A Lesson in Humility

One drum major finds out the hard way that good scores and accolades don’t always lead to feelings of success or self-worth.

Photo by Ken Martinson/Marching.com

Over the course of the past three years, I have been the drum major of three different organizations: the David Crockett High School Marching Band from Jonesborough, Tenn., Music City Drum and Bugle Corps from Nashville, and Middle Tennessee State University’s Band of Blue from Murfreesboro.

My first experience in band was my freshman year of high school. I was in a marching band of about 60 people. Out of all of the members, there was one I admired most: the drum major. There was only one drum major in my high school band, and to me it was the coolest position. The drum major led the band on the field, started the show, did the cool salute, had all the awesome cues and got all the praise for being in charge.

What I didn’t realize was how much work it really takes to be a drum major. Among printing coordinates for 380+ people, plunging toilets and enduring 18-hour workdays, I never would have thought such a glorious job could be such a humbling one.

Feeling Incomplete

I was offered the position of drum major my senior year of high school. It was a stressful and difficult experience, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned what it takes to be an effective leader. My mentality—although I’m ashamed to admit it now—was one that involved intimidation. I thought it was effective to intimidate people into doing their jobs. I didn’t really try to be best friends with everyone in my band, and I divided myself from the group in my effort to lead through intimidation.

I became frustrated when people disrespected my authority, and I had an awful case of the God complex. In spite of receiving awards for conducting and getting high ratings at contests, at the end of my season, I felt incomplete, and I didn’t know why.

Breaking the Wall

As my high school band season drew to a close, I sought the next level of marching athletics: drum corps. I admired the intensity and passion associated with the organization, and I wanted so badly to be involved with it.

In my desire to be at the highest level, I auditioned for Phantom Regiment to be a drum major. Because of my lack of experience and my bad attitude, I was cut from the auditions early on. Befuddled, I didn’t know what to do, so a friend and I ended up auditioning for a mellophone position at Music City Drum and Bugle Corps in Nashville. It turns out that Music City was looking for a head drum major because the previous one was unable to return for the season. I auditioned and was offered the spot.

That was my first step to realizing why I felt incomplete at the end of my senior year of high school. Still ignorant, I felt the effective way to lead a group of people was by intimidation. This attitude did not bode well for me, especially as a rookie head drum major for a Drum Corps International organization. I received a lot of disrespect, and people did not respond well to my efforts as a leader my first year in the corps. It was definitely a frustrating time for me.

If you talk to any drum corps vet, they will tell you about “walls.” In drum corps, a wall is a mental obstacle. It happens during tour or training camp. Your mind starts telling you that you can’t do it: “There’s no way you can lead these people. Your conducting is awful. You messed up that rep. How can you expect them to be perfect if you’re nowhere near perfect?”

The wall is the most difficult part about drum corps, and, if it isn’t overcome, the wall can lead to the end of a marcher’s drum corps career.

My wall happened during my first season with Music City. It took some time, but eventually I got past the mental block and came away with a completely different mindset. What I learned is that a leader can only be so effective through intimidation, but with optimism, so much more can be accomplished.

Because of what my rookie year in Music City taught me, I was able to lead much more effectively my second year. Everyone responded much more positively to any sort of direction I had to give.

Bursting Ball

I was able to carry this positive attitude into my college marching band career. This year, I am one of the drum majors of the Band of Blue at MTSU. With 385 members, we take pride in being big, loud and funky! It’s amazing how maintaining a positive attitude can really influence a rehearsal or performance environment, and I have had an awesome time doing what I do here because of it!

My advice to any drum major or leader is: Be positive—no matter what. In the end, one of the only things you can determine for yourself—one of the things that no one else can choose for you—is your attitude, and if you can give off even just a little bit of positive energy, no matter how difficult it may seem, that synergy will multiply throughout the group. The tensions of a stressful rehearsal become more manageable, and it becomes much easier to deal with mental errors should they occur.

People always ask: What is the role of a drum major in an organization? It is our duty to be a bursting ball of positive energy. Our optimism has to outshine any negativity present. If we can accomplish that, all the other jobs (keeping tempo, having rehearsal environments set up, helping staff) become a walk in the park.

It is up to you to decide how a rehearsal (or your life in general) will go, so why not start right now? Get in the right mindset!

About the Author

Billy VanDelinder is studying instrumental music education at Middle Tennessee State University, where his primary instrument is piano. He would like to be a middle school and high school band director and eventually go on to earn a master’s degree in music education and conducting.

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