Pursuing It All

With an early love of conducting, one drum major find opportunities to lead and flourish both inside and outside of school.

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Emerald Society (LAPES) Pipes and Drums.

From an early age, I have been absolutely certain of the direction my life would take. This luxury was afforded to me in 5th grade when I chose to play the trumpet in one of my first band classes. I instantly fell in love with band, and it sparked a fire that has only grown larger over time. Typical story, right?

A Born Conductor

Although my exposure to music was quite typical, I also experienced a very atypical opportunity as a child—I was given the chance to conduct. The feeling of being in front of a group of peers and being engulfed by music was intoxicating. From that time on, I was an addict. I wanted to conduct every band I would ever play in, and as it turns out, I have!

As a high school sophomore, I became the drum major for the Los Osos High School Band and Color Guard in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. This is where I met Dr. Samuel Andress, the band director who permanently altered the course of my life. The opportunities he offered me to express my capabilities in musical leadership were so ample that I was inspired to become a band director myself one day.

With my goals set, I entered the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in the fall of 2012 to study music education. I serve as one of the drum majors for the UCLA Bruin Marching Band as well as a conductor for the UCLA Symphonic Band, studying under Gordon Henderson and Dr. Travis Cross.

Flourishing with Pipe Bands

As if these weren’t enough obligations, I also took up the hobby of “flourishing.” As a drum major, my duties were field related and tied almost directly with conducting; however, I began to teach myself how to spin a drum major mace early in my high school career. I began to compete in flourishing competitions and became affiliated with the World Drum Major Association (WDMA). It was here that I was given the freedom to expand into the more “unorthodox” drum major roles—specifically, drum majoring for a bagpipes and drums band.

WDMA provides students with the opportunity to compete in what are called “Scottish Highland Games.” To me, Scottish games were just another avenue for expanding my skillset as a drum major. I began regularly attending these events with friends and found them immensely enjoyable.

One year, at the Las Vegas Celtic Gathering and Highland Games, I was given the chance to lead a pipe band known as the Los Angeles Police Emerald Society (LAPES) Pipes and Drums. Leading pipe bands was fairly normal to me by then, but somehow this group was different. LAPES consisted of both active and retired law enforcement officers as well as volunteers like myself. When speaking with group members after the parade, they graciously asked me to become their full-time drum major. I accepted this honor and began working with them full time.

Paying Tribute

In contrast to most pipe bands, LAPES plays at services, memorials and tributes for police officers, firefighters and military personnel. They support law enforcement, firefighters and the military by playing at events that will serve the respective agency or organization. This duty has afforded me the privilege to pay my respects to those who put their lives at risk in order to protect the country we live in. Engagements have included the memorial services for fallen TSA agent Gerardo Hernandez, Police Officer III Nicholas Choung Lee and Police Officer II Chris Cortijo.

LAPES has brought me in contact with some of the most admirable men and women I will ever meet. The police officers in the organization are extremely gracious and accepted me into the group as if I were one of their own. Although I thought that the significant age gap would make working with them awkward, I found the opposite to be true. Working with experienced, mature individuals who are supportive of my education and aspirations has made it extremely easy to balance my school obligations with my drum majoring gigs.

My job as the drum major for this organization has been vastly different from my previous experiences. I was used to being in positions of leadership, but my role in LAPES is mainly to serve as a figurehead. Although I stand in the front of the band, in ornate clothing and holding a mace, the real authority lies in the leader of the pipe band (our pipe major). I listen to his direction and carry out my role in the band through my flourishing abilities. I struggled with this position for some time. Although I was a drum major, my job was mostly aesthetic in nature—making the band look better by doing the best flourishing I could up front.

In all of my years of being a field drum major, I was always taught that my job was to “serve the band.” It wasn’t until I joined LAPES, however, that this lesson truly sank in. Drum majors exist simply to serve the band—however they can and to the best of their abilities.

After this realization, I began to notice a change in the way I approached being the drum major at UCLA. Instead of thinking that I always need to be in the driver’s seat, I started to understand that I could serve as drum major in a lot of other capacities. That is something that I feel everyone can benefit from.

About author

Matthew Visk

Matthew Visk is the band assistant and drum major coach at Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, where he served as drum major for three years and played trumpet in the jazz band and wind ensemble. Matt is a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), pursuing a degree in music education. He is a drum major for the UCLA Bruin Marching Band and a conductor and trumpet player for the UCLA Symphonic Band. Matt also served this past year as the music director for HOOLIGAN Theatre Company’s production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” Matt competes worldwide as a Scottish Highlander drum major and is the drum major for the Los Angeles Police Emerald Society Pipes and Drums. Matt is a certified coach for World Drum Major Association as well as International Drum Major Association.