we bring to the game and that just makes it so fulfilling,” Sarah said.

Sarah’s time at WSU has seen her create her own album, take the WSU trombone studio to the 2023 International Trombone Festival in Salt Lake City and curate the sights and sounds of the CMB on gameday — all things she is passionate about.

“And so I think it’s that same kind of thing for our students of like, finding your niche and your passion and really going for it,” Sarah said. “And I think that’s important for them to see.”

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About the Contributors
SAM TAYLOR, Evergreen sports co-editor
Sam is a senior multimedia journalism major from Lacey, Washington and the sports editor for spring 2024. He was the sports editor for the 2022-23 school year and managing editor for the summer and fall 2023. He plays the trumpet in the Cougar Marching Band, loves sports and has worked at the Evergreen since fall 2021.
BRANDON WILLMAN, Multimedia editor
Brandon Willman is a junior multimedia journalism student from Vancouver, Washington. He started working as a sportswriter for the Daily Evergreen in Fall 2022 and worked as copy editor in spring 2023. Brandon was elected to be the Editor-in-chief starting in summer 2023 and served in the position from May 2023 to February 2024 before transitioning to the role of multimedia editor. He enjoys watching sports, backpacking, and watching horror movies.