After the marching band takes the field before Northwestern University football games on Saturdays this fall in Evanston, three drum majors run onto the field in their white-and-purple uniforms.
As the band’s master of ceremonies introduces the band’s leaders, Elisabeth Sladek from Crystal Lake is announced to more than 30,000 spectators at Ryan Field.
Sladek, and her two fellow drum majors, plant their maces into the ground and perform the traditional Big Ten backbend before the band plays their opening song.
A 2012 Prairie Ridge High School graduate, where she served as a drum major for two years, Sladek is a sophomore at Northwestern.
Sladek recently sat down with reporter Joseph Bustos to talk about being a drum major in a marching band.
Bustos: Why did you want to be a drum major?
Sladek: When I was 9 years old, my parents took me to my first Big Ten game, which was Northwestern of course, and I was watching the marching band ... and I saw the drum major run across the field and do all the performance stuff, and I was like ‘Mom, I want to be like him one day.’
Bustos: Is it rare for someone who’s a sophomore to be a drum major at Northwestern?
Sladek: I wouldn’t say rare, but I wouldn’t say it’s the norm ... [Band director] Dan Farris told us it doesn’t matter what age you are. ... It’s not suppose to be seniority, it’s by who can do the job the best.
Bustos: Being in the band is a heck of a time commitment. During the school year, how long are the typical practices?
Sladek: We practice Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, two hours a day. Thursday night is our later-night practices, and game day is all day. You have to block out Saturday. It’s hard to juggle that with classes sometimes, but it’s totally worth it.
Bustos: You were a drum major at Prairie Ridge. How is directing a college band different from directing a high school band?
Sladek: Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Prairie Ridge band. They were wonderful people, but at the same time, in high school you have a range of people that are 15 to 18 years old. Musicianship-wise, they’re not as advanced as they are in college. It’s easier to direct a college band because everybody knows more about their instruments.
Bustos: Is there a favorite song you like to play?
Sladek: When I was playing “Moves like Jagger,” because of the piccolo part.
Bustos: What’s it like having your name announced, and you’re high-stepping the entire time, in front of a crowd of more than 30,000 people?
Sladek: For the first time, completely nerve-racking, but also, it’s an indescribable feeling.
It’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. ... The energy of the crowd was so cool. Especially [the first game], being high school band day, the Crystal Lake Central Band was there. [When the emcee] announced “Elisabeth Sladek from Crystal Lake, Illinois,” and I heard them go nuts. That was a big confidence boost.
Bustos: What’s your style as a drum major?
Sladek: I’m still working on that. I try to give a lot of positive reinforcement because I know for me, it’s hard to take negative criticism. ... We’re all Northwestern students. We like to be really good at what we do. I always try to balance it out. ‘You’re marching too far on this, but you’re keeping the line.’ ... I like to think it’s important to lead by example, so I try to be the best I could be.