What makes a great student leader? Sometimes, it’s about asking the right questions and doing the job without being asked.
The marching field is a great equalizer. Once the horns go up and the tap off sounds, everyone moves. Everyone moves, and no one is more important than anyone else. The drum major’s hands mean nothing without the center snare. The end marcher’s powerful jazz run is strange to behold without the small steps of the innermost tuba. The solo rifle’s toss is made miraculous when the catch is accented with the timpanist’s boom and roll. No one can exist without the whole. No one marcher can shine without the group.
Then the hands go down, the horns go down, the drums tap, the guard at-eases, and everyone is his or her own person again. There is a break in the action, and everyone is free to do as they please. Some fidget. Some talk. Some daze. Some …
Figuring It Out
There are certain people who stand on the marching field, and when everyone else relaxes, they look around and see what is going on. They aren’t just doing this marching thing, putting in their rehearsal hours and going home. There is something more to them and their relationship to the group.
“You can always spot them pretty early,” says John Miliauskas, director of the Towson (Md.) University TIGER Marching Band. “They’re the ones with questions written all over their faces. They want to know how this whole thing works, and they’re trying to figure it out. That’s a leader.”
Miliauskas should know. As is typical in a university band, many of his students are music education majors, future band directors. Miliauskas teaches teachers.
“Like any marching group, we have a leadership program comprising of drum majors, music section leaders and marching section leaders, and we have leadership classes to help them in their roles,” explains Miliauskas. “But sometimes you don’t need to create positions. Sometimes, one of those students with the questions figures out what needs to be done. That’s a powerful moment. Then, their presence is enough to define a position.”
Such an instance happened at Towson this year when a senior majoring in animal behavior found herself as the student coordinator of the marching basics program. “It works with my major; these guys are a bunch of animals!” jokes Amy Weldon, whose background includes Baltimore’s Marching Ravens NFL marching band and the Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps. “I didn’t want a title or particularly to be a leader—I just like good marching.”
And Weldon may have hit on one of the most important points of leadership: the motivation. Why would anyone want more responsibility? What motivates some to take the lead?
Achieving a Higher Number
Take I-83N from Towson for about an hour, and you come to Camp Hill, Pa., home of the Cedar Cliff High School Marching Band. There, Ben Goldsborough and Brian Schreiner, director and assistant director respectively, have built a leadership program founded on motivation. “We don’t have a band president and haven’t had one for a long time,” Schreiner told me over the phone.
When I visited Cedar Cliff for this article, I arrived 30 minutes before rehearsal and found a group of students already practicing their marching basics in the parking lot. No one looked old enough to be a staff member. I stopped and observed them for a few minutes.
“Hey, that’s looking a lot better!” I heard a tall, blonde-haired kid (later identified as clarinet senior Michael Wagman) tell the group around him. As they talked about their foot placements, other students joined in, and they splintered into smaller “classrooms.” Other students were putting down yard markers and setting up a rope boundary around their parking lot field.
“We have an open-invitation Leadership Forum,” Goldsborough told me in his office.
During the summer there are a series of team-building workshops, literally culminating on a ropes course on a nearby mountaintop. There are also candid roundtable discussions that lead to changes in band policy. It’s an extracurricular class within an extracurricular class.
“From there emerges our core of leaders,” chimed in Schreiner. As directors, Goldsborough and Schreiner reserve the right to appoint or remove leaders as the situations demands. “But we don’t have many situations because we don’t have positions of broad sweeping power—not even a drum major.”
The choice not to field a drum major was made for many reasons, not solely on leadership. “But it works well with our leadership structure,” Goldsborough said as he gathered his materials for rehearsal and stepped toward the door. “It’s all about the job, not about the title.”
Schreiner stayed to tell me what he thinks is the most important ingredient of leadership. “Self-evaluation,” he said, pausing to emphasize its importance. “We do it all the time. All of us. We grade ourselves on our performance of our jobs. We think about what we did, call it a certain number, and then think about what we need to do to make it a higher number.”
And everyone is asked to ask questions, so by Miliauskas’ definition, everyone is a budding leader.
Agreeing to Do the Job
Before rehearsal began, I met Kurtis Cleckner and Christina duBreuil (rhymes with Tolstoy), two seniors with a long history in Cedar Cliff’s Leadership Forum. I asked them their impression of this titleless leadership program. “I think it makes us all more accountable,” mused DuBreuil, who is looking to major in tuba performance. “All the leaders know the jobs that need to be done; we all know the freshmen who need some one-on-one with their marching or playing. We just agree that the first one who sees the need does the job.”
“It works,” confirmed Cleckner, a trumpet player looking to major in business next fall, “and it follows a good business model.”
I asked the young marcher to explain himself. “Well, it’s about higher expectations, isn’t it?” he responded. “We’re all the band president because we don’t have one. We don’t have someone to blame when things go wrong, so we just blame ourselves.”
Standing in the parking lot, speaking with current leaders of the band and future leaders of the community, I flashed back to Towson and Miliauskas’ office. “How many of these students are going to be professional marchers?” Miliauskas asked rhetorically. “What we teach our student leaders is the same thing we want all our marching students to learn: No matter what you do, present yourself well and perform with integrity.”
A good lesson because, in the “real world, there is a certain type of citizen who works in the community. They look around and see what is going on. They aren’t just showing up to work, putting in their hours and going home. There is something more to them and their relationships. They lead without being asked. Silently, they shine. And it is very possible that at some point in their lives, like you, they marched.
Photo by Mollie Swartz. All rights reserved.