The College Corps Connection

Being a drum corps member brings new insights about how to be a leader.

Photo by Dana Young

Last spring I took two giant strides in my music career: I became drum major at Northern Illinois University (NIU) and became a member of The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps. While the two could have posed a conflict with each other, I gained a lot of experience in my tour that helped me as a leader.

Initial Jitters

I had never been a drum major before. Ever. I had auditioned once in high school and hadn’t made it. I had taken conducting classes, I had been a section leader, and I had taken so many education classes that my head spins just thinking about it. Even that didn’t help subside my nerves.

I walked into the audition room where more than 50 people from the band sat quietly waiting. Of course, that was one of the largest showings for drum major auditions we ever had.

After the process was over, the adult staff and graduate assistants spent a long time deliberating. When Dr. Thomas Bough, our band director, finally made the announcement, my jaw dropped. I had been selected as one of the three drum majors.

A few days after being named drum major, I found out that I made the 2012 Cavaliers horn line. I had never been more excited or fearful in my entire life. I would be away from home for two and a half months and wouldn’t be able to meet with the other two drum majors to plan our next year of band at NIU.

However, it turned out that the summer in drum corps gave me a ton of understanding into the psyche of teaching and gave me invaluable experience to apply to myself as a teacher. It also gave me a lot of confidence in myself as a future drum major.

Corps Lessons

One of the things that The Cavaliers preach and adhere to is the idea of personal accountability. You should never have to worry about the guy to the left or to the right of you. No matter what you do, you need to make sure that you are always getting better, hitting your dots more accurately and playing your music cleaner. I cannot even begin to describe how meticulous, precise and perfect the corps strived to be. That really changed the way that I approach teaching. If I don’t hold myself to the highest standard, how could I ever expect an ensemble to do the same for me?

There were times when I was under immense physical and mental pressure. Whether it was 110 degrees and sunny or cold and wet, I was being challenged. These extreme conditions have given me the ability to push through a lot of hardships as a student, think on my feet and problem solve.

If something went wrong over the summer, you had very little time to recover, and you needed to know exactly what to do and how to do it in a split second. I have a newfound ability to push myself to survive and thrive in situations where I used to cave in.

As a player and as an educator, I learned a ton about myself over the summer. I discovered new pedagogical approaches and took my teaching to a new level. Since coming off tour, I have found myself putting an incredible amount of precision into everything that I do. I’ve also become a more understanding and patient teacher.

Fall Frenzy

I had roughly five days after tour to finish everything that I hadn’t done over the summer for our upcoming band camp. There was a lot to do. I had to meet with my band director, the other drum majors and the leadership team, put together my binder, figure out all of the commands, and learn all of the music that we would be playing in the stands. To this day I don’t know how I figured it out, but I did.

During band camp we worked at a breakneck pace. Our first game was the first week of school, so we had to learn all of pregame and most of our halftime show. Football, school and band were starting, and I finally felt like I was back in my element.

Football games are amazing, and we are always on the go. We’ve done exhibitions for high school competitions, homecoming affairs, school spirit meetings, tailgating and everything in between. I’ve learned to adapt in many different situations because you never know what a collegiate football game is going to throw at you. The ability to think on my feet learned in drum corps definitely helped me through this process.

Being a drum major in a college band is much more than getting onto the podium and whistling off a rock tune. It’s an experience that really helps give you an idea of what it’s like to be a band director. Running errands, getting equipment, finding people, helping people get home and getting everything done on time—all things that music education students should be looking into as they progress through their schooling.

I’m an aspiring 5th grade band director, drill writer, visual designer, fisherman and educator. While I don’t really know what will happen with my life, my experiences as a drum major are all great assets to my future, and I am positive that they will help me in whatever I decide to do.

And as for drum corps, this summer was an incredible experience. It is a once-in- a-lifetime experience, and I would never trade anything for the time I spent with the corps this summer.

If you have any inclination to audition for drum major or drum corps, go for it! They are two of the most rewarding things you could ever do.

About the Author

Zachary Smith is a senior music education major at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Ill. He has been playing trumpet since he was in fifth grade and has been involved with marching bands and the marching arts since 2004. Zach also played trumpet in the 2012 Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corp.

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