‘To be a Belle in band is pretty freaking cool’: Saint Mary’s junior speaks on first all-female drum major line 50 years after ND Marching Band became coed
Maeve Filbin | Thursday, February 6, 2020
The day of the Notre Dame versus Michigan football game, two teams clashed beneath sheets of heavy rain. In the stands, Jill Ann Buettner stood soaked to the skin, water dripping down the pointed tip of her rain slicker, seeping through her wool uniform and splashing onto her sheet music. She was wet and cold, but more importantly, she began to realize she couldn’t move the left side of her face.
Buettner, a Saint Mary’s junior who has played clarinet for the Notre Dame Marching Band since 2017, had been sick earlier that semester, with a virus that resulted in Bell’s palsy, a sudden temporary weakness in facial muscles. Buettner first noticed the freezing effect while marching at the Michigan game.
“It was completely unexpected,” Buettner said. “The virus that I had inflamed a nerve in my face, which caused most of the muscles on the left side of my face to be paralyzed. On the day of the game, we were there and it just started spreading.”
As the weakness spread along the left side of Buettner’s face, she soon realized she was losing the ability to play her clarinet.
“For most of the second half of that semester and the season, I couldn’t play my instrument very much,” she said. “It was difficult because that’s my job. I’m supposed to march, I’m supposed to play and I’m supposed to be a leader.”
It’s been three months since the Michigan game, and Buettner has regained almost full range of motion in her facial muscles. She is playing clarinet in the band once more, and recently earned herself a historically significant leadership position as part of the very first all-female drum major team in the band’s history. The appointment of these three female students falls on the 50th anniversary of the year women were first granted admission into the marching band, making their positions decidedly poignant.
“I honestly still haven’t totally processed everything,” Buettner said. “Since freshman year, I wondered what it would be like to be a drum major. I did it in high school for two years, and that’s when I really fell in love with marching even more, just the technicality of it — how precision-based it is, how detailed it is. … It’s a different way to feel music.”
The historical significance
The Notre Dame Marching Band first allowed women to participate in 1970, when then-band director Robert O’Brien extended an invitation to Saint Mary’s students, two years before the University became coeducational in 1972.
“The first women in band were from Saint Mary’s, so having that anniversary this year is really special for me,” Buettner said. “Especially seeing that link between our communities — that’s something that you don’t see anywhere else.”
Though the installment of this all-female drum major line is significant in that it fulfills the coeducational vision that University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh put forth more than 50 years ago, assistant band director Sam Sanchez said, the three students were selected simply because they deserved the job.
“No one should try to infer that these three women were chosen because it is the 50th anniversary,” Sanchez said in an email. “These are the best people for the job, and they have earned it through their dedication, conduct, hard work and exceptional ability.”
In her own research, Buettner said she has only discovered one other Saint Mary’s student to have served as a drum major for the Notre Dame Band: Linda Lawson, who at the time went by Linda Battista. Lawson is famous for not only having been the first Saint Mary’s student drum major, but also for being the very first woman to fill the role.
Lawson became drum major in the spring of 1980, 10 years after women were allowed to join the band.
“I had played in the concert band the semester before, and they were having auditions for drum major,” Lawson said. “I was drum major in high school for two years, and I’ve always been involved with music, both at the band level [and] at the concert level.”
Lawson played the bassoon, which she said “has no place in a marching band.” So when the drum position opened up, she was immediately attracted to an opportunity to participate in another capacity. However, she worried her lack of experience might become an obstacle.
“I had been drum major in high school, but I realized I had not really marched in the Notre Dame band,” Lawson said. “I’d seen the band so I was familiar with their style of marching and it was just really exciting that it became available. And so … I thought I would try out.”
At the audition, Lawson was asked to conduct Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” with cannons, a piece she had become familiar with from years of performing it in concert band and other orchestras.
“I was familiar with the music, I listened to the music, the nuances, and I’ve always loved to conduct music,” Lawson said. “So when I tried out, it was very comfortable for me and it was just a lot of fun. I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
After the audition, Robert O’Brien, the same director who first made the band coed, offered Lawson the position.
