This study explored the responsibilities and experiences of three collegiate drum majors as student leaders of a marching band at a major university. Marching band continues to be a prevalent and highly visible aspect of music education in the United States. The preparation and utilization of student leaders in music remains common, but little research examining the actual experiences of student leaders in music has been conducted. As we continue to recruit student leaders for these positions, it may be of use to understand, from the student leader perspective, the challenges and perceived responsibilities associated with these positions. The participants in this study identified three distinct responsibilities of a drum major: (a) drum major as director’s musical advocate; (b) drum major as director’s political advocate; and (c) bridging the gap between students and staff. Additionally, the participants identified two concerns related to their experiences as student leaders in comparison to their band member peers: (a) social negotiations; and (b) defining an identity.

Marching band, and its place in music education, has been the subject of much discussion during the last fifty years (Benkert, 2007; Isch, 1965; Kastens, 1981; Kursar, et al., 1990; Mason, et al., 1985; Miller, 1994; Peitersen, 1956; Rockefeller, 1982; Schmidt, 1961; Stith, 1956). Garrison (1986) contended that the “American public views the marching band as education's most popular and essential music performance organization.” He stated that for many “laymen and educational administrators” the marching band is the only form of contact with school music curricula and that, “consequently, many people accept the marching band as the primary, if not the only, factor in assessing the quality and value of entire music departments and programs” (p. 49).

Researchers have studied various aspects of the marching band activity. Rogers (1982, 1985) investigated the differing attitudes of directors, band members, parents and principals toward marching band contests and found that marching bands contributed positively to self-discipline, pride, and school public relations for those involved. More recently, Townsend (2004) conducted research examining recruitment and retention in college marching bands, noting the importance of social interaction among members, as well as the director’s leadership abilities as key elements of successful recruiting and retention. Rickels (2009) examined nonperformance variables in high school marching band festivals, such as “funding levels, pedagogical decisions about the structure of the band program, and demographics of the teachers, staff, and students in participating schools” as predictors of competitive success and found that nonperformance variables accounted for a high percentage of variance in the festival scores (p. iii).

Leadership is a crucial component in any successful music ensemble, including marching bands, and it takes on many shapes and forms. Previous studies have focused on the leadership qualities of ensemble directors (Goodstein, 1987), the effects of leadership styles and ability on band festival ratings (Davison, 2007), the effects of involving students in musical decision making (Petters, 1976), and the sharing of best practices in training student leaders (Palen, 1997). The complexity of preparing students for leadership in musical organizations has stimulated the growth of numerous leadership camps and seminars, as well as texts that discuss various aspects of developing student leadership (e.g. Lang, 2007; Lautzenheiser, 2004, 2006; Parks, 1984). While seemingly thousands of high school and college students continue to participate in musical organizations as student leaders, there exists a paucity of research on the actual experiences of student leaders in music, particularly as told from their own perspectives.

In this study, I seek to understand the leadership responsibilities and experiences of three drum majors of a university marching band from their own perspectives. By engaging in dialogue with the participants about their experiences as drum majors, I aim to understand how the participants make sense of and how they construct the world around them (Glesne, 2006). As marching band continues to be a highly visible part of the music curriculum in high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States, we should seek to understand better the triumphs, difficulties, and lessons learned by the students in our marching bands, specifically those students placed in leadership positions.