It’s not a secret that the marching arts provide exceptional learning experiences for youth. As one of North America’s fastest growing athletic activities, it challenges students physically, mentally, and creatively. There are a lot of reasons for students to join a marching band or drum corps, but the leadership skills that drum majors gain are truly second-to-none. As it turns out, there is a lot more to this role than just conducting the band and wearing a black cowboy hat!

1. They’re expert communicators

Elena Samoilova, who was the Showband’s head drum major in 2011 and 2012, is now the Showband’s Leadership Coach. She describes drum majors as the link between students and instructors. Drum majors learn exceptional communication skills by interacting with people at all levels, receiving directions from staff, constantly giving instructions to large groups, and occasionally speaking on behalf of the band for media.

According to Aaron Park, Director of Bands for the Calgary Stampede, it’s the things that aren’t said out loud that are especially important. “Drum majors develop non-verbal communication skills that help them to be approachable, build relationships with others, and intuitively understand what the group needs to do next to be successful. I trust Grace (the Showband’s current head drum major) to work with the members and get things done.”

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Elena Samilova entertaining crowds with her team at the Saddledome Steps in 2012.

2. They take ownership

Everyone involved with the band has a clearly defined role. Drum majors act as liaisons between the band director, staff, and members. All performance and rehearsal logistics are run through the drum major team. They commit to many extra hours of work – unpaid – to ensure that the band is successful. They arrive early to make sure everything is set up, delegate tasks to other members, coordinate with section leaders, and stay late to clean up. As a result, drum majors take on more responsibility than many adults experience in their jobs.

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Assistant drum major Jackson Ham conducting the Showband at McMahon Stadium in 2015.

According to Grace Oliver, the Showband’s current Head Drum Major, “Being on the Drum Major team comes with a lot of responsibilities and duties. Not only are you responsible for knowing all music scores and drill counts, but you are also accountable to the band members to be prepared and know certain details about what is going on for the day. You become the ‘go-to’ person for information. If for whatever reason I don’t know a detail, I feel responsible to go find it.” 

As Grace describes, “the show must go on”, even if a Drum Major is missing. Most often an Assistant Drum Major will hand off their responsibilities to another Assistant or to a Drum Major in training, but when the Head Drum Major is missing, the whole team needs to work together to fill the gaps. For example, when Becky Johnson, the Showband’s Head Drum Major from 2013-2015 missed a rehearsal in order to write an exam (the only rehearsal she missed in three years!), the rehearsal space still needed to be ready, a conductor was needed, and information needed to be dispersed. Says Grace, who filled in, “It was a crazy time for the team, but band members hardly noticed because from their perspective it was still a smooth and functional rehearsal.”

3. They’re experts at logistics and planning

Drum majors are responsible for making sure rehearsals and performances go smoothly. They cultivate time management skills by constantly being aware of the timing of rehearsals, learning to manage their own time, communicating with instructors and volunteers, and answering constant questions from their peers. 

An important duty that sometimes is overlooked is having rehearsal spaces setup in a way that allows the rehearsal to run smoothly. It’s something that most students don’t think about, but allows the rest of the band to focus on learning their music and drill. All members of the Drum Major team know what needs to be done, with the Head Drum Major communicating any changes that might arise.

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The Showband’s drum major team, Mark Teminsky, Becky Johnston, and Grace Oliver, at the start of the Calgary Stampede Parade in 2015.

 4. They’re adaptable

Drum majors are responsible for a huge range of tasks. In a program that does so many things in sometimes unfamiliar environments that can change very quickly, drum majors have the ability to think on their feet, make decisions, and relay information to a large group of people so that things that run smoothly and appear seamless to the audience.

“Things change, but I think it’s important not to dwell on the change. You just have to make things work.”

Becky describes what it was like for the band to perform in other countries, where cultural factors sometimes mean that performances don’t flow exactly as they do in Canada, “Things change, but I think it’s important to not dwell on the change. I don’t necessarily ask why there was a change,  you just have to make things work by communicating what needs to happen with the band members and make sure everyone is on the same page before stepping out on to the field or into a performance venue. This happens a lot, especially when you are in new places. In Brazil, the timing of performances changed often. You can’t get frustrated by that. You need to put a smile on your face and go with the flow. I think that is a life skill that band really taught me. How to be flexible and adapt to change quickly and efficiently.”