One drum major has averted disaster and driven change—by singing a song.
I was in the 5th grade when I first experienced a marching band, really truly experienced it in person. It was my town’s annual Memorial Day parade and what was to be my high school’s 40-some-member band came marching down the road. I distinctly remember the deep excitement I felt in seeing that marching band perform: the groove of the drums in my feet, the strong impression of pride and the passion in every motion. I was so in love with what I saw that I followed that band all over town. I felt and experienced music in a whole new way. It was then that I knew I wanted to play percussion and to be part of a marching ensemble.
It wasn’t until 8th grade when I put on a bass drum—twice my size—that I got my first taste of what it meant to be in a marching band. I never would have thought that within nine years I would serve as the drum major of the Rumson-Fair Haven High School Marching Bulldogs from Rumson, N.J., the field major of the Rutgers University Marching Scarlet Knights from New Brunswick, N.J., and drum major of the 2011 Bushwackers Drum and Bugle Corps from Princeton, N.J.
In those nine years, including the four seasons I served as drum major, I always had the distinct honor of working during a time of change. Not the changing of staff or marching styles, but the kind of change that starts out slow and quiet. The kind of thing you feel before you realize that it is happening. What I am talking about is a change in band culture, when an ensemble suddenly takes a giant leap forward. When every member takes ownership of their performance and the band collectively decides to set the standard higher and to achieve what had been deemed impossible. That is when passion and pride drive the ensemble to heights it never could have imagined.
As a drum major, my role during all of this was to aid and direct this change, to amplify the instruction of the staff and to promote the beginnings of something great. However, this was no simple matter, and great improvements to the culture of the band can just as easily be snuffed out by a mishandled situation or a slipup in practice.
To make sure I always helped the ensemble, I focused on passion. I considered it my job to make certain that the members of the band could not wait to practice, to perform and to see each other.
But how do you cultivate passion in an ensemble as large as the Rutgers 200-member band, as diverse as the membership of a Drum Corps Associates (DCA) ensemble or as filled with the intense relationships of a small high school group? Well, for me I always turned to one thing: fun. Pure, ridiculous and absurd fun.
I came to marching band because I loved everything about it—from loading the truck to performing on the field. But sometimes people forget; they get lost in preparing for a pending competition, in the desire for new instruments or in the insane weather conditions.
Singing the Blizzard Away
To keep everyone on board and to remind them why they love marching band, I always turned to music, the one thing that links us all. No, not through our instruments, but in our voices. I cannot even begin to explain how a band’s vocal rendition of “Sweet Caroline” or “Build Me Up Butter Cup” at the right time can completely turn a bad situation around.
I specifically remember this past season, the Rutgers Marching Band found itself performing in a freak October blizzard. We performed a full game with the wind howling in our faces. Trust me, it was an experience. On top of all this bad weather, there was a mix-up in our food, and we were stuck outside for an hour waiting for it to be resolved. The weather was awful; the band was hungry; it was a recipe for disaster.
So how was it resolved? Well, with Christmas carols, of course! We sang every song in the book.
As an ensemble we embraced how ridiculous the situation was, we laughed about it and grew from it. What could have broken the back of the band instead turned into a great memory for everyone involved.
Setting the Tone
While on the practice field, I consistently used music to cultivate community and passion. Every Rumson-Fair Haven and Rutgers band practice started with my MP3 player blasting away on a Long Ranger that I was lucky enough to have commandeered.
The music did two things: It welcomed all the members of the band to the practice field, and it helped to convey the field as a special location. The music helped to send the idea that the practice field is a sacred place just for the band, where there is no room for school, stress and other problems.
If you still don’t believe me about the power of passion and culture to change the direction of an ensemble, then look to the 2011 Bushwackers Drum and Bugle Corps. In 2011 the group celebrated its 30th performance season, but 2011 brought many challenges. Membership was down, and at times it looked as if the 30th season was never going to be.
I didn’t get involved in the corps until about halfway through the season, but it was obvious the minute I arrived on the practice field that this corps would never disappear. It was fueled by something much greater than a desire to win on the field; it was driven by passion, deep love for what they were doing, the work they were putting in and the progress that was being made.
Never was this passion made more tangible than just before our final performance in exhibition at the DCA finals. It was a heartfelt moment for all of us, a whole season’s worth of emotions—every challenge and every triumph, every mountain we climbed, and every hurdle we jumped. It was in this moment that we came together as a corps—and sang.
We sang arm and arm before that final performance, and we all knew that it wasn’t about winning or losing, getting a great score or being the best musician; it was about passion. We knew that no matter what happened, we were walking away from that performance as champions with heads held high. To this day I will always remember that performance, for never before have I seen so much emotion come roaring out across the field.
Basically what it comes down to is that marching band is a blast. Though we all do it for different reasons, in the end it is a crazy good time. Never forget this even when staff is changing, music is being rewritten, or nature seems to fight against you. Embrace the absurdity of the challenge and sing through the problems.
About the Author
Matthew Leddin is a recent graduate of Rutgers University obtaining his undergraduate degree in history. He is now attending the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, working to achieve his masters in social studies education. He has been playing percussion since he was 10. He has served as the drum major of the Rumson-Fair Haven High School Marching Bulldogs, the field major of the Rutgers University Marching Scarlet Knights and drum major of the 2011 Bushwackers Drum and Bugle Corps.