Being a drum major involves a lot more than conducting music; it involves the ability to provide parentlike guidance and support.
Photo by Sarah Lewis
As my arms stretch out into the conducting position ready to strike that first attack, I gaze into the faces of 37 inexperienced, untried, untested and anxious musicians. At that very moment, they are looking intently at me as well. They are looking for far more than a tempo; they are looking for guidance, support and pride.
When I went into our very first practice of the season, I knew that I was entirely prepared to be the drum major. After all, I had the privilege of attending numerous leadership sessions, drum major camps and musical events. I also had the inspiration of my older sister who was the drum major of the group three years prior. Conducting in front of bedroom mirrors for years, marching as a first clarinetist since I was in the sixth grade, attending the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy twice—all of this must have completely prepared me for this endeavor.
At that moment, however, I realized I had never been more wrong. My band didn’t need someone with musical ability; they just needed someone who cared.
Not only did we start the season with a very small band, but we were also very young. Out of the 38 of us, the vast majority were freshmen and sophomores. I was the only senior. This influx of unfamiliar youth made teaching all the more difficult. I didn’t even know these members’ names, let alone how to lead them.
I then discovered my advantage. Because of the small program, I knew all of their names and nicknames by the conclusion of the second practice.
As the season progressed, walls came down. I wanted to be a part of each of their lives, and they welcomed my friendship. We learned how to accent their strengths and balance their weaknesses, both on and off the field. The environment we had created allowed me to compose a unique and intimate relationship with every musician in the band.
With each practice and performance, the band developed and the members matured. After many years of valiant efforts, we finally broke into the top 25 at the Indiana State Fair, placing 22nd. We marched into the fall season with uncertain expectations as it was thought that we had our prime performance at the State Fair. Amazingly enough, my band proved me wrong once again. Unbelievably, we finished first at many of the same contests where we had previously placed last.
At the conclusion of our marching season, my assistant drum major and I (we had met in 7th grade band, become best friends and now have dated for more than a year and a half) found ourselves radiating a sort of parental pride.
We did not create the band, but we felt very privileged to have guided the members in their development throughout the season. The members knew that if they needed a band-aid or to talk about personal feelings to seek me out. They also knew that if they wanted to learn a specific skill, their assistant drum major would be of more help; or that if they did something flat-out stupid, he would be the first to yell. If we were both either disappointed or angry, watch out!
Most importantly, though, they knew that we were very proud of them; we would help them however we could; and we cared about each and every one of them.
Many of our band students deal with difficult situations in their own homes. This is why the caring relationships that had been formed were so key to the members’ musical and personal successes. To these students, band is far more than a hobby or even a passion. It is a release. It is a supportive family and an environment where they can be successful. Band is where they learn confidence, poise and discipline.
When the Christmas season rolled around, I recalled all of the issues that I had discovered since the summer. Who better to reward the band members for their successes than Santa Claus?
At this special time of the year, they needed a small reminder of how special they were. So when they came into band class the final day before Christmas break, they found the band room transformed into a winter wonderland.
Under the twinkling Christmas lights, dozens of fresh, decorated cookies awaited them. We socialized, played games and were merry. At the conclusion of the party, each student received a goody bag filled with candy, special ornaments and various other Christmas surprises.
However, most of the students found the most notable component of the whole ordeal to be the individualized card and note they received. Each note highlighted the person’s strengths, passed on a small bit of wisdom for the future and was signed by Santa.
The magic in their eyes made every bit of work seem infinitesimal and worthwhile. It was a small token to exhibit to them how much they are cared for.
Leading a small band provides its own distinctive challenges yet provides numerous exclusive rewards. I wholeheartedly hope that I have taught the fine musicians of the Cloverdale Emerald Command a fraction of what they have taught me.
When you are a drum major, you are far more than a “field commander.” You are a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a support system, a true leader and so many other roles.
My wish for the future is that young musicians throughout the world continue to live by the life lessons of music and strive to reach their highest level of success.
About the Author
Jenna Lewis is the drum major of the Cloverdale (Ind.) High School Emerald Command. She was also a drum major in the 2008 Capital One Bowl All-American Halftime Show. Jenna is a senior and has played the clarinet since 5th grade as well as learned numerous other woodwind instruments. She plans to attend the University of Indianapolis next fall as a physical therapy major and to continue her music career.