Senior band member Stephanie Graves aims to become the first female drum major.
June 1, 2009
By Elizabeth Geli
Special contributor to USCRipsIt.com
In the middle of the USC campus there's a small and shady cemented area surrounded by the steps that go up to Heritage Hall, the Galen restaurant, the music practice building and the intramural field. Insignificant or unnoticed by most, this small area is where Trojan Marching Band dreams come true -- or not.
This is the spot where once a year, the band gathers to select their new drum major. Why here? Who knows. Like many things in the band, that's just the way it's always been done. It's a warm afternoon in April and the seven candidates -- six guys and one girl -- practice their marching and sword techniques.
Yes, you read that right. A girl is trying out for drum major this year. If you've ever seen the masculine, Tommy Trojan-like drum major at a football game or on TV this may come as shock. It's always been a guy, but that's not stopping Stephanie Graves, a 5-foot-4, 104-pound girl from trying out.
The candidates are taking turns leading each other in some of the marching commands and now it's Graves' turn. She takes hold of the sword and stands in front of her fellow candidates, ready to call them to attention. Suddenly, something in her face changes -- she has seen something behind us. We turn around to see the energetic jog that every USC football fan knows well. Running towards us is none other than Pete Carroll, the Trojan football coach, who most of the band worships at a level close to blasphemy.
"Go Stephanie, do it! Call us to attention!" the boys start whispering, trying to push her to perform just as Carroll comes by. She puts the whistle in her mouth, raises the sword, takes a deep breath, and does it.
"TWEEEEEEEEET! Band! Ten-hut! Ten-hut! U-S-C! Beat the Spartans!"
Carroll didn't stop but he was watching as he zoomed by. Everyone stared in silence until he exclaimed, "Yeah! That's the way to do it!"
Graves pumped her fist into the air in ecstasy and some of the guys yelled, "Fight on, Coach!" Once he was out of earshot everyone let out the nervous laughter and disbelief that they had been holding in.
"I think if I can do that in front of Pete Carroll then I can do it in front of the whole band," Graves said.
The Most Visible Drum Major in the History of the Universe
The Spirit of Troy, the University of Southern California Trojan Marching Band (TMB) is one of the most well-known and distinguished collegiate marching band programs in the nation. Much of this is due to the success of USC's athletic teams -- the band performs at every football game and many other sports, and when the teams do well, the band gets on TV.
However much of their fame comes from their own merit. The distinctive Trojan helmets, the SoCal attitude (complete with sunglasses), the distinctive "drive it" marching style, the booming sound, and the hardcore fanaticism all set them apart in the mind of USC fans and enemies alike.
They're a big deal -- and they know it. With a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek they call themselves "The Greatest Marching Band in the History of the Universe." And yet another moniker they claim is "Hollywood's Band," due to their long history performing in movies, television shows, and thousands of special events per year ranging from the Olympics to movie premieres to alumni family weddings and bar mitzvahs. Just in the past year they performed on the Grammy's and the Academy Awards in addition to the television shows House and How I Met Your Mother.
As the leader of all this, the TMB drum major is highly visible. Clad in a tunic, golden armor, gigantic helmet, leather sandals and holding a three-foot sword, the camera absolutely loves him.
"The thing about our drum major is that he goes everywhere the band goes, every time the band is in uniform, he's there," said Dr. Arthur C. Bartner, director of the TMB. "He always gets picked up by television, even on the road."
When Bartner first came to USC in 1970 the drum major was traditional-style.
"They had a guy in a white uniform with a white helmet and white tennis shoes and it looked absolutely ridiculous!" Bartner said. "The band had no identity, it had like 80 members and it was the laughingstock of this country. Seriously, it was the worst band. They needed an identity. I knew that guy in the white ice cream suit had to disappear."
The first generation of bandsmen under Bartner helped to create that identity as the Trojan motif was becoming more popular all across USC. They began playing the now-famously repetitive battle cry "Tribute to Troy," developed the traditional pregame show and introduced the new Trojan drum major and his routine of marching out to the center of the field, alone, and stabbing it -- claiming it for the Trojans.
"It is a very lonely thing when you march out into the middle of the field and you've got 100,000 people staring at you," said Sean Jenkins, TMB assistant director and a three-time former drum major. "It's just you. And some people handle that better than others."
Growing Up Graves
When you first see Stephanie Graves one of the last things you can imagine her doing is donning the armor, wielding the sword and yelling out commands as TMB drum major. But, seeing is believing, and once you actually see her in action it's much less difficult to picture this strong woman leading the mighty TMB.
A ballerina, sorority girl and devoted Christian, Graves grew up in Palm Springs as an only child. Her father attended USC for graduate school, and once she started watching collegiate football during high school she became an avid Trojan fan.
