Drum Major Auditions: A Complete Guide
If you have ever wanted to be a drum major for high school or a drum corps, you know the audition process can be a bit intimidating. This article will cover everything you need to know about the drum major audition process and how to be successful in it.
In this article, I’ve compiled all of the best tips and strategies from working closely with hundreds of band directors and drum majors through our high school drum major clinics and from our experience building the Genesis Drum Major program and creating our online drum major course, Drum Major Essentials.
Components of a Drum Major Audition
While the drum major audition process varies from one program to the next, there are some common components. The following are the most common components to high school drum major auditions and how to prepare for them.
1 – Conducting Audition
First and foremost, learn your fundamentals. In some cases, the style you use may not be important but make sure to ask your band director what their preference is. More than likely, they will ask you to emulate the style of the current drum majors. There are many resources online but the current drum majors and your band director are the best place to ask questions and get feedback on your conducting. A conducting audition generally will have one or more of the following components.
- Conducting basic patterns, cut offs, and gestures. It, is common for your band director to give a set of conducting exercises or patterns they will expect you to perform. Practice these and ask detailed questions to your band director and current drum majors if needed.
- Conducting a musical selection. Usually, the music you are asked to conduct will be a portion of a marching show. Sometimes, you will be asked to choose a piece. Choose something you are comfortable with but
- Tempo Recall. Your director may ask you to clap a specific tempo for them or to identify a tempo that they play for you on a metronome to see how well you know your tempos and/or how well you can keep a steady pulse.
In a drum major conducting audition, you will likely be evaluated on the following.
- Posture and the way you project confidence
- Pattern consistency
- Ability to hold tempo or stay in time with the metronome or music
- Clarity of your beats
- Symmetry from one hand to the other
- Pattern size relative to your body
To prepare for the conducting audition, make sure you are clear on what you will be asked to conduct, practice, and ask your band director what they will be looking for when evaluating conducting.
2 – Drum Major Interview
The interview for high school drum major auditions is, at face value, a chance for the band director to ask how you would react in certain scenarios. They likely already have an idea of your aptitude as a leader, but the interview allows them to see what you think of yourself as a leader, which is often just as important.
To prepare for the interview, ask previous drum majors what their interview questions are. Many band directors recycle the same ones every year. If you can find some good interview questions by asking around, it should calm your nerves a bit.
At the end of the day, most questions are not about getting the answer right. They are about how you answer the question. If you are chosen to be a drum major, your band director will be trusting a lot of responsibility with you, so showing that you can have a candid and honest discourse about things going on in the band program is critical.
3 – Marching and/or Playing Audition
It is common to have a marching audition or a marching and playing audition because drum majors should be a good example to everyone on the field and many times are also expected to teach marching fundamentals.
To prepare, don’t be afraid to go out onto the practice field or find some space outside your home to practice your drills. Showing that you are a good example for other band members is critical.
4 – Giving Marching Band Commands
If the drum major in your band program gives commands, many band programs will have drum major candidates demonstrate giving the commands during the audition. Common commands include calling the band to attention and calling the band to parade rest,
To prepare, ask your previous drum majors exactly how the commands are performed. Pay attention to the exact wording, the placement and/or movement of your hands and feet, the way you stand, the rhythm of the vocalizations, and the way they project their voice. Any little detail counts.
5 – Teaching Audition
In band programs that have student leaders lead sectionals or teach band members how to march, it is common to have a teaching portion in the audition. Typically this would involve them giving you an exercise to teach during the audition to a student or to one of the directors. It will likely be something standard like a box drill. Your job will be to teach the drill as if you are teaching it to a freshmen marcher.
To prepare, ask for the material you will have to teach ahead of time. If you are granted this information, it makes this much easier. Think though the exercise in detail and don’t gloss over things that may seem obvious to you. Consider practicing with a fellow band member, or better yet, a friend of yours that is not in band.
If you don’t get the chance to prepare because you don’t know what they will ask you to teach, just remember to be very detailed in what you are asking your “student” to do and take things slow, making sure they are comprehending every step of the way. Band directors want to see that you can identify and communicate details and they want to see that you are making sure the student is learning the information.
