Pushing through early setbacks led Clemson University drum major to the national limelight.
I very vividly remember my first high school football game. I was in seventh grade at Mountain Brook (Alabama) Junior High, and the high school band director, Dr. Frank Blanton, mentioned that he was looking for some help with the marching band that night. I enjoyed band and had nothing else to do, so I agreed to help.
At the game, what stood out to me the most was the drum major, Sarah Jolly. I remember seeing her conducting on the podium in her white uniform and immediately thought to myself, “I have to do that.”
I went up to her and asked her to teach me everything she did—conducting patterns, cutoffs, the salute, everything. I imagine I was pretty annoying as a seventh grader wanting to learn how to conduct, but I thought it was the coolest thing ever. As soon as I got home that night, I practiced it all. Over and over again. All the time.
Almost five years later at the band banquet my junior year, Dr. Blanton announced the 2013-2014 drum major. This was it. This was my moment. This was everything I had been waiting for and working toward for all these years.
And I didn’t get it. Man, was I crushed. I had poured so much of myself into earning that position, and when I wasn’t selected, it was a major setback for me. But I had no idea what was to come.
The best leaders are the ones who step up and lead, whether or not they have a big title. When I wasn’t selected to be drum major in high school, I didn’t let that setback prevent me from having a great senior marching season. I still had a great leadership role as band captain—basically second in command. It was an awesome senior year, and I grew a lot from having to be a leader without the big fancy title of drum major.
Going into my freshman year at Clemson University, I decided to march in Tiger Band. It was an awesome experience. Performing in Memorial Stadium (popularly known as “Death Valley”) at Clemson in front of 80,000 people was unlike anything else I have ever experienced. However, as our head football coach Dabo Swinney likes to say, “The best [was] yet to come.”
Entering into my third year, I decided to audition for drum major. I poured everything I had into that audition, and I was very honored and grateful to be elected drum major that year! All of that hard work finally paid off.
Oh, and did I mention Clemson went on to win the National Championship for that 2016 season? What a moment! What a time to be a Clemson Tiger!
Growing up in Alabama, I have a lot of friends who are students at the University of Alabama, so beating Alabama in the Natty was especially sweet. Still though, the best was yet to come.
I just finished my final season as drum major. This season was unlike any other. The culture in the band was better than ever before. We had the most talented group of people I had ever seen. Everyone worked as a cohesive unit, performing with passion and Clemson spirit. And we finished the season by cheering on our Tigers at the Cotton Bowl Classic and to another National Championship title. I truly believe that both the band and the football team gave their greatest performances ever at this National Championship game.
In this post-season, we performed our “Greatest Showman” show, which included circus costumes, visual groups, complex drill moves, and great music.
With the platform that comes with the College Football Playoff, we had several extra rehearsals. Our pregame and halftime performances were streamed live, so we performed for a much larger audience than usual. There were also several pep rally performances leading up to the games.
As a drum major, I worked with our directors on figuring out our travel arrangements. Our pregame and halftime shows had to be shortened, so we also worked together to decide which parts to cut.
If you had told me when I was in high school that I was going to be drum major for the band of a National Champion football team, I would have thought you were absolutely crazy. I feel truly blessed with my college band experience. But it wouldn’t have happened without every step in the journey.
When I wasn’t named drum major in high school, I could have just shut down, gone through the motions, graduated, and moved on. But I had seen band members do that in the past, and I was determined not to let that become me.
Also, that would have led to a huge change in the course of my life. I wouldn’t have marched at Clemson, I wouldn’t have become a drum major at Clemson, and I most certainly wouldn’t be on the path to becoming a band director. You can’t ever let a rejection, closed door, or setback be the reason you change the course of your life, and you especially can’t let the lack of a title define you as a leader.
Leadership isn’t a position. It’s a reflection of your character. The mark of a true leader is someone who loves and serves others before themselves. Do those two things, and you’ll get very far, whether in band or in any other organization.
Dr. Mark Spede, our director at Clemson, says every year in a letter to those auditioning for drum major: “If you are [a] successful [drum major], you will leave a better Tiger Band behind.”
In essence, the organization is better because of the investment you put into it.
So always remember, no matter what, if you don’t let setbacks or failures stop you, the best is yet to come.