People Over Product

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A photo of Claire Wilcox.
With her commitment to solving problems and forming connections, two-year Phantom Regiment head conductor wins the 2019 Jim Jones Leadership Award 

I consider being the recipient of the 2019 Jim Jones Leadership Award not only one of the greatest honors of my life but also one of the greatest surprises of my life.  

As a young leader in the activity, I have frequently looked to my peers leading other corps for guidance and support. To be in the same conversation as so many drum majors I respect and admire is a great honor on its own, not to mention actually being chosen for the award.  

Looking back on the journey I have been on since the start of my drum corps career two years ago, I never thought that I would come this far.  

Early Identity 

Music has been a dominant part of my identity for my entire life. My whole family is involved with the arts in some way, so I knew I would be as well. I started piano lessons at age 9, oboe at age 11, and percussion at age 13 

Not until high school, however, did I finally find my niche. Though I originally protested any involvement in what I thought was a “nerdy pastime,” I quickly fell in love with everything about the O’Fallon (Illinois) Township High School Marching Band.  

I set my sights on becoming a drum major and having the influence I had once felt from leaders of the ensemble before me. As I walked off the field in Lucas Oil Stadium following the 2017 Bands of America Grand Nationals for the last time after two seasons spent in this role, I knew that I was not ready to be done with the activity quite yet. 

A Part of the Legacy 

Thus, began my drum corps dreams. I knew that Phantom Regiment was the place I wanted to audition.  q

I had several ties to this organization: My close friends were auditioning, my dad marched with the Regiment in 1987, I went to high school with a Phantom Regiment conductor alum, I had mentors at my high school who were on staff with Regiment, and most of all, I had been watching and imitating videos of Phantom Regiment conductors for the past three years as a young, developing drum major. I wanted to learn how to conduct and express like they did, so naturally I yearned to be a part of this legacy. 

When I went to my first audition camp as a senior in high school, I had very low expectations. I had two goals for the weekend:  

  1. Make it past the first round. 
  2. Soak in as much information as possible.  

The look of pure shock on my face when I was given a contract as a conductor of the Phantom Regiment at the end of the weekend is something my mentor and friend Will Pitts—who had served as a Regiment conductor in the past—still laughs about today. He later told me that this was the same face I wore four months later when I was chosen to be the head conductor of the organization for the 2018 season. 

That summer was simultaneously the most challenging and most rewarding experience I have ever had. I was 18 years old, fresh out of high school, and absolutely clueless about how to lead a World Class drum corps. I originally thought I was wellequipped to fill this role based on my high school experience, but I quickly realized that drum corps is a completely different world compared to what I was used to.  

As to be expected, the shows were far more challenging to conduct; however, conducting was just a very small portion of what my job actually entailed. Learning how to lead and interact with a corps with so much history as a young, rookie member is what proved to be the largest culture shock. Only at the very end of that summer during Drum Corps International finals week did I finally feel like I had taken charge of my drum corps and felt confident that I could do my job well.  

When the season concluded, I was mentally exhausted but satisfied as I reflected on my immense growth. The person I had become through the course of that experience was someone far more resilient, confident, and motivated than I ever thought myself capable of. I spent the next three and a half months itching for the 2019 season to begin, feeling far more prepared to take on whatever was ahead of me. 

Prioritizing the Team 

As I reflected on the end of 2018 and planned for the upcoming 2019 summer, I realized I needed to focus my energy toward building a stronger culture. I worked with my peers and corps management to overhaul the structure of the leadership team and bonding process. We came up with a schedule that allowed for bonding time, or “Phamily Nights” as we called them, to prioritize our development as a team of people that supports each other off and on the field. 

The results we saw were incredible. This ensemble was strong enough to conquer obstacles that would have torn us apart in the past. At the end of the season, we left the field with full confidence that we had already succeeded because of all that we had accomplished.  

I attribute all of these positive emotions to the effort that we put into prioritizing people over the product. I don’t mean that we didn’t value competitive results but rather that we decided that investing in people would eventually warrant the results we wanted. 

Life-Changing Lessons 

Though I started this summer with far more experience and knowledge about how to do my job, it was by no means a walk in the park. I made many mistakes and learned many lessonscycle that I know will follow me for my entire drum corps career and life. I would urge any drum major to recognize and understand a couple of things.  

First, assume that you have a very limited amount of skills and knowledge regarding your field. There is never a point where you have learned everything there is to know about how to be a successful, influential leader.  

Second, expect adversity at every turn. As a stereotypical type A perfectionist, I still struggle with this reality every day. Forgiving oneself for mistakes and imperfections is a constant but necessary fight. Life’s challenges will eat you alive until you develop some healthy coping mechanisms. Face it ’til you make it.  

Finally, as cliché as it is, live in the moment. Between solving today’s problems and planning for tomorrow’s, you could lose sight of the incredible journey you’re on right now. I’m already halfway through my drum corps career, and I feel as if I’ve only just begun to learn what it means to be a conductor of the Phantom Regiment.  

This experience will change your life if you let it. I am experiencing that change every day. 

About the Author 

Claire Wilcox has been head conductor of the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps for the past two years and received the 2019 Jim Jones Leadership Award. She was a drum major at O’Fallon (Illinois) Township High School and currently attends Indiana University Bloomington.  

Photo of Claire courtesy of Liset Garcia.

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