Drum Major Leadership Qualities
Leadership qualities are often the main determining factor in being selected for drum major and it makes a big difference if you can exhibit strong leadership potential from day one. These are some of the most important ways you can demonstrate leadership potential in your band program. By no means is this exhaustive list but many of these can be considered absolute prerequisites. If you truly excel in most or all of these, you will be very likely to be noticed as a strong leader.
1 – Initiative
The quickest way to show initiative and get on your band director’s radar is to simply ask them about auditioning for drum major. You might be surprised how much they will be rooting for you to get the position one day after simply taking the initiative to talk to them about it. Because not many other students will do this, it is sure to get you noticed. Here are some specific questions you can ask.
- What does it take to earn a drum major position?
- What qualities or skills do you look for when selecting drum majors?
- Who is eligible to become drum major?
- Can freshmen and sophomores become drum major?
- What does the drum major audition process include?
- What can I do to be chosen to audition for drum major or how do I sign up?
- How soon can I ask for the drum major audition materials?
2 – Musicianship
Practice, practice, practice! And I don’t mean practice your conducting, though we will get to that. Practice your primary instrument. Be the kind of band student who is an example to others by being a strong musician. The number one thing band directors tell us they want to see in their student leaders is students who practice a lot to set the example for everyone else.
It’s not necessary to practice in the band hall so that your director and others see you doing it. They will be able to tell if you are practicing by the way you perform during rehearsals. So don’t worry too much about showing off, just practice to be the best musician you can be and ask your director for help when you need it.
Directors can also tell how much you practice by the type of questions you ask about playing your instrument. Remember, they’ve been there and done that so if you are putting in the effort it will be noticed.
3 – Respect
Rule number one of earning respect is to give respect. Earning the respect of your fellow band members is critical. If your director can’t imagine other students listening to you or taking direction from you, it will be difficult for them to consider you for a drum major role. Don’t worry, it does not take a specific personality type to be respected and you don’t have to be an extrovert to be a drum major.
Generally all it takes to earn respect in your band program is to give respect. If you feel like this may not come naturally to you, do the following.
- Learn everyone’s first name. One of the most basic forms of showing someone respect is addressing them by their name. Learn everyone’s name before they expect you to know their name and they will take notice in a positive way. It’s only a first step but this will get you off on the right foot with a lot of band members.
- Build friendships in every section of the band. You can be friendly with everyone and you can respect everyone but you can’t have really close friendships with everyone unless your band is very small. More than likely, your band is too big to socialize with everyone. But if you have at least one good friend, Billy, in the flute section, the others in the flute section who are also good friends with Billy, but never talk to you, will treat you the way they see Billy treating you. If Billy treats you with respect, they will follow suit and also treat you with respect because they have built rapport with Billy. If Billy thinks you are hilarious, then the others will think you’re hilarious. And on and on. This can also work against you. So make sure you are always, at the very least, respectful to all band members.
- Don’t gossip. Everyone gossips in high school. Which is exactly why you will stand out if you have the discipline to refrain from even benign gossip. When you talk behind someone’s back it is a signal to the person you are talking to that when their back is turned, you are going to be talking about them. Don’t give anyone that impression. Refrain from gossip and you’ll build a reputation of being someone people feel they can trust and in turn people will have your back.
- Put others before yourself. Always think of little ways you can make other people’s lives easier in the context of your band program. It could be anything from being last in line to get food at the marching band competition to running to get an ice pack for someone during a water break. Small honest gestures will be noticed over time. Just make sure you are not doing it to get noticed. Do it out of a genuine desire to help others. Genuine desire to serve is rare and if you truly embody that, it will be noticed.
4 – Be Early to Rehearsal
The saying goes, “being on time is late and being early is on time”. You want to give the impression to your band director that you are dependable and responsible. That starts with always being early to rehearsals. Shoot for 10 minutes early or however early you need to be to help set up for rehearsal.
Being early also means you’re likely to make friends with the other band members who are early. And those people are likely to also become leaders in the band, so they are good people to be friends with if you want to be drum major.
5 – Be Enthusiastic About Band
Enthusiastic and positive attitudes are contagious and having a positive vibe in your band program is just about always a good thing. The people who can keep the attitude fun and light when rehearsals are getting long are extremely valuable. If you are not the type of people who can muster up the excitement in others with your infectious smile and clever jokes, make friends with those who are. It might even rub off on you.