“Mr. O’Brien came out and said, ‘We’ve never done this before, but we really did like what you did and like how you conducted, and we want to have you as our drum major,’” Lawson said. “It was wonderful. It was just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I just loved it.”
Lawson is now a chief nursing officer for a group of hospitals in El Paso, Texas, but said she hopes to travel north to South Bend and watch the three new drum majors in action.
“Now that I know that they’re going to have an all-female drum major line, I’m definitely going to have to go out again this year,” she said. “I’m so proud. I had no idea. I’m so proud and so excited for them.”
On the march towards leadership
When she first joined the marching band as a freshman, Buettner was drawn towards the opportunity to find a community of friends while still continuing her love for music in all its forms. She had learned how to play the piano in third grade, and went on to explore the clarinet, alto saxophone and guitar.
“Music has always been important to me,” she said. “If I’m not playing it, just like listening to it, and so I wanted to continue it somehow … and I had heard stories of people joining marching band. I did it in high school for three years, and I loved every second of it. I’m one of those weirdos who loves marching. Not just playing an instrument — I love marching.”
The day she discovered she’d been officially invited to join the band after days of auditioning, Buettner was so shocked she didn’t recognize her own last name on the call sheet.
“I went over [to the list] to see it myself, and I forgot my name because I saw it on the list and I didn’t think it would be there,” she said. “I remember looking at the list and thinking, ‘I wonder how different my life is going to be because of this, because I decided to go for it.’ I had no idea.”
Performing with the marching band, concert band and pep bands at Notre Dame has created countless opportunities for Buettner, including travel. Since joining the band, Buettner has visited places as close as Michigan and Florida, and as far as Ireland and Peru.
“It’s taken me some places, it really has,” Buettner said. “Anytime I get to travel with the band, I’m super, super lucky to be able to do that.”
Having fallen in love with the marching band over the years, Buettner started looking for ways to involve herself more deeply. Last semester, she became a social co-chair and took on responsibilities that include the orchestrating of the traditions that make the Notre Dame Marching Band so distinct.
“They’re little random traditions that we kind of create for ourselves,” she said. “Some of them were like our Saint Mary’s traditions.”
As a freshman member of the band, Buettner looked up to a senior Saint Mary’s student who mentored her and the other first-year clarinets from the College. This student taught them how to maneuver participating in the band as a Saint Mary’s student, particularly how to traverse between the two campuses and juggle a packed schedule.
Sanchez said he recognizes the extra effort that the 380 Saint Mary’s students currently involved in the band dedicate themselves to fulfilling.
“Saint Mary’s band students show a great level of care and dedication to the band,” Sanchez said in an email. “It takes more effort for a [Saint Mary’s] student to make the trek over to Notre Dame for daily rehearsals. They have to plan transportation and meals while balancing this with their academic course work.”
Buettner spends a fair amount of time on her bike, traveling back and forth down the Avenue and St. Mary’s Road, sometimes with huge bags of breakfast cereal strapped to her back and looped over the bike handles. As social chair, Buettner rises before the sun on Saturday mornings to arrive early on Notre Dame’s campus and prepare the traditional pre-game cereal.
Though they keep her busy, these traditions are what make the band community so special, Buettner said, and what inspired her to seek more leadership opportunities.
“I’m excited to help people in a new way in the band,” Buettner said. “Not just with playing [an instrument], but really with marching, leading and being there for everybody to come to for questions or for help. Band has given me so much, and I feel like this is going to be the best way that I can give back.”
The band has played an essential role in her college experience, Buettner said, and has given her a community of lifelong friends.
“Once you’re in one band … you want everyone to give 100%. You want to give 100% because of everybody else who is around,” she said. “I love being a part of it. And I love being at Saint Mary’s and I love going to school here and having this opportunity to be in a marching band.”
The past three years with both the band and Saint Mary’s have created a dual identity that Buettner has embraced.
“I’m just really honored to be a part of the band, and also to be a Belle because I love being here,” she said. “To be a Belle in band is pretty freaking cool.”