Drum majors lead band to Macy’s

By Eleanor Harte

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This article is part five in a series as the UMass Marching Band prepares for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Cade Belisle/ Collegian

Rachel Rivard had 100 friends on campus before she even walked into a classroom.

The week before her freshman year, she attended band camp for the University of Massachusetts Marching Band and found a second family. Initially a tuba player, she is now a drum major – and has the important job of leading the band.

In addition to the band’s daily practices, Rivard, a junior music education major, and the three other drum majors set up for rehearsals, organize sheet music and serve as the links between the director and the 400-member band.

“Now I’m just all in. There’s no stopping it, because it’s who I am, really,” said Rivard.

Rivard’s fellow drum majors are Gabrielle Istvan, a senior public health major, Jacob Balcanoff, a senior geology major, and Colleen Grady, a senior music education major.

The UMass Marching Band is preparing for its trip to New York City to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade next week, and the drum majors are tasked with leading the group. This includes practicing parade marching, something the UMass Marching Band doesn’t do during a normal season.

“We can practice for Macy’s all we want,” said Rivard, “but we won’t know what it’s really like until we’re there.”

Becoming a drum major was not an easy process, according to Grady. There was an extensive application process, involving a paper interview, a conducting interview, a marching rehearsal and more. “The responsibility does not come lightly,” she said.

“You have to be the prime example of a leader,” said Istvan, explaining that the entire band looks to the drum majors for direction.

There is an incredible amount of behind the scenes work that goes into the role of drum major. If someone drops the ball on something, the responsibility of taking care of it falls to the drum majors. They meet with UMass Marching Band Director Timothy Todd Anderson each week to assess the progress of rehearsals and the state of the band.

During rehearsals, the drum majors can be doing anything from continuously walking backward as the band practices parade marching, to keeping the beat of the music for the group, to standing on tall ladders conducting the music. They get to rehearsals before everyone else to set up, and they’re the last to leave after they take everything down. It’s a huge time commitment, according to Rivard.

“People aren’t aware of everything we do. We have to be the model,” said Grady. “We have to make people come to our level by setting the bar. If we’re at 110 percent, people might come up to 100 percent. People will only go as far as we go.”

The group is excited to be representing the University on a national scale. Though there is plenty of organizing to do, this is the first time the band will sleep in a hotel the night before a performance. They usually sleep on high school gymnasium floors. For them, it’s a sign that the band really is getting recognized, and it’s an extraordinary honor.

Drum Majors from Daily Collegian on Vimeo.

For Colleen Grady, this moment has been a long time coming.

“I came to UMass for the band. Every other school I looked at had a tiny band, but UMass didn’t. It boggled my mind at first that there were 400 people in it,” she said.

A drum major in high school, she now works with high school students at the Drum Major Academy, a week-long summer program founded by George N. Parks, the former director of the UMass Marching Band.

“You have to be really into it,” said Rivard. “Everyone is here because they want to be.” She decided in high school to focus on band and music, and joining the marching band in college was just the next step.

High school teachers led Istavan to music, and she’s had plenty of fellow students to look up to and emulate. She wants to someday be that person for someone else.

“Music has this unexplainable power to bring people together,” said Istavan. “When it comes to band, it’s not just an individual effort. It’s a group effort and it turns into everyone coming together for the performance. You have to be in it to understand.”

“The band is a family,” added Grady. “We get work done and also have a lot of fun.”

Eleanor Harte can be reached at [email protected]