clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Off Beat Empire: Drum Majors

Iowa v Wisconsin Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

This week I figured that I would briefly address one of the more colorful and traditional figures within each Marching Band that most casual fans really don’t understand - the Drum Major(s). Now, a lot of you know the Drum Major as the one that wears the fancy(ier) uniform, funny hat (usually), carries a mace, probably demonstrates some remarkable flexibility during pregame, and generally prances around doing some kind of high step while occasionally twirling a mace. If you really pay attention, you’ll notice that the same individual or individuals will also conduct the band in the stands and during the halftime performance. That’s it, right? They’re there to look cool and conduct the band every now and then.

Well, not really. 99% of what makes a good Drum Major a good Drum Major you will never see unless you’re attending band practices. The role is reserved not for the person most capable of doing a back bend, but for the true student leaders of the band - folks who are willing to do just about anything and everything to get things ready for practice, smooth out glitches, assist others who are struggling with something, and generally try and keep morale up and people working hard when its 20 degrees, sleet is pouring, its 9:30 at night in the practice parking lot, and you’re going through the 20th rendition of the “Thriller” dance because the trombones can’t seem to get it right. They truly are wonderful people - I’ve never worked with a Drum Major who I didn’t personally like. They also work extremely hard. They’re constantly meeting with the Directors, Section Leaders, and all other staff before practice and they’re usually among the last to be done for the day.

How do you become a Drum Major? Well, from my experience the person is selected from a small group of volunteers toward the end of the prior season. Any band member is eligible, and on occasion, you do get somebody with a lot of pluck and spirit who rises out of the ranks of the general band members. However, usually it’s going to be somebody already in a leadership role, such as Section Leader and an upperclassman, who is going to step up. In most groups it’s going to be the Band Director who is going to make the final choice, but there is also a public “audition” that takes place. In my opinion, the purpose of the audition is more to see how an individual acts in front of the entire band at once and how the members of the band react to that individual than demonstrating any particular skill, but I’ve never been close enough to the process to really know what is most important to the Director and staff. I will say that the back bend and other acrobatics can be learned and by the time that most musicians get to college, they would be more than capable of conducting a halftime performance, so I would be awfully surprised if either of those attributes weighed too heavily with anyone.

So why are Drum Majors so colorful and do all those funky things they do, then? Honestly, I don’t know. Original Drum Majors arose in the British Army during the 1650’s and were used to direct and protect signal drums and other instruments in combat, so I’m sure at one point the mace was a real thing available to bash your opponent with (and the occasional misbehaving drum boy). In the absence of combat, it was still customary and ceremonial for the drum major to lead the group, and that probably just evolved over time into the antics that we see on display. With regard to that remarkable flexibility, Wikipedia says that Ohio State started the back bend in in the 1950’s, but they also say Michigan was the first to take the hat off and touch the ground in 1993, which (memory being a bit fuzzy), I’m pretty sure isn’t true from personal experience so I’m going to just express my lack of confidence in Wikipedia on this one. All I know is that the Big Ten sure loves itself some pregame back-bending, and if I were ever to attempt it in my current age and condition, I would require surgery. Beyond that, well, Drum Majors have just made it up as they have gone along to the point that some of the routines are now traditional and some are still being made up on-the-spot. Usually, the pregame routine is scripted and everything else is whatever they feel like in the confines of good taste and decorum.

OSU’s pre-game Drum Major routine.

Of course, no discussion of Drum Majors would be complete without including examples of some of the more innovative (and larger) groups that arise out of the Historical Black Colleges and Universities. Just like everywhere else, these are the student leaders who work hard to make the magic happen, but they also add a touch of style that goes above-and-beyond. Most of the showmanship that HBCU Drum Majors are known for today started in 1946 at Florida A&M University (via Birmingham Times

“Our first dance routine, I don’t know how or why it came about,” says Dr. William Foster, FAMU’s band director emeritus, who is widely acknowledged as the progenitor of black college band showmanship and is the author of “Band Pageantry: A Guide for the Marching Band.”

“It was to the tune of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ We were just doing steps and high-knee lifts, and people thought that was the greatest thing on earth. Later, I had a physical education teacher, Beverly Barber, help with the choreography, putting the steps to music.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but it drew in the audience. The band members hadn’t seen anything like it before, and they thought highly of me so they thought it was all right. Very shortly afterward, other bands started doing it.”

Today, there are expectations of full-blown routines and grand entrances on the scale of a drum break where each and every school tries to one-up its competitors. Needless to say, if the back bend would require surgery on my part, these routines would pretty much break every bone in my body...



