Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memory Day: Training Drum Majors

Fourteen years ago today, on May 30, 1998, I was home for the summer from Virginia Tech. I had just finished my sophomore year, living with Beavis and taking that stupid engineering class where you fill a box with wires to get the result of 1 plus 1 (the answers was 10). I still wore huge glasses, which allowed me to see twice as much as other mortals, and a hand-me-down Members Only jacket.

May 30 was a Saturday which I spent giving a workshop to prospective drum majors from my old high school, because it is totally cool and not creepy at all when a college guy comes back to visit his high school band all of the time. However, my workshop was more than just an afternoon of conducting -- it was a way of life, starting with a seventeen page packet distributed in early January which opened with this scary statement.

The position of drum major is not the easy path to get through marching band season. You do not just "stand up front and wave your arms around", as one sophomore proclaimed last season. Being a drum major requires a strong work ethic and commitment; it is easily the most difficult position to do well that you will ever encounter in your high school career.

Actually, being a drum major is pretty easy if you can maintain a steady tempo at least 40% of the time (based on my college marching band experience), so I was probably just trying to scare away the less serious candidates. The packet went on to describe the pillars of a successful drum major: COMMITMENT, WORK ETHIC, MUSICALITY, and LEADERSHIP. In reality, the pillars are SHOW UP, PRACTICE SOMETIMES, STOP AT THE FINAL BARLINE, and DON'T BE A DOUCHE.

The packet also included a 9-question leadership survey, with hard-hitting critical-thinking questions like:

3. The band director, intending to start at measure 64, tells the band measure 66 by accident. He then gets fairly upset at the band for starting in the wrong place. What, if anything, would you do in this situation?

Other focus areas of the packet included:

  • Conducting in 2, 3, and 4
  • Conducting while marching backwards
  • Gaining muscle memory by banging on a desk (in reference to conducting, of course)
  • How to clap loudly
  • Giving commands from your gut
  • A fourteen page appendix on music theory and notation (including transposition but excluding alto clef)

The actual audition piece was also far more difficult than it needed to be, employing a VT score full of ritards, annotated with my insightful commentary like "Bring the other hand back in here!".

After the initial workshop session, the running for T.C. Williams drum major gradually dropped from seven to three candidates. Some were incapable of clapping on 2 and 4, or 1 and 3, or any known downbeat. One guy quit because he didn't want to miss the activity bus for practice sessions. Another apparently thought he was auditioning for an American Sign Language flash dance.

1998 was not the last year I worked with the band. I would go on to train drum majors for one more year, and then did a stint writing marching drills that included Mickey Mouse's head before leaving marching bands behind for good!

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