Calling the Shots

To be a leader, one must be taught but then given space to perform. One high school drum major takes on the role of college pep band director, passing along the virtues of fun and excellence learned from his mentor.

The memory is still vivid in my mind: I can recall the angst and nervousness as I, a young inexperienced junior in high school, stood over 100 of my peers during the first home football game of the season. While surely not my first halftime show, this time my role was different. My trusty euphonium lay undisturbed in my locker. I had traded my instrument for a whistle.

As the band members’ eyes fixed upon me and my fellow drum majors, my own eyes gazed out to seek my band director’s guidance and instruction. I soon realized, however, that we were on our own. Our band director, Marty Magnini, had told us that this was our show—it was up to us now. While “Mags,” as we affectionately referred to him, stood in the press box awaiting the shrill of our whistles, the next 12 minutes were on our shoulders. It was our game time, and we were calling the shots.

Learning to Lead

Marching band quite honestly has served as one of the most formative experiences of my young life. While yes, I can speak to the musical skills developed and the lasting friendships formed, all of these experiences pale in comparison to the greatest lesson learned during my tenure as a drum major: leadership.

From day one, our band director made one thing abundantly clear: He was relying on us to lead the band. He provided us with the vision and the goal, and it was up to us to develop the band in such a manner that met his expectations and desires. While “Mags” conducted rehearsals and led the organization, it was our responsibility to work with the section leaders, ensure every task was completed, and to mentor the members of the band, developing them into fine musicians and people, all while making band fun for everyone.

Did we mess up along the way? You bet. But now, close to some three years since I last donned my white tunic and shoulder cape at Cary-Grove High School in Cary, Illinois, I still find myself taking the lessons I learned during high school band and applying them in my current role as the director of the Hillsdale (Michigan) College Pep Band.

Organized Fun

Upon taking the reigns of the pep band in 2014 as a sophomore at the school, I soon realized that I didn’t have much of a band. Many of the members had graduated, leaving a very bare-bones group of musicians. Frankly, the eight or so members remaining really weren’t going to cut it.

We needed musicians to join the band, but more importantly we needed people to stay and invest in the group. While we were able to recruit some of the best and brightest musicians from across campus, we needed to give them a reason to stay if we wanted to be successful.

Standing there before the band at the first rehearsal I would direct, I looked at the 20 people we were able to muster up and wondered what would keep them there. And then it hit me: We had to make the process just as fun as the finished product.

If I wanted pep band to be a gratifying experience like marching band was for me, I would have to pour my energy, enthusiasm, and excitement into each member of the band, making them feel like they were a meaningful part of the group.

That didn’t mean that there wouldn’t be hard work. If we could sound good and have fun, we’d be a success.

During rehearsals, much like “Mags,” rather than cracking the whip, I cracked jokes and made the time spent together fun. The result was that people wanted to be at band and wanted to sound good.

While it took a lot of hard work, we started to grow, and turnover was minimal. Today, I’m proud to say that the Hillsdale College Pep Band has surpassed 30 members while becoming one of the most demanded and respected ensembles on campus.

Keys to Success

The success we’ve enjoyed thus far as an ensemble at Hillsdale College has only occurred as a result of the lessons taught to me during my time at Cary-Grove. Leadership is not a skill that is developed absent mentorship or experience. True leadership is formed as the result of diligent instruction, trial by error, and active participation.

With that said, I’ve been able to formulate some keys to success.

Practice What You Preach. Be the same person both behind and in front of the baton. The people you’re working with will respect you, your opinions, and your decisions.

Invest in Your People. Take the time to get to know your people and take what they say into consideration. Show that you care.

Give 100%, 100% of the Time. If you’re not excited and invested in what you’re doing, your people won’t be excited or invested either.

Maintain Balance. There’s a time to be ramrod, but it’s definitely not all the time. Crack jokes and be personable. Make the process just as fun as the result.

Photo courtesy of Jordyn Pair.

Getting a Boost

Thoughts on this issue from editor and publisher Christine Ngeo Katzman. From Halftime Magazine, a print publication and online community about the marching arts.