Cougars march to the beat of award-winning drum major

Between July 22 and 25, Thomas Hunter averaged between two and three hours of sleep each night.

“I stayed up practicing a lot longer than I should have,” he said.

But the lack of sleep paid off. At the end of the four-day United Spirit Association Drum Majors Camp in Lacey, Wash., Hunter was named most distinguished — the top honor among 60 attending drum majors from around the country.

The CK Cougars marching band’s senior drum major now has the opportunity to travel to London for a USA All Star parade on New Year’s.

Hunter said the organizers even pulled him aside at the end of camp and encouraged him to return next summer as part of the staff. He said he’s looking into the job offer and hopes to be able to participate in the London parade.

But in the meantime, in preparation for the school year, Hunter rested up with a much easier schedule — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily practices with the CKHS band during a two-week camp to prepare for the fall marching season.

Actually, Hunter and junior drum major Melanie Simms had slightly longer days during the band camp.

“These guys meet with me at 7:15 a.m. and we discuss and plan our day,” said new CKHS band director George Rodes.

Rodes said the drum majors camp was a very intensive time period indeed. Hunter and Simms both attended that camp.

“(We learn) as much info as you can cram in four days,” Hunter said.

The learning started as soon as the drum majors stepped onto the field in the morning and by the afternoon, they had to perform what they had learned that day.

“I couldn’t just wake up and go on the field,” Hunter said.

So, he woke up at 5 a.m. and went for a run to wake himself up. The schedule did not allow any practice time and “at night everyone is working so hard,” he said.

The nearly sleepless nights paid off in “superior” marks in all three categories the drum majors were tested in — two for field conducting and one for parade evaluations.

Except these conducting exercises were one-man-shows, each drum major performing solo, without a band they usually would have been leading.

“For me it was much easier,” Hunter said. “It was just me I had to worry about.”

Simms had a different take on the experience.

“It kind of depends on how you’re feeling,” she said. “(When you are conducting a band) if you make a mistake it’s more likely they’re gonna remember (the routine).”

“At the same time it was much harder because I didn’t have anyone behind me, supporting me,” Hunter added.

Toward the end of the camp, staff selected the top 10 drum majors and the distinguished individuals had to march in front of parents, students and camp organizers. After the performance, staff deliberated for 10 minutes. Hunter and the other nine contenders for the most coveted prize had to stand at attention, while the four finalists were announced.

“That was horrible,” he said. “We couldn’t celebrate.”

Celebration was also postponed when Hunter was named the most distinguished.

“I just had to stand there, shake (hands), take my award, and take a step back,” he said.

The recognition he received was a personal reward for Hunter, but the camp also vested in him and Simms leadership powers they take along in their roles as Cougar drum majors.

Hunter said he considers himself not just a conductor but a performer as well. He learned just how important preparation, coordination and choreography are to a marching band’s success.

He also valued the camp’s influence on his junior drum major.

“When she first went in there, she was kind of timid,” Hunter said. “But in her last evaluation she was cooking.”

This was Simms’ first leadership camp.

“I was really nervous because I was really inexperienced,” she said.

But she learned the band is a reflection of its leader.

“I learned confidence and to transfer the confidence I have in myself to my conducting,” Simms said.

Between learning all about what leadership means in a marching band context, and working extra hours for the most distinguished drum major recognition, Simms and Hunter also scouted out the competition, as many of the bands CKHS competes against in parades send their drum majors to the camp in Lacey.

Rodes, who hails from Texas where he was a teacher for 11 years, is the new CKHS band director, and started his first work with the Cougars during the two-week band camp.

“We have a great show, great music and great kids, and that’s a winning combination all the way around,” Rodes said.

One of the key ingredients to the winning formula is an award-winning senior drum major.

“The leadership that he’s providing for the students is incredible,” Rodes said. “They respect him a lot.”

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