A Musical Transition

Are you a woodwind player but want to march corps? Being drum major could be your ticket.

Photo by Keith Hall

In the fall of 2005, I walked into the Muscle Shoals (Ala.) Middle School band room and saw three jolly-looking men standing amidst a number of big, shiny objects—all foreign to me at the time. The men took turns blowing, buzzing and striking everything in the room, and as I gained knowledge on each instrument, my eyes grew large with wonder.


I chose the clarinet, and I loved it. Every night I would bring it home and put on a show for my family, even if it consisted of only three notes that I learned in class that day. Nothing pleased me more than playing and learning how to get better. In the midst of my sixth grade beginning band classroom, I made my decision to be a music educator.

Because I decided my profession at a young age, I had the chance to begin perfecting skills early as well; one such skill was conducting. As I entered high school and marching band, I made the decision to take conducting/ drum major lessons from my fellow classmate, Natalee Briscoe. I marched two years playing clarinet. Then, in my junior year, I was selected to be the 2010 drum major for the Muscle Shoals High School Trojan Marching Band.


Being a drum major filled me with such pride and gave me a new outlook on musicianship and hard work, which immediately transferred to my playing. Though I was drum major, I still played clarinet every chance I could and continued to participate in the school’s spring ensembles.

I graduated high school in the spring of 2012 and looked back on my high school career as a success. I enrolled at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and could not wait to be a clarinet player in the Million Dollar Band.


On June 1, 2012, in my last summer before college, I received a phone call from an older Muscle Shoals High School graduate, Jeremy Smith. Waiting on the other end of the line was an opportunity that changed my life forever.

Music City Drum and Bugle Corps in Nashville, Tenn., was looking for a backfield conductor, and if I wanted it, then the spot was mine. Well, of course I wanted it! I never imagined that I would ever be good enough to be a drum corps drum major; however, two weeks later I was moved in and ready to start my first drum corps experience.

My first summer with Music City was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I loved every minute of it. My first day there, I learned how to program a metronome and how to glock loud enough for an entire drum corps to hear. I learned that sleeping on a gym floor can seem like sleeping at home and that performing an eight-minute show made 18 hours of hard work every day completely worth it. Being in front of a horn line that talented truly amazed me.


After my first season, I wanted more, but I had some difficult decisions to make. I asked myself: Should I stay at Music City? Should I try out for World Class? Should I learn a brass instrument? Should I pick up a flag and pursue that path? Since I was just drafted my first year with no audition, all these options were readily available. I began a process of elimination. I borrowed a trumpet from the School of Music at the University of Alabama and began working on audition materials, but the embouchure affected my clarinet playing. Since I am graded on performance as a clarinet player, that option was discarded.

Then I picked up a flag and started practicing basics, but being a perfectionist, I could not accept a mediocre audition.

In the end, I decided to return to Music City and audition for drum major. The drum major route was not my only option, but it was the option best suited to me. The decision to stay at Music City was the easiest to make. The corps had become—and remains to this day—my second family. In 2013, I received the position of head drum major and was ready to face the task head on.

Being a head drum major of a drum corps puts a multitude of stress on one’s shoulders, but I enjoyed the position because it WAS a challenge, and it changed my values and how I saw myself as a leader.


Being a drum major of a drum corps has changed my character completely. I am now independent and adaptable. I am motivated by positivity and ensemble improvement. Seeing day-to-day improvement is what drum corps is all about.

James Barnes, our brass caption head, said something to the corps that will stick with me. He declared, “You all now have the necessary tools to succeed. Now you just have to go out there and execute.”

My goal as a leader is to give my followers every tool I can in order for them to be truly successful. This objective is achieved by always completing selfless tasks before they are asked of me. Being a drum major has taught me this principal value, and I plan to employ it in all my future endeavors.

About author

Jessica Palmer

Jessica Palmer is a junior at the University of Alabama majoring in instrumental music education. Her primary instrument is clarinet. She currently serves as head drum major for Music City Drum and Bugle Corps and as a drum major for the University of Alabama Million Dollar Band. She plans on teaching high school band and eventually getting her master’s degree in music education and research in music.

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