Purdue University’s marching band may use the moniker “All-American,” but it welcomes students from all over the world—including MinChan Koo from South Korea. He was the band’s first-ever international drum major.
Photo by Andrew Hancock
Waking up at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning while everyone else in town sleeps is a small trade for being a drum major. I loved the opportunities that the drum major position brought me. Not only did I get to lead the band in front of thousands of people, but I also got to interact with people in the band, campus and community.
From Solo to Ensemble
I’m a clarinet player. I spent most of my childhood in South Korea until middle school. There aren’t many opportunities to play in an ensemble in Korea; they don’t teach instruments in school, so if you want to learn how to play an instrument, you have to find someone outside.
One day, my mother suggested that I take a private lesson, so that’s how I started. I took lessons for several years in Korea, then I moved to the USA. I lived in Oklahoma for my first year of high school where I got to play in an ensemble. I loved it. I absolutely loved that I was making music with my friends in a classroom.
From there I joined marching band, one of the best decisions I have ever made. That led me to join Purdue University’s band ensembles, something I will never regret.
Purdue University does not have a music school, but it has a lot of great ensembles and more than 1,400 students in the department. There are four jazz bands, two orchestras, five indoor concert bands, three pep bands, and of course the “All-American” Marching Band. Students receive college credit for participating in ensembles, and the average GPA for students in Purdue’s ensembles is higher than for all of Purdue’s students.
The “All-American” Marching Band is well-known for its traditions, such as the “Block P” performed at every game, as well as its milestones. It was the first band to break military ranks to make a picture on the field and the first band to wear lights on its uniforms during a night game. More recently, it was the first Big Ten band to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland, and I got to be a part of both of those firsts!
If you ask any of the Purdue bandsmen about their favorite moments, I’m sure they will mention their traveling experiences. I’ve marched in many college football stadiums and landmark events: Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and the Cotton Bowl. I also traveled to the 2010 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and led the band in the 2013 St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland. We traveled around Ireland for a week, which was one of my personal best experiences I have had at Purdue. I will never get to travel with 300 close friends for a week again; these are very precious moments.
But most importantly, the community of band and orchestra students at Purdue is amazing. I have made some of my best friends in Purdue’s band department.
The Best Example
Drum majors at Purdue are the liaison between the directors and student staff. We help the band’s day-to-day operations, like running rehearsals. We also become the ambassadors of the department and university and represent them wherever and whenever they need us. We conduct the band on game day at the pregame pep rally, during tunes and cheers in the stands, and for two postgame concerts. The “All-American” Marching Band performs almost 10 hours every game day, but time flies if you are a drum major. One of my favorite perks is wearing the bearskin hat that the British Army wears.
Being drum major changed the way I thought of myself; I matured a lot. I like to have fun, but it was hard to find balance between fun and hard work. As a leader of the band, I had to become a good example for my fellow bandsmen, so I started to think about how my actions could best represent Purdue and the band. Walking around the stadium, campus or anywhere I went, I was recognized by everyone.
I’m also the first international drum major for the band, so that gave me some extra pressure. I hope that more students from other countries will get involved with leadership positions after hearing about my experiences.
Last year, I was in a “Purdue Gangnam Style” parody video with our mascot, cheerleaders, athletes and coaches (you can see it on YouTube). When the video was played at Ross-Ade Stadium (Purdue’s football stadium), it was a huge hit. I somehow became a local celebrity. Several times strangers stopped me to say they really enjoyed me as drum major. Those comments meant a lot to me.
As a leader in the band, I always tell everyone to have fun! It might sound very obvious, but many people forget. Things get stressful, especially in a collegiate environment. You need to practice music and know your drill, but that’s not all you have to worry about. You still have classes, work, sports, friends, etc.
I still remember what my section leader told me freshman year—to forget about everything for two hours of rehearsal, just think about all of the fun we have in band. There is only a limited amount of time in marching band; at some point, you have to graduate and move on to the next level, so enjoy it while you can!
About the Author
MinChan Koo is from Seoul, South Korea, and a recent graduate from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. He studied management with a minor in marketing. He played clarinet in various ensembles for Purdue Bands and was a three-year drum major for the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band.