6 – Be Helpful to Your Band Director
Some things you can do to help out with your band program are…
- Help set up and put away chairs and music stands
- Make sure your section has their music
- Offer to make copies
- Help with filling water jugs or bringing water jugs out for marching band rehearsal
- Set up yard markers for marching band rehearsal
- Set up the metronome speaker for marching band rehearsal
- Help with organizing, labeling, or passing out uniforms
- Help with loading and unloading equipment
Some of these duties might already be assigned to specific people in your band program but if they are up for grabs, volunteer for them. Ask your band director if there is anything else you can help with if you don’t see anything that obviously needs to be done.
7 – Be a Good Example During Rehearsal
Always be prepared for rehearsal and always follow the rules in rehearsal. If you are not sure what the rules are or what you need to be prepared, simply asking your director will show a lot of initiative. Many times there are some rules that require clarification and if you can identify those situations where rules are unclear, it shows great attention to detail. So don’t be afraid to talk to your band director. Just make sure you follow through after they give you the direction you were looking for.
Drum Major Conducting Skills
As a general rule, in high school programs you will be required to know the basics of conducting for your drum major audition. For drum corps auditions, you are typically expected to already be well practiced in field conducting when you audition.
For both auditions, conducting is usually the second most important factor in selecting drum majors after leadership qualities. Though, if the program you are auditioning for does not necessarily grant a leadership role along with drum major positions, conducting ability may be the main determining factor.
If you need some guidance on getting started with conducting, start with these fundamentals.
1 – Posture
This is the first fundamental for a reason. If your body is not properly aligned, conducting will feel different. So if you are constantly shifting your posture, it will be hard to build muscle memory and improve.
It can also be painful on the lower back if you don’t have your weight properly orientated over your feet.
2 – Hand Shape
It is very easy to carry a lot of tension in the hands when conducting. Observe the proper hand shape. It should be relaxed. In more advanced lessons from Drum Major Essentials, we talk about how to handle tension when at very fast tempos and after conducting for long periods of time.
Before you can get to that point, the relaxed basic hand shape should be second nature.
3 – Ictus Placement
The ictus is the location in space that your hands bounce off of on the beat. Most people think it is important to have a consistent ictus so that it is as clear as possible to the ensemble where your beat is. That is true. We want to always be as consistent as possible for the ensemble. But there is a more important reason.
When you get the ictus placement very consistent, it removes a huge variable from the equation when you are trying to improve other things in your conducting. If you can really lock this down, you are going to improve far more quickly than if you glance over it.
4 – Travel
Travel is the way we move our hands in between beats. In general, it is a very smooth and slightly bouncy motion.
Having a consistent travel is the second most important thing when it comes to helping the ensemble predict where your beats are going to land. The most important is being in time.
5 – Flick
The flick is the motion that some conductors make on the beat to emphasize where the beat is. Flick is one of the only fundamentals that gets taught drastically differently from one program to another. So make sure to ask your band director or previous drum majors about how to flick and if you should do it at all.
6 – Conducting Patterns
Conducting patterns, simply put, are the shapes you draw with your hands when you conduct. There are different patterns for each time signature and there are a variety of different conducting pattern styles.
The patterns taught in Drum Major Essentials are the most common for high school marching bands and drum corps in the United States.
7 – Cut Time Conducting Patterns
A cut time pattern is a conducting pattern which has been modified to make it more clear at high tempos. Generally this involves conducting less beats in the measure.
8 – Complex Meter Conducting Patterns
As a general rule, complex meters include time signatures other than 4/4, 3/4, and 2/4. Most complex meters are conducted using a combination of simple meter patterns (4/4, 3/4, 2/4).
9 – Cutting Off The Ensemble
A cut off is a gesture used to show the ensemble where to release a note. There are many different styles for cut offs and just like patterns, the way you cut off will change at high tempos.
10 – Cueing The Ensemble
A cue is a gesture made to show the ensemble where to enter. There are many ways to cue and there is no hard and fast rule about how it should be done. But the basic way involves taking a breadth with the band and then making a hand gesture on the beat that they should play on.
