By Neal Reid
Brianna Jarvis arrived on the Auburn University campus to start her freshman year in fall 2017 as a shy introvert unsure about what her future would hold.
This fall, the senior will help lead the Auburn University Marching Band (AUMB) onto the field in front of nearly 88,000 loyal football fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium as the band plays the Auburn fight song and whips the crowd into a frenzy.
Jarvis, a first-generation college student from tiny Reeltown, will be making history as the school’s first Black female drum major.
A music education major in the College of Education, Jarvis survived the grueling weeklong audition process last fall after throwing her band hat in the ring for the prestigious role. She was notified in December she had been chosen as one of four AU drum majors for 2021-22. Jarvis was selected along with DeZayveon Dickerson, Ryan Griffin and Parker Mercier to lead the 380-member marching band. It all begins Sept. 4 when the Tigers host Akron.
“I can’t wait to hear a full-capacity crowd,” said Jarvis, who will graduate next spring. “With this past season being so limited because of COVID, just getting the chance to practice on the field with other people has been great. The thing I’m most excited for is pregame. The routine is something we’ve been working really hard on.”
Jarvis was trumpet section leader last year and said that was initially the peak of her goals with AUMB. But at the urging of then-drum major T.J. Tinnin, she reconsidered.
“He was like, ‘I think you should audition, and I think you would be a really good fit,’” said Jarvis, who has performed with the Auburn Concert Band, Basketball Pep Band, AU Singers, Auburn Jazz Band and Trumpet Ensemble. “When T.J. and I started talking, we realized there hadn’t been an African American woman in the position, and I feel like that helped motivate me.”
Gravitating toward music
Jarvis followed her mother, Jennifer, into the world of band, first picking up an instrument at age 10 and joining marching band in seventh grade. She chose the trumpet partly to challenge herself to change her naturally timid ways.
“At that age and after watching several Friday night halftime shows, I realized that the trumpets were the instruments that got really cool melodic lines and a lot of solos, and I was a little bit of an overachiever,” Jarvis said. “So I wanted to try and push myself out of my comfort zone, and here we are.”
Jarvis would look on in awe when Auburn band students visited her high school. She began to flourish as a performer, thanks to the tutelage and encouragement of Reeltown High School Band Director Tyler Strickland, a two-time Auburn graduate who is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa.
“I went to a really small high school, and college was something that I really wanted for myself, but Auburn seemed a little far-fetched,” said Jarvis, an all-state band selection her senior year in high school. “My band director went above and beyond trying to find opportunities for me, trying to make things work. He was really helpful in trying to get things situated for me coming into Auburn, and I just want to have that same mentality going forward for people.
“I guess that’s why I ended up being a music education major. I wanted to do the same thing he did for me.”
Strickland is married to Ashley Norwood-Strickland, who became AUMB’s first female head drum major in 2006 (Deborah Whatley was the band’s first female drum major in 1972) and was an influence on Jarvis while helping Reeltown High School with band camps. Strickland, who played in AUMB during his time at Auburn, is proud of his former pupil and sees big things in her future.
“I always knew she could do it, and I get chill bumps when talking about it,” Strickland said. “She’s always been so motivated and self-driven, it really didn’t take much on my part except encouragement. She is a fantastic person, leader and musician, and there’s nobody better to be Auburn’s first female African American drum major than Brianna.”
Auburn on the horizon
Growing up in the Tallapoosa County town of roughly 275 residents, some 30 miles from the university, Jarvis knew about Auburn because of its proximity. But, considering her entire graduating class was smaller than the AUMB trumpet section, it seemed a world away from what she thought was attainable.
“Going to college was a goal I had set for myself, and I really appreciate my mom being transparent with me and telling me I was going to have to get scholarships if I wanted to go to college,” Jarvis said. “I really appreciate her helping me, pushing me and helping me come up with a plan to get to where I wanted to be. She worked when I was in school, and my grandparents (Monia and Thomas Gay) took care of me, so it was definitely a team effort. They’re all excited, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Jarvis worked hard to secure the necessary scholarships, many of which were the result of individual donor generosity. She has received or currently receives eight scholarships.
After enrolling at Auburn, Jarvis entrenched herself in AUMB activities and her studies, experiences that helped her come out of her shell, develop as a leader and make friends.
“Coming into band camp and auditioning was super intimidating, but the thing that helped me the most was getting a true taste of what the Auburn family is during preseason camp,” Jarvis said. “You might think the veteran marchers would be self-involved and only worried about themselves, but there were so many people checking in on us and wanting to get to know us and make sure we were OK.
“It helped me open up, and over the course of time, I wanted to do the same thing for incoming freshmen. It really helped shape me as a person, helped shape my goals for what I want to do as a teacher and develop a lot of life skills I wouldn’t have had normally just being a student.”
The power of mentorship
Jarvis plans to become a band director and music teacher at the middle school or high school level, and she has been able to gain invaluable experience as a mentor and leader through AUMB. She has worked as an undergraduate instructor for the Auburn University Music Project and was a mentor for the College of Education’s EAGLES program – for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities – through the Department of Music’s United Sound.
Jarvis recently picked up a big fan and enthusiastic mentor in Jeffrey Rowser. Now the band director at Morgan County High School in Madison, Georgia, Rowser was the university’s first Black drum major from 1978 to 1980 and also the first in the Southeastern Conference.
“The amount of encouragement he’s had for me right off the bat was amazing,” said Jarvis, who met with Rowser in Auburn this summer. “He sends me encouragement and little nuggets of wisdom literally every morning.”
Rowser said he sees a lot of himself in Jarvis and is confident she will be a great leader for AUMB.
“She’s going to be simply outstanding,” said Rowser, who earned music education bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Auburn in 1980 and 1982. “Obviously, she showed some skill sets long before she became a drum major because of the trumpet leadership role she had. Her musicianship is so top-shelf, and she communicates so beautifully.”
Jarvis embraces the historical significance of her selection. However, she prefers the term “resource” instead of “role model” and hopes girls in middle school and high school look to her as an illustration of what they can strive to achieve.
“With my particular background and story, I would hope more people that relate can find comfort in being able to reach out to somebody who has more common ground with them than some of the other people who have been in the position in the past,” Jarvis said. “I hope that common ground would help make them more comfortable auditioning and continuing to participate in band. I hope in the same way it also will help encourage Black families to continue to support their children’s participation and success in the arts.
“Someone wants you there and wants to see you succeed,” she said. “There are people who are resources and are willing to be in your corner and help get you to where you want to be.”
This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.