After years of leadership in high school, remembering what it feels like to be new again gives a whole new perspective.
When I graduated in 2012 from a competitive marching band with two years of drum major experience and one as low brass section leader, it was no stretch of the imagination to say that I had the marching band workings of my high school down to a science. I knew how we marched, how we ran rehearsals, and the routines of game-day and competition weekends.
As a prospective music education major, finding a college with a great marching band program was a priority for me. I set my sights on the large schools of the Big 10 that would offer not only marching band but also great music experiences with strong and diverse academics.
After falling in love with Michigan State University (MSU) and accepting the offer to attend starting in fall of 2012, I knew I had to join the Spartan Marching Band. My music major audition satisfied the band’s requirements, and as soon as I received the mailing in early May, I immediately signed and turned in my membership paperwork. I counted down the days of summer watching the band on YouTube, waiting to move in and join.
Being Away from Everything
On a late August morning, my parents and I loaded up a rented minivan and drove the 10-hour trek from Gaithersburg, Md., to East Lansing, Mich. I checked in with the Spartan Marching Band and then moved all of my belongings into a classic, cramped dorm room. Everything was new.
I was about to be left at a university where I knew no one, in a state I had visited a total of three times, to join a marching band in which everything was bound to be different.
My high school band had about 100 members with a front ensemble, while the Spartan Marching Band numbered about 300 with no front ensemble and no flutes or clarinets. My high school marched corps style, while the Spartan Marching Band high-stepped and employed corps style marching at halftime. I was in for one wild ride.
Becoming a Spartan
When preseason drills (our “band camp”) for freshmen started, I was surrounded by a student leadership team made up of section and squad leaders who were determined to bring a new freshman class into the band family. They knew how we stretch, when to participate with cheers and frivolity, and exactly what we were going through.
Even with the stellar help from staff and student leaders, joining the Spartan Marching Band was a bit like being thrown into the fire. In just more than a week, we had a nationally televised football game against Boise State. By that time, every freshman member had to sound and march up to the high Spartan Marching Band standards; we would not settle for “good enough for a first game.”
When the veteran members joined us the next day, more friendly faces, all incredibly happy to be reunited at last, surrounded us. But with the classic MSU pregame show to learn and an entire halftime show to perfect, there was no time for resting.
Immediately that evening, all members had to participate in the “block auditions” that, through performance of an exercise and a memorized piece, would give us our chairs for the entire season and determine what squad we would be placed in and whether we would be guaranteed to march pregame and halftime. I placed at 10 and was assigned to the B position of squad 39.
We had a packet of music to memorize that had to be played and approved by our section leaders in order to be eligible to march. Freshmen members stayed an extra two hours after preseason drills ended for the day in order to learn the traditional Spartan Marching Band “Series,” a percussion cadence with a specific set of highly athletic maneuvers for each section.
Figuring It Out
I would be lying if I didn’t admit to being overwhelmed and exhausted. But slowly, hour by hour and repetition by repetition, it began to click.
High stepping began to feel natural, and performing The Series became second nature. The other baritone players became more than just faces with nametags attached; they became my second family so far from my home in Maryland.
After the first nerve-wracking experience of kick-stepping out of the tunnel into the lights of Spartan Stadium to perform for a crowd of more than 78,000 people, the performance jitters washed away for the season.
By the time the band flew to Tempe, Ariz., to perform at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in December, it was hard to remember what life was like before I was a Spartan.
I am sure that when I joined my high school marching band as a freshman, I was just as shell-shocked and nervous, but I certainly did not commit that experience to memory. I’ve spent years teaching people as a section leader, drum major, and as an IMPACT Team member at George N. Parks Drum Major Academy.
My freshman “new kid” experience at MSU will no doubt prove invaluable to me in the future. When I work with high school marching bands this summer and move in again for my second Spartan season, my experiences will help me know how to best aid “new kids” in any activity.
I think all student leaders in marching band need to remember this feeling to help raise the new members to be all they can be.
It’s easy to become frustrated with a new member who can’t yet march in step or hold their instrument up correctly. We have to remember that just a few years ago, we were that person to some degree, and that we must impart the patience and mentorship to them that we needed.
I encourage everyone to cherish opportunities as a rookie, embrace everything that is magical and new, and bring that feeling to your ensemble every single day.
About the Author
Rachel Sze is a freshman at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Mich., majoring in music education. She finished her first season in the Spartan Marching Band and is a Sister of Tau Beta Sigma, National Honorary Band Sorority. Rachel has been an IMPACT Team member at George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. She attended Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Md., where she served two seasons as drum major and one season as low brass section leader. Rachel was named to the Maryland All-State Band for five years and All-County Band for six. She has played euphonium since the sixth grade.