Her father and grandmother had played the French horn, but despite urging from her elementary school band director she chose the flute instead.
"I didn't want to [play the French horn] because it wasn't girly!" Graves said. "Later on I decided I was tired of saying that my dad and grandmother played and I wanted to play."
In high school, she started playing the mellophone (which is a marching version of the French horn), the instrument she plays now. After an intense campaign against a classmate, she was elected drum major of her high school band for her junior and senior year.
During her freshman year of high school, her parents gave her a copy of "The Spirit of Troy: In Studio" album, which was the beginning of her love affair with the TMB.
"I remember listening to it over and over and I walked into the living room and said `Oh my God, if I ever go to USC I am so going to be in this band,'" Graves said. "I loved it. I loved `Tusk' even before I knew it was a big deal. And my love of USC marching band and football just grew from there."
With honors classes, leadership positions, and many other accolades in tow, Graves was accepted and soon on her way to USC and the TMB's band camp.
You never know what people will remember you for, and Graves was immediately recognized for her band camp fashion choice, black shorts labeling her "DANCER" across the backside. Cute new freshman girls always get attention from the typical college boys in the band and Graves was no exception. Something about those shorts stuck in people's minds and many affectionately referred to her as "dancer butt" for some time.
Another thing that Graves became known for is her outspoken commitment to her Christian faith. She quickly became involved in the TMBible Study, an unofficial group of band members that gathers for fellowship, and she never shied away from expressing or defending her beliefs.
"You get to a point, especially in college, where you do have the choice of do you really believe this? Do you really want to stick with it or is it something you just do with your parents?" Graves said. "And I hit that point when I came here. It became more important than ever before. It became my life -- God became my lifeline even more than He already was."
She also got involved in the USC Chamber Ballet Company, which at the time was a brand-new organization, where she served as their annual show's director for two years. In addition, she has an internship in the USC athletics sports information director's office.
The Band Has Spoken
Drum major voting day usually goes by in a flash, though some candidates spend the entire semester -- or even years -- preparing for their moment of truth in that random cemented pathway.
The process is completely democratic, and Bartner wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm a firm believer that this is a democratic decision," Bartner said. "Everybody in the band has the right to select their leader. They cannot select me -- they're stuck with me! But they do select section leaders, squad leaders, and the drum major. I really do have faith that the band will make the right decision."
The fact that the band chooses the drum major themselves engenders a high level of respect for the chosen one -- an element that is absolutely necessary if someone is going to lead the more than 300-member band.
"One of the unique and special things about the position is that it's selected by the band," Jenkins said. "They're selected by their peers and they choose who they feel would best represent the band in that capacity."
The drum majors' responsibilities -- other than stabbing the field, standing in front and looking fierce -- include giving motivational speeches to each section on game day, correcting drill on the field, conducting the band at times, assisting and organizing the section leaders, boosting morale and setting an example.
According to Bartner, there are four main elements that people should keep in mind when voting:
"First of all there's a look -- their carriage, their posture, their build, their physique -- because of this [Trojan] image. They have to march hard and be the epitome of our marching style. They have to have musicianship because they have to conduct the band.
"Then the fourth thing, you start talking about the qualities of a leader because they have to have the respect of everybody in this band. They have to go around and give the rah-rah speech to each section on game day, they have to be able to go around and make corrections on the field, they have to be able to discipline, and they should really be the most outstanding bandsmen that we have."
In order to get "the look," many drum major candidates devote countless hours to working out. The 2008 drum major, Eddie Carden, worked out for a year prior just to get ready for it, and in the spring semester of tryouts he was in the gym literally every day.
The tryout itself consists of three elements. The first is to lead the other drum major candidates in the basic stationary commands: attention, left face, right face, about face, and at ease. The second is to conduct and march "FTF" (Fanfare, Tribute to Troy, and Fight On), emulating the routine that the drum major does during the band's pregame show.
Finally, each candidate gives a speech. Unlike typical campaigns the speeches contain few pleas to the voters and are more about getting the band excited for the upcoming football season. A typically "good" drum major speech contains plenty of call and response opportunities for the band to cheer (or leer regarding opposing schools), some humor, and an inspirational moment.
"The speech part is very important -- how he expresses himself," said Bartner, who refers to everyone as "guys" indiscriminately. "I think that becomes a very important element to the band. If a guy gets up in front of the band and he stutters and stalls then he's really not intellectually ready for the position."
The Quest for the Sword
So what made Graves want to run for drum major -- and what makes her think she can fill the sandals left behind by 40 years of Tommy Trojan look-alikes? It wasn't an easy decision.
For her first two years at USC, she had no desire whatsoever to try out for drum major.