11 – Showing Dynamics While Conducting
Showing dynamics when conducting most of the time involves increasing your pattern size for louder moments and making your pattern small for softer moments. Watch the video above to understand the finer points of showing dynamics and how to practice it.
12 – Memorizing Tempos
Another thing you’ll want to become good at is recalling tempos from memory. As a drum major one of your primary roles will to set tempos at the beginning of a performance or musical movement. Once you become a drum major it is going to be more valuable to learn the tempos in your actual marching show, but learning a few tempos now will make it much easier to do down the line and it will help you with holding tempo while conducting in your audition.
Start with memorizing just one tempo really well so that every time you hear a tempo you can tell if it is faster or slower than the one you know. The best way to memorize a tempo is to associate it with a well known tune. Start out first by learning 120bpm (beats per minute) using the song, Stars and Stripes Forever. Then try learning 160bpm using William Tell Overture.
Now notice that since you’ve learned 120bpm and 160bpm, you also know 60bpm and 80bpm because they are just half the speed of 120bpm and 160bpm. The following are some songs you can use to learn your tempos.
- 100bpm – Hips Don’t Lie by Shakira
- 120bpm – Stars And Stripes Forever
- 144bpm – Marry You by Bruno Mars
- 160bpm – William Tell Overture
With just those 4 you would be able to identify 50bpm, 60bpm, 72bpm, 80bpm, 100bpm, 120bpm, 144bpm, 160bpm, and 200bpm. And you can probably approximate tempos in between the ones you know pretty effectively as well. You can easily continue this process and learn some more tempos but once you become a drum major it is going to be more valuable to learn the tempos in your actual marching show. Learning a few tempos now will make it much easier to do down the line and it will help you with holding tempo while conducting.
Drum Corps vs. High School Drum Major Auditions
Drum corps drum major auditions are very similar to high school drum major auditions with a few key differences to consider. The drum major interview is far more critical to winning the audition, you will have to learn very quickly, and they are far more competitive than high school drum major auditions.
Drum Major Interview is Weighted More Heavily in Drum Corps Auditions
Since the decision makers often will not know you at all other than a video audition and some interaction at a weekend event or two, the interview is the main chance for them to pick your brain and really get to know you.
Be candid, calm, and honest in your answers and ask lots of questions during the interview if you get the chance. Usually, the amount of responsibility that you will have as a drum corps drum major will be far greater than you would as a high school drum major because of the nature of the activity.
You will be away from home for weeks at a time living on the road with your marching ensemble and often managing significant tour operations. So even more than in high school, the drum corps want to make sure they find people who they can trust to report issues, not shy away from problem solving, and get along with everyone.
To prepare for a drum corps drum major interview, understand that your entire audition is an interview. Everything you do and say is being observed because they don’t get the luxury of getting to know you over a couple years of band rehearsals. So go just go into it with a positive attitude, be yourself, and have fun.
You Have to Learn Fast During Drum Corps Auditions
You often won’t get the chance to ask a lot of questions ahead of time like you can in high school, so be prepared to learn fast. Ask questions while you can if you are at an in person audition event. And make sure you show improvement in any comments you are given.
That is one of the most common ways to select and eliminate candidates when you only have a weekend or two to choose a drum major team.
Drum Corps Drum Major Spots Are More Competitive
For every drum corps in the United States there are about 1000 high schools. And drum corps tend to select drum majors who have already marched in the corps. In fact, some only select this way. So spots are extremely limited and if you get one you should be very proud of your achievement.
If you don’t get a spot where you decided to audition, consider auditioning somewhere else because if you get a spot somewhere else, it will give you a huge advantage in your auditions the next year and it just might turn out to be an amazing experience even if it wasn’t your first choice.
All that said, don’t take it personally if you don’t get a spot. If marching drum corps is your dream, keep audition. Don’t give up!
Becoming a drum major is a great achievement no matter where you are auditioning and it is an extremely rewarding experience. Make sure that if you do become a drum major, that you help out the next generation and teach them everything you know. Good luck on your auditions!
P.s. If you are still nervous about that audition try reading our drum major audition tips. And if you enjoyed this information or got value out of it, please consider supporting Genesis with a donation…or a simple follow on Instagram. That’s not so much to ask right? Maybe a like on Facebook if you can manage it…wink. Take care y’all.