This poll is closed

  • 16%
    I could do that (I’m a liar)
    (7 votes)
  • 32%
    (14 votes)
  • 51%
    Seriously, call an ambulance
    (22 votes)
43 votes total Vote Now



On the road at Soldier Field, Illinois gave us a really fun little rendition of Star Wars music and music from E.T. I’m going to start sounding like a broken record for the Marching Illini, but I continue to just be impressed with how clean they look and sound. The key shapes come together very nicely, the themes shine through with the brass hits, and the woodwinds, while perhaps a bit quiet at times, are still there and add a nice little dimension toward the beginning of E.T. and during some of the frills in the Empire theme. Maybe the cohesion falls away a little bit between Empire and E.T., but otherwise the group manages to hold things together. I absolutely loved the large E.T. - that is one impressive finger. However, I do have to say that if they just got a few of the individuals at the point to turn around and let those orange capes light up the tip, that would have been really awesome.

Following the movie themes, we get the traditional Illini Three-in-One show.

Iowa and Northern Iowa

In what is a rare treat relative to last year, we have video from a fan that includes the Iowa Hawkeyes, as well as their neighbors, the University of Northern Iowa. We’ll start with the Panthers show... First and foremost, damn, they’re big! See Northwestern?! They have 10,000 undergrads, which is only 1,800 more than you. Why can’t the ‘Cats get their numbers up like this? Anyway, the Panthers gave us a performance of “Best Friend”, announced as by KPop group iKon, but it sure sounds like the Sofi Tukker version to me. The placement of the camera phone is a bit unfortunate, as we don’t really get a great angle to view the drill, nor do we get the bulk of sound played toward the microphone, but from what I can see and here the performance sounds and looks clean and the Panthers should be proud of themselves.

Next, the Iowa Hawkeyes take the field to play Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers “American Girl”. Again, it’s unfortunate that the angle is a bit rough, but I think I make out a heart with an arrow through it in the drill and few other reasonably good touches. The music is a bit muffled because it is going to the other side of the stadium, but overall the tune still sounds pretty good.

Finally, we end with a nice little performance of the combined bands and Country Artist Pat Green to “Wave on Wave” - all for the kids. If somebody was there (or can hear better than I can), I would love to know what they are chanting toward the end. Also, darn you Iowa! You’re making it harder and harder to cheer for the meteor.


YES... WOOO! After being frustrated almost all of last year, we have Maryland video! Two of them in fact! We’ll start with the halftime versus Texas, where the video begins with a really nice extended drum feature (it might be one of their cadences... I’m not sure if it is original to the show or not) with some pretty decent drill, especially for what would have been the first performance of the season. We then get “Get Ready for This” (apparently, Texas wasn’t) by 2 Unlimited, finishing off with the White Stripes “Seven Nation Army”. Drill wasn’t too complex and there were plenty of park n’ bark moments, but for the first game of the season, this was a very complete show. I also thought the sound was good throughout - the woodwinds were able to carry some sections when they needed to step up and the music definitely stayed cohesive throughout. The drums sounded great, particularly during their early feature.

Next, we get the Mighty Sound of Maryland’s performance for the Temple halftime show, which featured Leonard Bernstein music from West Side Story and On the Town. Specifically, we get a performance of “Cool” followed by “New York, New York”. This is a very solid show with a substantial number of sets built into the drill and really well executed, both visually and musically. In particular, “Cool” can be a very disjointed because of the starts and stops in the rhythm and it would be easy for Maryland to get lost, but they don’t. Everything holds together, and they don’t shy away from the unique jazz that makes this piece what it is. This is a nice performance and I’m happy that we’re finally seeing some video of what Maryland can do.


As is usually the case, Minnesota video does not work in all SB Nation formats, so please click here if you cannot see video above (

This week, the Gopher Marching Band gave us a smorgasbord of hits of Soul artists. As you would expect from a 3-0 record, the Gophers let us know “I Feel Good” (by James Brown). However, they better “Think” (Aretha Franklin) about what they’re trying to do to us, because next they might be saying “I Want You Back” (Jackson 5) after they find out they’re not the “Shooting Star” (Earth Wind & Fire) that they think they are right now. As much as I hate to say it, it takes a really extraordinary arrangement and performance to make anything James Brown sound good, and I think the Gophers really fell short during their first piece - there’s just a level of funk in James Brown’s voice and the bass lines that it’s hard to match with traditional instrumentation. However, Aretha and Jackson 5 tunes are outstanding songs to arrange for Band, and the Minnesota sound was much better for the middle section of the show. I don’t know what came after Shooting Star, but it sounded very good - it’s just a darn shame that the announcer felt the need to celebrate the athletic teams while the Band was performing. I don’t get why you just don’t wait for a break to introduce the teams - as it is you have an announcement that you can’t hear over a band playing, and a really annoying voice drowning out some good musicality. Oh well. Drill was fairly block-oriented with a few concentric shapes and counter-marches, but it seemed to fit fairly well with most of the show. Overall, it’s a nice, complete performance.

