It was the first performance of the season, but Winston-Salem State University’s four drum majors high-stepped across the field with a flourish that suggested they had done it a thousand times before.
Band royalty — twirling maces that look like scepters and donning long billowing capes — the four are more than just dancers.
They’re the heart and soul of the Red Sea of Sound Marching Band, responsible for leading the band, both in practices and during football games.
“Think of the drum majors as extensions of the directors. They’re the leaders of the band,” band director Michael Magruder said. “They dance and high-step. They’re enthusiastic, high profile — front and center — with a different uniform than the band.”
30 hours of practice
Easily recognizable with their white-and-red uniforms and matching pillars of hats, the four-man group has strived for perfection ahead of leading the 150-member marching band during Saturday’s homecoming parade.
With four-hour practices every weeknight, in addition to practices among the four drum majors to develop their choreography, they usually clock 30 hours a week on top of full-time class loads.
The drum majors also invested hundreds of hours over the summer to get the two new recruits — sophomore Brandeen Sonkesak and junior Miles Moore — up to speed.
“I like the challenge. I like practicing. It’s hard at times, but there’s a drive that makes me want to be better,” said Sonkesak, a computer-science major. “You have to lead by example and always be on your A-game.”
Sonkesak and Moore became drum majors after a vigorous audition process that spanned four months, beginning in February ahead of the September start to football season.
Students who try out learn formation changes and different routines, and are tasked with developing their own choreography ahead of the official May auditions.
Veteran drum major Muhammed Clemons was one of seven to audition when he was a sophomore, earning a spot alongside Gregory Hughes. Both seniors are in their third year as drum majors.
“Tryouts are pretty intense. You need a lot of stamina,” said Clemons, who is majoring in elementary education. “We have to keep up a 2.7 GPA minimum. It tests our commitment to our classes and the band.”
‘Ready for war’
On Friday, the drum majors performed at an on-campus pep rally as they prepped for Saturday’s spotlight.
As headliners in Saturday’s homecoming parade, the four drum majors have been preparing for this moment all year, perfecting their technique at each of the football game performances.
The band warms up on campus before every home game before it begins the traditional march down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Bowman Gray stadium.
“You have to take 150 people, get ’em hyped and get ’em ready for war.” said Hughes, a senior computer-science major. “Being a drum major has made me a better person leadershipwise, physically and mentally.”
Game time approaches and, at the sound of the drum majors’ whistle, the 150 band members gravitate toward them and assemble in even lines, instruments at the ready.
The drum majors jog into the stadium to the beat of the band, marching around the track for the pregame show and anthem.
The drum majors lead the band through four quarters and an after-game encore, fifth quarter.
“In the fifth quarter — after the football game is over — we have a kind of battle of the bands where us and the opposing team’s band play songs back and forth until they give up and go home,” Clemons said. “The longest streak we’ve had is 10 songs.”
The position of drum major comes with a bit of celebrity. The four students are easily recognizable on campus.
Former drum majors Brandon Burgess and TreQuan Holman, who graduated in 2018, also made a splash by dancing across the commencement stage and earning a shoutout on NBC’s “Today” show as “the viral stars of the week.”
“It’s important not to let the hype and pressure of the past drum majors get into our heads and just (do) the best we can,” said Moore, a music-education major from Charlotte.
The drum majors create their new routines by mixing the old with the new. Sometimes they watch old videos or get suggestions from alumni drum majors. Other times they rely on their own experiences or just wing the choreography until it grooves with the music.
“Sometimes, when we’re practicing, we just listen to the songs and goof around until we find the right moves, just so we know it’ll be a fun and upbeat performance,” Hughes said. “But to be a drum major, you need courage, strength and diligence. You can’t mess up.”
Hughes, 20, said becoming a drum major was a natural fit after high school, where he played football, ran track, swam, played in the band and was part of a Fayetteville men’s dance team that performed in front of up to 20,000 people.
Clemons said being a part of a band since sixth-grade has also helped him become the drum major he is today.
While he thought he would miss playing trombone, he said getting to interact with the fans is more fun.
“I’ve never been much of a leader, but I think being a drum major has brought things out in me I didn’t even know I had,” Clemons said. “I have no idea what will fill the void next fall.”
Seniors Clemons and Hughes will vacate their positions at the end of the football season, leaving Sonkesak and Moore as the veteran drum majors.
Sonkesak said that given everything his fellow drum majors have taught him this year, he is up to the task of leading next year’s band.
“I tried out to be a drum major for fun, but it’s become a real brotherhood,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.”