Erin Cooper becomes the first female athletic band director at the University of Missouri in its 131-year history. Find out the stepping stones that have led her to this prestigious position and her future plans for the band.
The University of Missouri has hired its first-ever female director of athletic bands, Dr. Erin Cooper, and she is fired up about the opportunity to work with the Marching Mizzou. Although not the only female director in the Southeastern Conference, she stands out as an extraordinary leader in the world of top-quality marching. To Cooper, however, her students are the most exciting aspect of the job, and she’s simply eager to become a positive role model and to continue building up the legendary marching band.
Halftime: What is your musical background?
Cooper: I grew up in Maryland right outside of Washington, D.C. In the fifth grade, I started flute. That’s my major instrument although my true love is the piccolo. I went to James Madison University and got my undergrad degree in music education. Then, I taught back in Maryland. I went to the University of Delaware for my master’s degree in instrumental conducting. I taught in Florida in an art magnet high school before going to the University of Alabama to get my doctorate in wind conducting where I was also able to work with the Million Dollar Band. I taught at Southeastern Oklahoma State University before coming to the University of Missouri.
Halftime: Tell us about your journey to get where you are today.
Cooper: Even as a young child, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. After becoming a drum major in high school and going to the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy, I decided it was definitely going to be in band. I decided early on, I wanted to go back and get my doctorate. It was important to me to get teaching experience in between rather than just trying to get through all the degrees quickly. It was also important to go to different schools, so I could learn from different people and programs. There have been challenges, but it was just about having perseverance to work toward the bigger goal. I’ve always loved teaching, I’ve always loved working with students, I obviously love music. It’s not just this arbitrary goal that I chose. This is what I’m meant to do, and I just had to keep fighting for it.
Halftime: What are some specific challenges you’ve faced, and how did you overcome them?
Cooper: Wherever I’ve been teaching, it’s been fighting the stigma of being a woman wanting to be a high school and a college band director. There are still minds that exist that [believe] those should be jobs for men or that women wouldn’t want those jobs because they also want to get married and have a family. I don’t think those things have to be mutually exclusive.
Luckily there have been more female college band directors, so it’s becoming less of a stigma, but still people will make very interesting comments. It’s just strange to me because I never thought I was doing anything all that different or special; it just was what I wanted to do and what I loved to do.
You just kind of have to laugh at it, … say something witty, and move on. Hopefully by being positive and lighthearted about it, people will realize that it shouldn’t be an issue and shouldn’t be that surprising. Hopefully [there will be] more women who want to become high school or college band directors, and people will start to realize that’s not such an uncommon thing.
Halftime: What does being the first female director of the Marching Mizzou mean to you?
Cooper: It’s been very humbling. I didn’t realize that [fact] as I was applying and in the interview process. To me it was a great opportunity to be part of the longstanding tradition of the Marching Mizzou. So, to find out that I happened to also be the first female director was just kind of a cherry on top. You don’t set out saying, “I’m gonna be the first one to do something.”
Actually, I look forward to a time when we aren’t going to be able to say that anymore. But it’s nice to be able to hopefully be a role model for some of the students, especially the female [music] education students who haven’t ever had a female director before.
Halftime: How has the response and adjustment been for the band?
Cooper: The students and faculty have all been very welcoming. Even fans have been very positive. We had our homecoming, and our alumni were excited about what the band is doing.
It’s always hard to have any kind of director change. The students know that I have very high expectations, but they work really hard to try to attain those. I made just slight changes here and there, little differences in marching style and rehearsal protocol. We’ve also added a lot more visuals in our show.
I think no matter where you are, everyone always wants the band to be bigger and better. Luckily what I walked into was already very good, so we’re just trying to uphold those standards and just try to always push things to be better.
Halftime: What are your goals for the band?
Cooper: To continue to have great performances all the way through the end of the season.
Next season: Being able to plan throughout the spring, so that we’re in a better position to be successful from the get-go rather than playing catch-up from a late hire.
Long term: The band has previously played overseas in Ireland. I’d love to see us perform in more places overseas but also domestically. We love supporting the athletic teams. That’s obviously one of the biggest reasons why we exist, but these students are so talented on their own. I’d love for them to get some travel opportunities as well as recognition.
Halftime: What is your proudest moment as a director?
Cooper: When you’re a marching band director, it’s all about student leadership. By the time they’re performing, you’re just on the sideline stepping back and watching and hoping all goes well. That’s always an exciting time for me, a little nerve-wracking too, but it’s great that you just put it in the hands of your drum majors and your student leadership, and they’re in charge. To just see what the students are able to do on their own without you in charge, it’s nice to see them step up into those roles and perform on their own.
Halftime: Do you have any advice for directors?
Cooper: It’s a long journey, but it’s worth it. Teaching is not an easy profession, and very little of your day actually gets to be teaching the students. You have to work through those struggles, so that you can really enjoy the time that you’re with the students. It’s very exciting to finally be where I wanted to be, but that’s just part of it. I still hopefully have a long career ahead of me, so even when you achieve whatever goal you set out to achieve, the hard work has already started, and you have to stay focused.
Halftime: Advice for students?
Cooper: It’s more important that they learn hard work and determination from being in marching band. I hope that they see the passion they need to have in whatever they pursue in their lives, even if they aren’t going to be music majors. I hope that they have a lifelong love of music, and they continue performing no matter what field they go into. Alumni band members are still playing, they’re still marching, they can still play in community bands. I hope that their enjoyment of music and enjoyment of entertaining others continues through all their lives.