By Keisa Sharpe-Jefferson
The Birmingham Times
From the stands the role of a drum major may look like sheer fun and entertainment but those few hours on the field provide only a small glimpse of the discipline, practice and rehearsal that goes into performances eagerly anticipated by tens of thousands.
Ask Markelle Ross, lead drum major for the Miles College Purple Marching Machine, a 22-year-old business major in his senior year.
As the team prepares for their final road trip of the 2023 season on Saturday Oct. 28 when Miles visits Albany State in a Southern Intercollegiate Association (SIAC) matchup Ross will be on campus tending to his daily schedule that goes far beyond what many would consider the standard business hours of 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
“Studying before practice, studying after practice, studying before you go to sleep, studying when you wake up. It’s just about incorporating all those things into your daily routine …,” said Ross, who’ll wake up as early as 6:45 a.m., if he was an 8 a.m. class and who will go to sleep on some nights as late as 12:30 a.m. “With school work, it can be stressful, but also, learning how to process all those things,” he said.
And, as head drum major, his leadership leads him to be the first on the football field for daily (Monday through Friday) practices at Albert J. Sloan – Alumni Stadium.
“Practice starts at 5 p.m., but we’re here usually around 4:30 p.m. before anyone else gets here. And we [drum majors] are the last to leave. Then we go back to our rooms to study. Then the next day, we do it all over again.”
A Trio of Excellence
Ross is one of the school’s three drum majors. The other two are Nathan (Nate) Jackson and Devante Overstreet, both from Birmingham while Ross is from Dawson, Georgia.
Being drum majors means more than providing direction on the field, he said. “They make sure band members get in on time and get their music together.
“It’s [that we are] always inside the band room helping out one another, trying to catch the rhythms [of the band], getting new music, passing out new music. [We are] trying to help in any way,” he said.
In other words, making sure the band is operating as smoothly as possible and keeping everyone on task is what Ross considers one of his main jobs.
Saturday is game day and rest, in some form, usually comes on Sunday.
Ross says excellence in their studies is a requirement, as well as being in top physical shape for the demands of practice and game day performances.
With his two other drum majors alongside him, Ross stressed the importance of personal character, excellence and integrity.
“This is a major leadership role,” he said. “We are accountable for anything that’s happening with the band. If anybody is confused or doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s basically our fault.”
“Whatever we do, people are watching us so we know we can’t do what everyone else does. People recognize us.”
With graduation set for next spring, the main task for Ross now involves being an example to his fellow band members and grooming Jackson to be Miles’s next drum major.
As a music major, Jackson, gets very little “free time.” He graduated from Center Point High School (where he was also a drum major) and plays drums for Faith Deliverance Overflow Ministries, instrument on Sundays.
Overstreet, 23, is a graduate of Birmingham’s Jackson Olin High School where he was a drum major in high school as well. While attending Miles, he also works and attends classes when he’s not practicing or performing as a drum major and is set to graduate in the spring like Ross.
Post-graduation, Ross said he would like to teach. Being a drum major is not just what he does, it’s who he is.
“I’d love to go to a school helping out with drum majors,” said Ross.
“I also have a clothing line as well, so I’m really big on business and fashion.”
Ross said he had plans of being a drum major going back to when he was 10-years-old at Terrell Middle School in Georgia new I wanted to be a drum major when I saw the person with the tall hat. I wanted to understand this role, what this position was – anything about it just to get an understanding.”
That curiosity and deep desire led him to become a drum major at his high school which he continues at Miles.
And while this is the high season with weekly Saturday football games, his work extends into spring with continued training to build endurance while participating in parades and other events to showcase the discipline, leadership, talent and school pride drum majors exude.
Can just anyone audition for the role of drum major? “If you’ve got a 1-2 step, you can be a drum major,” said Ross with a smile as he recently walked across the field at the Albert J. Sloan Alumni Stadium.
And yes, Ross says, drum majors do need to know how to dance.
Edited at 9:43 a.m. on 10/27/2023 for clarifications.