Ohio State

Ohio State brought a repeat performance of their Blues Brothers show to Texas for their match-up with TCU. I already commented on it last week so I’m not going to have much to say other than it was an outstanding show then and remained an outstanding show on the road. I only wish that they had destroyed more vehicles over the course of the show...

Penn State

I’ve reviewed many of these groups and shows now for a year, and I thought I had a relatively good feel for what each group could and could not do well. I’ve liked the Blue Band sound in many shows in the past, but I can’t really remember being blown away in any particular performance. That changed with this show... damn is the musicianship on display throughout this performance impressive. We start out with music from Broadway’s “City of Angels”, featuring some nice small brass ensemble work toward the beginning followed by plenty of properly dirty jazz licks and some really good drum break work. The geometric drill remained compelling throughout. This was a really high quality opening. Next, we transition to music by Big Sam’s Funky Nation (I think it’s “Big Ole’ Booty”). I have to say that if you’re going to do a park n’ bark piece, it better sound fantastic, and this delivers on so many levels. First, the funk is there... that’s not always easy to do with big marching bands. Next, you just have these super-clear, difficult little brass licks throughout that sound perfectly in sync. Finally, you have this great big finale with competing horn lines starting just before the 6:00 minute mark that just blows the top off to finish the piece. I loved it. Then I hear the announcer say that we’re shifting to music from the opera “Samson and Delilah” and I’m kind of thinking that there’s no way you can pull off that transition from big horn funk to classical, and yet the Blue Band did it with a very solid brass build and hit right up to the ~7:10 mark (and that horn / sax counter line during the big hit... marvelous). The finish was just as good as the start, with another fantastic horn lick at ~8:10. Of course the drill is also very good throughout the last piece, but man... the musicianship is just awesome. Wow. Just a great show on the part of the Blue Band. I don’t think I’ll ever under-estimate the group again.


It’s Malaguena time (GTom’s all-time favorite band composition)! This is a bit delayed, being from September 8th, but Wisconsin gives us their rendition of the Big Band Cuban classic. The tune features a lot of great brass hits throughout, and Wisconsin is definitely more than able to deliver big sound. However, to make the big hits work, Malaguena really needs a chance to breathe with some some smoother underpinning melody, and this is where maybe Wisconsin’s unique brand of motion doesn’t quite cut it. Some of the quieter segments seemed to get drowned out in the noise, and I’m not sure the high-stepping really fits visually with what is going on in the music. There’s also a bit of loss of cohesion on key segments, like the ~2:05-2:15 region and again around ~3:10 mark. Things are pulled back together for the big hits, but I think some of the impact was lost in the lead-up. Overall, I’m not sure this was the best choice for what Wisconsin is trying to do on the field. Still, it’s Malaguena, which I’m pretty much always happy to hear performed during halftime.


I know from being there in person that Northwestern played a pretty good show featuring some modern pop hits, but video isn’t up, yet. MSU was on bye and Rutgers was on the road. For the rest, I just haven’t seen the video yet, but will post shows later if they become available.


I’m going to remember Penn State’s sound from this week... the Blue Band really showed us something special. In addition, Illinois delivered a solid couple of of movie favorites at Soldier Field, the Hawkeyes are an American Band raised on promises and made the wave seemingly last all night, Maryland made an appearance telling us to Get Ready for this and then acting Cool, Minnesota felt good about their soul, Ohio State showed us that beating Big 12 teams is indeed a mission from God, and Wisconsin gave us big sound as Wisconsin can only do.

Finally, one thing I do love about doing these articles is that there’s always something a bit new (at least to me) that somebody is performing that I haven’t quite delved into before. For this week, I got introduced to Big Sam’s Funky Nation, which I am just absolutely impressed with. In case there is somebody like me out there who haven’t heard them before, I’m going to finish with a live rendition of “Big Ole’ Booty”: