Drum majors reflect on time with band
Lesley Stevenson | Friday, May 16, 2014
After three short whistle blasts, 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 gameday performances. They belong to the drum majors, three seasoned band veterans who bridge the gap between its directors and members.
Senior Leo Mironovich, former 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 BCS National Championship Game in January 2013.
“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 for 80,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium left the band leaders at a loss for words.
“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 reflected on their time at Notre Dame and their tenures leading the band through a season that included six weeks of performances in a row, as well as trips to the University of Michigan, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas and Yankee Stadium for the Pinstripe Bowl. FitzGerald said proving that she and the band had enough stamina to perform stood out as a highlight of this season.
“We all had a really tough first seven weeks of school without a break,” she said. “… I was so proud of the entire band having that much energy and excitement for six straight weeks, and being able to keep up that energy and focus myself,” she said.
McMillan said the freshman band members particularly stood out in those first seven weeks of practices and six weeks of halftime performances.
“It was exciting to see the new members make the band and perform on the football field four days later,” she said. “This is no small accomplishment and it made me so happy to see the new members transform and perform so well just one week after starting college.”
The drum majors said their responsibilities demand much more than performing in the traditional spectacle at 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 for the 2013 football season. FitzGerald and McMillan joined him for their first time as assistant drum majors. All three endured a four-month audition process in 2012, which tested their marching, twirling and conducting skills.
“It’s like waiting for your college acceptance letters,” McMillan said of the process.
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.’”
Selfless leadership was a skill FitzGerald said she strengthened most through her work with the band.
“It was so rewarding to see how much my friends could accomplish when they were all working together,” she said. “For every moment of the season that was hard, and for every moment when all I wanted to do was give up and complain, it was incredible to know that everything I was doing was for the band, not just for myself.
“It was incredible to see how much I was able to accomplish when I was doing those things for the band. I love every single member so much, and I hope I was able to show them how much I loved them by giving them as much as I could.”
Mironovich said the experience of leading several hundred students in front of crowds numbering over 80,000 and serving as a representative of the University helped him grow as a leader.
“Personally, I accomplished so much,” he said. “I achieved a dream, and lived it. I faced many fears, and felt what it was like tackling them head-on. I’ve survived and learned from numerous failures and have experienced euphoric successes.”
“I am most proud of representing the greatest student organization on the campus of Notre Dame,” Mironovich said. “On many occasions, especially away games, I considered myself an ambassador of the University, and people looked to me as an example to how Notre Dame should act and/or react in certain situations. I was very proud of this, and always strove to represent Notre Dame to the best of my ability, in a way that would be pleasing to all of those who came before me.”
The three seniors said they missed playing their instruments with the band, but Mironovich said he had found his niche with the drum majors. He said he learned to focus on the “mission” of the group, which included giving selfless attention to the band’s newest members.
“I found the right spot for me within the band,” he said. “… I’ve learned to be bold, be courageous and to be yourself.
“It is so difficult being in such a highly-exposed leadership position. Everyone looks to you for advice, for a role model, for someone to compare themselves to. … All in all, I guess I’ve learned what to focus on and what to work for in a high leadership position, and I am so glad to have had that experience.”