"I love tradition, that's one of the things I love about this band, and I love the fact that we've got this masculine warrior leading us into battle, I'm cool with that," Graves said. "I'm comfortable with myself and I'm not into the whole massive feminism thing, and no offense to anybody who is, but that was not on the radar. I was like, `No, I like tradition, and if it's going to be broken it's not going to be by me.'"
However during the fall of her junior year she had an unrelated discussion with a friend regarding leadership styles that led to an epiphany.
"I suddenly realized that so much comes from the tone that the leaders set, and the example they set," Graves said. "My goal coming in as a freshman was eventually to be section leader, but suddenly I realized that if I wanted to make as big of an impact as I said I did then I needed to take a risk and go beyond just trying to be section leader only. When the first thought popped in my head to try out for drum major I thought, `That's crazy!'"
When Graves would describe her sudden revelation later, some of her detractors would mock her behind her back, saying that God was telling her to try out for drum major -- but that wasn't the case.
"I did feel like a conviction if you will, some people said like a calling from God," Graves said. "I was like `well, yeah...' but there wasn't like a light shining down on me, there wasn't a burning bush in the room, my laptop didn't set on fire and talk to me. It was just something very quiet and deep down, but something I couldn't deny -- that if I want to really make the impact then this is something I have to do."
Graves began breaking the news to her friends and family.
"I just smiled because that's her," her father Craig Graves said. "She'll go after things that a lot of people will say can't be done."
Her mother Dawn was more cautious, surprised at first and slightly worried about the time commitment.
"Nothing she does surprises me anymore," said Dawn Graves. "You look at her chances and you think they're probably not very good, but at the same time I wouldn't put it past her."
Graves quickly began starting to work out with the help of Kenny Morris, a band member who had tried out last year and lost and was getting ready to try again.
"He met me at the gym one time and he showed me how he got ready for tryouts the year before and he told me which things were going to help," Graves said. "And we went through his whole routine and I adopted it."
In addition to working out several times a week she began thinking more and more about why she was doing this.
"I want to be that voice when everyone's frustrated," Graves said. "When everyone is not sure how the season is going to go and everyone's mad at each other, to go `look, like why are we here?' And just kind of remind everybody to come together for the right reasons. I want to be that voice telling people to remember what it means to fight on."
In the meantime, Graves lost the section leader election to another girl. At that point, becoming drum major was her only chance to serve in a major leadership capacity with the band -- something she had always wanted.
Officially, the drum major is not Tommy Trojan; Tommy Trojan is a statue in the middle of campus. But for all intents and purposes, people call him that and think of him as that, due to the similar costumes. But since the drum major is not actually USC's mascot, there's no rule that says it has to be a male. Yet no female has ever won the position.
There's no official record, but a few have tried out over the years -- with only one that anyone can remember as being a serious contender. And although everyone seems open to the idea, it just hasn't happened.
"It's open to anybody in the band and the band being roughly 40 percent female -- that's a lot of people," Bartner said. "Can it be accomplished? Yes. I think it would be terrific to be honest with you."
"I think it would be great," said Jaki Johnson, a friend of Graves from outside of band. "It would especially help get women more into football, it would show a lot of school spirit and it would show the band's willingness to have women in leadership positions, which is always great. I think the media would love it and it would be a lot of positive attention on the band and on the school."
So it can be a girl, but it's got to be the right girl.
"It's not a matter of male or female," Jenkins said. "It's a matter of `is this person going to be able to physically do this?' That is not a statement that women are the weaker sex, it's a statement about the person as a candidate. Anyone that even attempts to or thinks about trying out for drum major, they've really got to think about the physical demands -- male or female. From a standpoint of somebody who's done it there are times that I thought I would just fall down dead because of how exhausting it is."
Graves acknowledged her own insecurities about the physical aspects.
"I'm not worried about the speech or the vocal commands, because I'm just as loud as the guys," Graves said. "But the physical strength is going to be a huge part of it, and that's just what I'm worried about the most. I'm 5-4 and 104 pounds and I wasn't meant for this role, but I'm still going after it. I may never get up to the level of some of the guys, but the last thing I'd want to do is embarrass myself or let down the people who've been believing in me this whole time by not being ready."
But Graves is quick to point out that she is doing this for the good of the band -- not for any personal fame.
"Would it be cool to say `I was the first female drum major at USC?' Yes." Graves said. "Anytime you make history, it's cool, but that's not my main motivation and I'm trying to separate myself out from that as much as humanly possible. If I thought [a girl] was doing this for ulterior motives like being the first and doing something for feminism then I wouldn't vote for her.
"I'm not doing it to be a girl; I'm doing it to be a leader."
Finally it was voting day, Tuesday, April 21. Graves attempted to mentally prepare herself for either result.
