Ah, the unique traditions of colleges that herald the arrival of Spring! I was witness to one of those events yesterday afternoon on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful spring afternoon. It was a mixed group of over 100 college students, some parents, some alumni, and even some young kids, gathered in the courtyard of Cogswell Hall, the music building. It seemed like this was the first warm day of the season and the sun was showing its power. In a few moments, five ambitious music students would also be showing the crowd, as well as the judges, their own power.
This event, which happens every spring at IUP, is the audition for Drum Major where the leaders of the “Pride of Pennsylvania….the Beast of the East” are chosen in what appears to be a performance that showcases conducting skills, creativity, and marching skills that nearly become choreography. The music fraternity sets up a grill and serves up burgers and dogs for a small fee. The music department sets up tables to support the technical equipment needed to conduct the auditions, and a table for the judges. Those judges include outgoing drum majors, as well as former leaders who return for this interesting tradition.
The IUP Band members gathered with anticipation. This competition decides who will become their student leaders for the upcoming marching season. Each of the five hopefuls seemed to have those in the band who supported them in their quest. As the sun beat down on all of us, the contenders took to the concrete courtyard individually to demonstrate their expertise at conducting the Star-Spangled Banner in a classical form. An interesting thing happens as each would-be director begins the piece: the band members, who have gathered without their instruments, begin to sing. However, they do not sing the words, they sing their instrumental part. It’s an oddly beautiful rendition that includes cymbal crashes, drum rolls, moving bass parts, and what I presumed to be the trumpeters reaching for a high note that few can sing, but trumpets play at the climax of the song. Today, we will hear this version five times. As each student conducts, I can see slight variations in sharpness, eye contact, and some indescribable quality that must indicate the student’s ability to command the attention of the ensemble.
The competition moves on to a group exercise. The students are asked to take to the courtyard and conduct a march in “classic two.” I move in to get a photograph and now it is easy to see that each of these young people, two guys and three gals, have their own style. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of marching bands, yet I’m not comfortable at guessing the qualities these judges are searching for in the contestants. Is it the stone-faced, no nonsense expression, much like that of a guard at Buckingham Palace? Is it the one who conveys emotion and direction with just a look, a raised eyebrow, or the nod of a head? One contestant has already held a drum major position with the band; is he given preferred status for that experience?
Finally, the most time-consuming aspect of the audition: individual free-style conducting. Each student is prepared to march, conduct, dance, show their creativity in the creation of their “routine” and do so to music of their own choosing and “mixing.” At this point we’ve seen the requisites, now we get to see how these students put those skills to creative use. Each routine must meet a time requirement that does not exceed six minutes. Within that six minutes, the music selections, as well as style of those pieces, changes several times. Some students choose to showcase their dexterity at conducting several styles of music within their mix. A few pick some kind of theme and assemble their music choices around it. These are the routines that gather the favor of the crowd. All of the music is varied; the routines include complicated marching steps; humor and personality pop up at the most surprising times. Five contending students, five very different routines, and only three drum major positions to be filled. Two students will be disappointed before this is over.
The band director and the judges gather their papers and move to an office within the music building. The crowd sits outside, in the hot sun. It’s been over an hour since the competition began. A few of us are beginning to show the effects of the sun: red faces and arms. It seems that the decision is taking longer than it should. I begin to feel the same kind of knot in my stomach that I felt only days ago when my son participated in the talent show. This time, one of the contestants for drum major is my daughter, Stormie.
Stormie has been working toward this day for several years of her young life. She joined her high school marching band in 2001, and it seems she was taken with everything about it immediately. She loved the hard work, the marching, the drills, the shows, and the competitions. She worked hard and became a leader in her small high school’s marching band. Eventually, she would earn the position of Drum Major for her junior and senior years. With that position, came the opportunity to attend Drum Major camp at IUP. This is where she fell in love with the idea of attending this college, marching in this band, and leading that band as one of their Drum Majors. I knew that this was a dream Stormie could realize because of all the hard work she had put into making that dream come true.
A few years ago, as Stormie prepared for a high school audition for drum major, she begged me to drive her to IUP to witness the very process I’ve described above. She took it all in, and even made herself known that day! She was leaning against a lamp post watching the proceedings when, she bumped the electrical plug by her leg, disconnecting all of the sound equipment and disrupting the proceedings, which I believe were the announcements of the new drum majors for the season. At that point, no one knew who she was or why she was there. Today, all of those band members know her, and they know she means to work hard to make that band live up to its reputation.
The five contestants are called into the building to meet with the judges. Now is the time for dad’s nerves to kick in. I’m thinking to myself “what does this mean?” “are they letting them down easy?” “why don’t they just get out here and make that announcement?” I quickly review the contestants, make my own judgments and I can’t possibly see how my daughter could be rejected. The students, judges, and band director eventually return to the courtyard. One of the contestants walks toward his parents who are standing near me. I hear him say that he is not one of the drum majors, and that two of the girls got it. I assume that Nick, the returning drum major is successful. That means two of the three girls were chosen. Surely the could see all the talent and skill and leadership ability that I see in my daughter; who could be that blind?
The director walks to the center of the courtyard, turns the microphone on and begins making announcements. All except for the reason we were gathered there in the sun. Finally, he gets to the list of successful candidates. Nick is chosen as Head Drum Major, as seems fitting. Christine, another freshman is chosen as an associate drum major. Of course, my daughter, Stormie, is the other associate drum major. She, too, is a freshman. The band cheers and seems pleased with the results. All of the students rush to greet each of the contestants, including their friends who were not chosen. What a great group of kids to support each other this way.
I go to my daughter, hug her, and tell her how much I love her, and how proud I am of her. We stand there chatting, and my ex-wife walks up, arms open. We embrace, knowing that we’ve done well with our children in spite of the past between us. We commiserate about the nerve-wracking ordeal of watching our children stand up, perform, and revel in the joy that only parents know of watching the children grow up and succeed at their chosen endeavors. I think of how we used to say the clichéd phrases of wanting our children to do “better than we did.” I never knew that it would be so satisfying to watch them as they surpass the accomplishments of the parents, and be so fulfilling to cheer them on as they reach beyond our dreams for them.