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Molly Watters in a back bend.

Molly Watters in the signature drum major backbend.

Leader of the band

First female drum major sets the pace for the University of Minnesota Marching Band

By Pauline Oo

Sept. 26, 2006

Molly Watters does a mean backbend, and the University of Minnesota junior isn't even a limbo dancer or gymnast. She is the first female drum major in the University of Minnesota Marching Band's 114-year history.

"I learned the backbend by practicing every day," says Watters. "I would try five or 10 and every day I improved, little by little. Sometimes I would push myself and fall, but that just helped me [go further] the next time around.

Watters, who is studying political science and sociology at the U, landed the role of drum major in April--winning the hearts of the staff and 302-person band with her leadership skills, showmanship and signature drum major backbend. (The search began with applications in December, and those who qualified underwent three months of training in the winter and spring to learn the role.)

In addition to commanding the attention of a full stadium--during halftime at football games--the drum major must be able to lead, teach and rally the troops on and off the field. This school year, 101 band members are rookies from the Class of 2010.

"It's a lot of work," says Watters of her new full-time job. "With classes, work and band, it's hard to fit everything into one day." But she isn't complaining. Watters says her best moment, so far, as drum major occurs almost every day after band rehearsal.

"It's a tradition of the Marching Band to sing Hail! Minnesota, the state hymn and [school song] after every rehearsal, and I absolutely love conducting it," she says. "It's such an honor to be able to do that."

The band meets Monday through Thursday from 4:15 p.m. to 6 p.m., and additional rehearsals are held on Friday nights and Saturday mornings before all home football games. While music majors are encouraged to audition for a place in the band, most Marching Band members major in other disciplines. All band members, whatever their major, are required to register for Music 3480--the official marching band class in the School of Music.

Catch the action

In August 2005, U of M Marching Band appeared in a 30-minute TPT-Channel 2 documentary, "Pride of Minnesota: Backstage." The show also offers a glimpse at the types of students who join the band and the time commitment that goes along with participation. You can watch a clip or read more at "From backstage to prime time."

Also, you can buy tickets for the 45th Annual Minnesota Marching Band Indoor Concert on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 3 p.m by calling the U of M box office at 612-624-2345.

When asked why she auditioned for the role of drum major at the U, Watters replies: "Many people share my love and respect [for the Marching Band] and want to do what they can to improve it. Because of my background and natural leadership skills, I felt that for me, leading was the best way." Watters was an athlete at Eden Prairie High School and joined the marching squad in her senior year. She also played the mellophone with the U's Marching Band, Hockey Pep Band and Women's Athletic Band.

The University of Minnesota Marching Band was founded in 1892 as the University Cadet Band, with 29 members--all men. In 1910, the first formations and halftime "show" were presented during the Gopher football season. Women first entered the Concert Band in 1934, and during WWII women could be found "filling in" in the marching band. In 1950, a new "Girls' Band" was formed at the University, which later was called the "Women's Division" of the marching band. Women were finally added as full members to the marching band in 1972. (In 2006, three of the five drum major finalists were women. Penn State is the only other Big Ten school that has yet to select a female drum major.)

Today, the Marching Band--a.k.a "Pride of Minnesota"--performs at every Gopher home football game, as well as the homecoming parade, one Vikings home game, and an occasional football game on the road. (In a good year, that also includes a road game around New Year's Day.) There's also the annual Indoor Concert at Northrop Memorial Auditorium, when the group showcases its entire repertoire.

As the drum major, or leader of the group, what exactly does Watters want people to go away with after they've seen her and the Marching Band?

"Most of all, we like to entertain our audience," she says. "We want to make sure they enjoy our performance. But additionally, we want to instill a pride in our University and our state."

Molly Watters

The band performs this Saturday (Sept. 30) when Minnesota plays Michigan in the Metrodome for the Little Brown Jug. The game will air live at 7 p.m. on ESPN and WCCO-AM (830). Michigan holds the edge (67-24-3) over the Gophers since their first meeting in 1892.

So, will Watters kiss a pendant or carry a lucky penny around before that game to calm the heebie-jeebies?

"I don't really have a specific preshow routine to calm my nerves," says the future attorney. "I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and visualize what I need to do in the performance. I think it comes from being an athlete for so long."