"It's not going to be easy and it hasn't been easy but it's been worth it," Graves said, just minutes before the tryouts. "I can honestly say that if I don't get it I have no regrets and if I do get it I cannot wait for the fall."
Bartner selected a random order to begin and Graves went second for the commands section. For FTF they reversed the order, so she was second to last.
"Physically it was probably one of the most intense experiences of my life because I just went all-out in a way that I never have before," Graves said. "Of course you march hard on the field and everything, but it's whole different dynamic with the sword in your hands and being in front of 300 people. And when finally I got to the end I was though that was probably the best I had done strength-wise, but I literally wanted to throw up afterwards."
Fortunately that didn't actually happen, because Bartner decided to have Graves go first for the speeches.
"That was really the most exciting part," Graves said. "Being able to talk to the band and trying to pump them up and being able to tell them my version of what I thought the spirit of fighting on is"
Voting was a hard decision for many of the bandsmen. Among the seven candidates no one had a weak performance and there were three or four different frontrunners in the minds of different band members.
"It's definitely not normal," Bartner said. "Normally you've got one or two really good candidates, but here you're talking about three or four, and Stephanie is kind of an unknown too, just because it's such a rarity -- so there's a lot of unknowns."
After the first vote count there were two clear frontrunners. Graves came in fifth place.
"There was that moment of disappointment because of course I wanted it and wanted it badly or else I wouldn't have put myself through the last several months," Graves said. "My worst fear was walking away knowing I messed up really badly at one point and always wondering if that's what kept me out of the running. Now I know. I didn't embarrass myself in front of 300 of my peers, but I did -- I honestly did my very best, and I'm ok with that."
The band voted again in a run off between senior trombone Kenny Morris and sophomore trumpet Tim Larson. The results from that were so close that the band had to vote again on the Saturday after performing at the Trojan Huddle, the spring football scrimmage. Morris emerged victorious.
"I knew how badly Kenny wanted it and when I saw the look in his eyes when he got it -- I was just so happy for him," Graves said. "He was really supportive of me trying out and kept telling me how proud he was of me and was very encouraging, so I wanted to be the first to encourage him and tell him how proud I was of him and the way that it all went down."
Graves received countless text and Facebook messages congratulating her on her performance. Many said she proved people wrong and that she was a true inspiration.
"That was a huge encouragement," Graves said. "No regrets. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Despite the fact that she's not drum major or section leader, Graves is not giving up her dream of impacting the TMB.
"There is a slight sense of disappointment because I wanted to do so much more in my senior year," Graves said. "But also the realization -- and people keep telling me this -- just because you don't have a title doesn't mean that you're not a leader, and sometimes the strongest leaders don't even have titles. That's the attitude that I'm going to go in with. I can still make an impact."
Even without titles, Graves is now recognizable as an example to all the returning band members.
"I'm suddenly known as `that girl who tried out for drum major last year,'" Graves said. "We're all known for certain things and before that I was that horn girl who wore the dancer shorts my freshman year for band camp and that's what people knew me as. And to go from that is a huge leap -- not that the other one was bad, but it just shows how much you can grow and how much you can change in college and in your four years."
Besides extra upper body strength, Graves says she has gained something invaluable from the experience.
"A lot of times you have to get something at the end to make it worth it, and that wasn't the case at all with this," Graves said. "I still got so much out of the process and the positive reaction after the tryouts that I'm totally ok with it. And I'm not beating myself up and I'm not depressed about it, and being able to have that attitude about it is the best lesson I could get from this."
Next fall, Graves will be a squad leader and senior in the band, and with a small section, it's likely that she will be an influential leader regardless of title. This summer she landed a dream internship at ABC-7 Eyewitness News' sports department.
After all this, she still believes that a girl can be drum major.
"It may not be right now, and it's going to take a very special girl to change everybody's minds," Graves said. "As long as there's a strong male competitor he's always going to have the edge, maybe just because it's tradition. And that's not necessarily a bad thing; I just want to see the person who is best for the job get it."
And Graves' dedication didn't go unnoticed by those in charge either.
"She's loyal, she's persistent, she's involved in the program," Bartner said. "I've watched her on the field, she's a good bandsman. She always tries hard, she always marches hard, and she plays well."
In the end, her outlook is best described by something she said before the tryouts.
"Students at USC, we want to be in control, we know how to get what we want, we got ourselves to USC and we're going to get ourselves through," Graves said. "Sometimes as hard as I work, if I just give it up to Him and just realize that whatever's going to happen is meant to be and part of a higher plan -- I'm very at peace, and even with this too, as hard as it seems and as much as I want it, I have to give the circumstances up to Him."
• Elizabeth Geli is a special contributor to USCRipsIt.com. You can contact her by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, and it will be forwarded to her.
[All photos courtesy of Katie Richards]