GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — It's hard to say whether the college football season will be played in the fall or the spring semester, because of COVID-19. And when teams do kickoff, it's not clear whether there will be 115,000 screaming fans in The Big House, or an empty stadium and a camera crew.
Either way, the Michigan Marching Band will be ready for whatever awaits them under the leadership of Grand Rapids native Walter Aguilar.
During the band's spring meeting, which had to be conducted through Zoom because of social distancing rules, Aguilar learned he would be Michigan's 56th drum major for his senior season.
"At that point I’m already tear-eyed," Aguilar said. "I’m incredibly honored to have the opportunity to represent something that’s bigger than any one person or any one generation."
The drum major is often the center of attention for the band. In Michigan's case the drum major's white uniform sticks out from the rest of the band in maize and blue, and the pregame performance is their time to shine.
"Every time the band comes out of the tunnel and the place goes crazy, there is no better place in the world than on that center ladder as that’s happening except for when the drum major’s head touches the ground," said Dr. John Pasquale, the university's marching and athletic band director.
"That is probably audible from space. I mean it is astronomically loud in there and I can imagine doing that and having all that attention on you would be an exhilarating and terrifying thing for sure."
But there's a lot more to being the drum major than having that spotlight. The job also comes with a long list of responsibilities.
"The performance part of the drum major is the tip of the iceberg. Everything under it is just as important, or I would argue even more important than the performance side of things," Pasquale said.
"The drum major is one of the most visible faces on our campus, so it’s imperative that they’re able to speak on our behalf and have a scope of how marching band fits in the entire operation of the institution."
Aguilar knows what he's in for.
"There’s a lot of work with the staff, being that liaison between the group of students and the staff and make sure the communication is there and that the information is efficiently communicated between the two groups," he said.
Pasquale also described the drum major as "chief motivator," and at a time with such uncertainty, it can be difficult to stay motivated. Luckily, Aguilar already has a proven track record of keeping spirits high from his time at Lee High School in Wyoming.
"So many people like to focus on the negatives and especially when we’re dealing with a time where there’s so much negative. Walter can find that silver lining and turn it from silver into gold. And just make you feel like a million bucks," said Aguilar's high school band director Kevin Gabrielse.
"When somebody makes a mistake on the field, Walter is their little private cheerleader. He can just bring them back up and say 'Yeah, that wasn’t so great, but let’s go back and try that again and this time you’re going to get it.'"
In the coming weeks, Aguilar will meet with members of the Michigan Marching Band's staff to talk about how the upcoming season might look. One of his first duties will be preparing materials for the band's preseason camp, which he will teach.
"It’s the honor of a lifetime and I am so excited to have the opportunity to serve my peers and to represent the amazing institution that the Michigan Marching Band is," Aguilar said.
"I might be biased, but it's the best college marching band in the country."
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