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HBCU Bands

Drum majors at Black colleges keep bands in step, on track both on and off the field

Showmanship is as essential as leadership for student performers in the role

The first performance for Tennessee State University head drum major Joshua Knox couldn’t have been more pressure-packed.

Knox led about 50 members of Tennessee State’s Aristocrat of Bands in a performance on the South Lawn at the White House’s inaugural Juneteenth celebration earlier this month. It meant keeping his bandmates calm while expecting perfection.

“It didn’t take a lot to get it done, but it definitely took a lot of planning and a lot of execution to get it done,” Knox said. “Very few people can say they were able to perform on the White House lawn at the magnitude of the Juneteenth performance. So I tried not to have everyone be stressed about it, encourage everybody to just have fun and enjoy the moment. You only get the chance once, so don’t overthink it. Just do what you’re supposed to do.”

On the campus of any historically Black college or university, drum majors are arguably more popular than athletes – the show begins and ends on the drum majors’ command and extends far beyond halftime. Along with their showmanship, drum majors serve as an extension of band directors and the people who often make HBCU bands run efficiently.

Those duties begin now, during the summer, as drum majors start preparing for the upcoming season by ensuring they’re in shape, conducting meetings with the other drum majors, working on routines and presiding over band camps with high school students.

“A lot of times, people see drum majors from just a performance aspect. [But] the drum majors are the leaders of the students, and that’s before you touch the field,” said Brian Simmons, director of Texas Southern University’s Ocean of Soul marching band. “That’s just something that you have to do on a weekly basis.”

The important work is done during the week, and it is handled by drum majors, he added.

“The drum majors are the ultimate student leaders,” Simmons said. “When the band is on the field, marching and doing performances, the drum majors command the band. The director can’t go out there and do all of that.”

For Knox, who will be a junior at Tennessee State in the fall, it means operating according to the acronym DPS, which stands for discipline, patience and sustainability.

The end result is a band under his leadership that understands the time for work and play, where he manages more than 200 personalities while keeping his school and personal lives in balance.

“They shouldn’t see that one person may be slacking less than the other, somebody may be looking better than the other person,” Knox said. “We all have to give our all for it to look the best that we can present to everybody watching. We’ve got to be able to look good and sound good.”

Adrian Thompson, the director of bands at Talladega College in Alabama, said every HBCU has a different, specific ideology for drum majors and each school uses them differently.

With several drum majors at Talladega, some direct the band when the director isn’t available.

“Sometimes band directors, we don’t always have the best of days. We might be caught up in meetings all day [and] we come to the band room burned out,” Thompson said. “So we need the drum majors to go in there and make sure everybody’s on the same accord and keep the morale of the band going.”

Since Talladega performs in a lot of parades, the band also relies heavily on its drum majors.

“They call up the songs, they roll off the songs … make sure we know which way we are going,” Thompson said. “So if we’re caught up talking to somebody in the crowd or making a business deal for a new event, they make sure that the whole program just keeps going without a hiccup.”

KamRon Hadnot, who will be a sophomore drum major at Texas Southern this fall, is in a unique position as the university’s newest drum major: Although he is in charge, he is younger than many of the band members he is leading.

“Being that most of the people in the band are older than me, it might take a lot more to earn their respect. It’s nerve-wracking because you never know how people will actually look at you in that position,” said Hadnot, whose responsibilities officially began on Sunday, when he worked the university’s high school summer band camp.

“The first game this year is a home game, so it’s a lot of pressure, but I feel like once everything is said and done we’ll be in practice so much that it really would just be natural. But the nerves would most likely come right before we march in and right before half [halftime] comes.”

Larry Jenkins, Tennessee State University’s assistant director of bands, said it takes unique qualities to be a part of the Aristocrat of Bands’ “Fantastic Four” drum majors.

His leadership team observes the way someone moves in the band, how they practice, their work ethic and their musicianship.

“We’re looking at the way that other students respond to you, the way that you lead, even without being a leader or considered a leader yet,” Jenkins said. “You can lead by just doing what you’re supposed to do. There are moments when the drum majors have to do conflict resolution and make decisions. All these are students who I want to say are almost built for it.”

But despite all the talk about intangible qualities, drum majors still need to have some swagger, which Jenkins found in Knox.

“You have to have some flash about you to do it. You have to have confidence to do it,” said Jenkins, a former drum major at Tennessee State who credits how it helped him develop leadership skills in his career. “This was Josh’s first performance in the head drum major role, his breakout, I guess you can say. This performance is a history book moment.

“Josh went out and didn’t freeze up. It was just such an amazing thing to see, to lead the band even as we’re going around the White House and the lawn. He was just so poised there. I’m very proud of him for stepping into that No. 1 role and already making an impact.” 

Darren A. Nichols, a 30-year industry veteran, is an award-winning journalist and contributing columnist at the Detroit Free Press.