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Drum majors lead marching band to excellence

By LESLEY STEVENSON | Friday, September 27, 2013

After three short blasts to a whistle, six white-gloved hands flash through the air, transforming the organized chaos of a 380-member band practice into a harmonious swell of chromatic scales.

These are the same white gloves that twirl thick, elongated batons called maces and conduct the nation’s oldest university marching band through daily practice, weekly marches and game-day performances. They belong to the drum majors, three seasoned band veterans who bridge the gap between directors and members.

Senior Leo Mironovich, head drum major of the Band of the Fighting Irish, and senior assistant drum majors Betsy FitzGerald and Nicole McMillan spoke to The Observer about their journeys through high school and college band and the responsibilities and challenges of serving a group under so much public scrutiny, especially at the National Championship Game in January.

“The National Championship experience was surreal,” Mironovich said. “We were absolutely ready for it; we had some of the best rehearsals of the year. We had the best morning of rehearsal pretty much in [director Dr. Kenneth] Dye’s history at Notre Dame. And we put on a fantastic halftime show.

“In terms of the professional product that we put out on the field, on this big stage, we nailed it. We did really, really well.”

Talking about performing to 80,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium left the band leaders at a loss for words. 

“I can’t,” FitzGerald said. “You just can’t. It’s just total sensory overload.”

“It is really indescribable,” McMillan said. “It’s exhilarating; it’s a rush. … I feel very lucky to get to experience that.”

The drum majors said their responsibilities demand much more than performing in the traditional spectacle of football games.

“A lot of times people only see the glamorous aspects of drum majors, especially on game day,” Mironovich said. “It’s such a humbling position and such a powerless position. You’re completely reliant on the respect of the band members.

“If they don’t view you as their leader, if they don’t want to work for you, the band is going to crash and burn.”

The drum majors said their main role is to facilitate dialogue

“We kind of serve as communicators between directors and the rest of the students,” FitzGerald said. “We facilitate rehearsal. We don’t run the rehearsal, we just kind of pull it all together.”

Mironovich served as an assistant drum major in 2012-2013 but assumed the lead role this year. FitzGerald and McMillan joined him for the first time this season. All three endured a four-month audition process in 2012 that tested their marching, twirling and conducting skills.

“It’s like waiting for your college acceptance letters,” McMillan said.

Mironovich said auditioning for a second time and for the lead role was a personal journey. 

“The second time around, it was extra nerve wracking because I felt a great deal more pressure,” Mironovich said. “I felt I had to show how much I had grown. … I had to prove I could take it to the next level, go to the next step to be the head drum major.”

FitzGerald and McMillan said their motivation for auditioning sprung from a deep love for and commitment to the Band of the Fighting Irish.

“Being able to serve our 380 best friends is such a privilege,” FitzGerald said. “Deciding to make that journey, deciding to say, ‘Yes, I want to hold myself up to a higher standard because I love band, because I love all the people I get to meet. … I want to be the one to put in all that extra time and show how much I really deeply care about these people.'”

All three drum majors kicked off their marching careers in high school after learning their instruments in middle school. Mironovich, originally a trumpet player, said he switched to French horn and the mellophone, its mobile equivalent, when he joined the marching band as a sophomore.

“When I was deciding colleges, I just knew music had to be a part of it,” Mironovich said. “There was just no other option. I knew for a fact that I had to do marching band. Notre Dame had such a prestigious marching band – very, very traditional. I loved it since Day One.”

McMillan said her father is a musician who pushed his daughters to hone their own musical talents.

“He just told each girl in our family that we had to pick a different instrument so we could form a family band,” she said. “So I picked flute because it could fit in my backpack and I thought it sounded pretty.”

The three seniors said they missed playing their instruments with the band, but Mironovich said he had found his niche with the drum majors.

“I found the right spot for me within the band,” he said. “I’m just so blessed to be doing what I’m doing.”

Contact Lesley Stevenson at lsteven1@nd.edu