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U-M marching band drum major says it's a dream & honor to lead the band & learn from the experience

Walter Aguilar

University of Michigan Drum Major Walter Aguilar is a senior from Grand Rapids. He is the 56th drum major for the university marching band.

He talks with WEMU's Lisa Barry about the excitement of the upcoming rivalry game against Ohio State and the mixed feelings and emotions of this being the last home game experience for him and other senior band members.  


Lisa Barry: The University of Michigan football team wraps up its home game season this coming Saturday against its longtime rival, Ohio State. This is Lisa Barry. And while the focus is, of course, on the coach and the players, for many, there is also much attention and appreciation for the band.

Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen! Presenting the Michigan Marching Band! Band, take the field!

Lisa Barry: The University of Michigan marching band that works tirelessly to be the music amidst the madness of what's going on surrounding the action in the sport of the game, scoring in a different way by hitting the right marks and playing the right notes while moving in complex formations around the field. And leading them, in what I have called and will learn what it's really called, a big white furry hat and executing what some might consider the lost art of baton twirling. It's University of Michigan drum major Walter Aguilar, a senior from Grand Rapids. Thanks for talking to us here on 89 One WEMU. 

Credit Walter Aguilar
Walter Aguilar doing the backbend at Michigan Stadium

Walter Aguilar: Thank you, Lisa. Excited for the conversation! 

Lisa Barry: What is the big white furry hat? I'm sure there's got to be a better name for it. 

Walter Aguilar: You know, I think there is a specific, more technical name. I and we here just call it the big drum major. 

Lisa Barry: The big drum. 

Walter Aguilar: Everyone knows what it is. 

Lisa Barry: OK, good. So when did you know you wanted to be or how did it come about that you became the drum major for the U of M marching band?

Walter Aguilar: I did marching band in high school. I was drum major in high school, but it was very different. I just conducted in high school. I did not twirl. I did not do a back bend. I didn't even have a whistle that I used. So, it was very different, and I knew that I wanted to do more to get in college. And that's specifically why Michigan was my first choice. There are marching band nerds from the state of Michigan, like I was, you know, that the Michigan marching band is the real deal. So I auditioned. I got in, and even when I first got in, I didn't think about it much because I saw the drum major then who was Kevin Bing. I saw how great of a twirl he was, how great of a marcher he was, and how he could do the back bend. And I was like, "You know, I never done that before. I don't know if I could do that." Now that season ended and I decided, you know, I'm going to go for it. I really enjoyed it in high school. I thought it was great to represent your school and to serve and lead your peers. And so, I went for it. And my freshman year, I auditioned for Drum Major, and I didn't make it past the interview round. So, let me go back a little bit. Let me explain the process if I may. 

Lisa Barry: Sure.

Credit Walter Aguilar
Walter Aguilar leads the Michigan Marching Band.


Walter Aguilar: It starts off with an interview with Dr. Pasquale, the director of the marching band. He's just trying to get to know you. You know, why do you want to be a drum major? How was the audition process going? From there, he will choose semifinalists, and those semifinalists will perform in front of the directors and staff, marching, twirling, whistle commands, vocal commands, pre-game, which consists of the backbend and the goalposts passage, which many fans are very familiar with. From there, the directors and staff will choose finalists. It can be anywhere from two to four, and past years, it's been three. And those finalists will perform all of that, including a speech in front of the entire band. The entire band watches, evaluates, they vote at the end of that meeting, and the new drum major is announced. So, it's a long process. And my, like I said, my freshman year, I didn't go past the interview. Around my sophomore year, I was a finalist, and then I was a finalist again and finally got it in what was a unique year, which was 2020. So, all of this is my second year as drum major. This year, really, is my first in-person year, and so I got to experience a lot of what I've been waiting for. And, you know, I was inspired by the leaders around me. And, like I said, I enjoyed it a lot in high school and I said, "Why not?" I love the Michigan marching band. I love the people around me, and now as drum major, it's been an absolute dream and honor. 

Lisa Barry: How long have you been twirling? Because I have watched your amazing skill. And for someone like me who can't eat a salad without dropping a fork, I can't imagine what it's like twirling between my legs and all those moves that you're executing. 

Walter Aguilar: Yeah. You know, I actually started a lot later than many people. I started my freshman year, in November of my freshman year in 2017. And I say that that's later than most people because, for example, the twirlers, they've done it their entire life. 

Lisa Barry: Right.

Walter Aguilar: The twirlers here that I work with and I'm good friends with. They started when they were six years old. So, for twirlers, it's a thing that you do your entire life. But, like I said, my high school, we didn't do any twirling. We didn't do any of that. But some high schools do that. And so, they start a lot earlier. I wish I would have started a lot earlier. You know, it's funny. I went to a drum major camp in high school at Central Michigan University, and they taught us how to conduct and how, you know, leadership skills and all of that. And there was an optional twirling session, and some of my friends were in it. And I said, "You know, that's really cool, but I don't think I'll ever need that." And that's because I didn't twirl in high school, so I wish that I would have started a lot earlier. So I started my freshman year. But, again, like I said, I've had so many people around me that have been so supportive and so helpful. And although there is only one drum major at a time at the University of Michigan in the marching band, we're all very supportive of each other. We all want to help each other and teach each other. And so, I've been lucky to have been surrounded by so many great leaders and mentors that I've taught me everything that I needed to know to be successful as drum major.

Credit Walter Aguilar
Walter Aguilar entering the field at Michigan Stadium.


Lisa Barry: Speaking of the backbend, I hear as the drum major of the University of Michigan marching band, you, Walter Aguilar, are known for bending back farther than many others do. 

Walter Aguilar: That's true. We take the hat off.

Lisa Barry: Yeah. 

Walter Aguilar: And that hat, as you know, is very tall, so it makes it a lot harder. But that's unique here. The fans love it. That's part of the audition process, and it's something that people really enjoy and people really look forward to. 

Lisa Barry: And, again, that's something you haven't been doing your whole life? 

Walter Aguilar: Correct. When I was first trying to learn it, I remember falling so many times. In fact, there's another funny story, if I may. 

Lisa Barry: Sure. 

Walter Aguilar: I always had my sister record me. I said, "Record me. You know, I'm going to get it. I'm going to get it." And there are so many times where I first I would just fall on my back. I was like, "Oh, okay." And then eventually, I got my head to the ground, but I could not come back up. I just couldn't. And I was in that stage for a long time until, you know, I told my sister, "Hey. Record me this time. I'm going to get it. I'm going to get it." And that time, she was like, "No, you, you know, you haven't been getting it." Like, I'm just, you know, my storage in my phone is increasing. And that one time that she didn't record me, I got it for the first time. And, after that, I remember being sore for many days. Oh my gosh. But after that, it became something that I could do. And now, thankfully, I can do very comfortably. 

Credit Walter Aguilar
Walter Aguilar with the Michigan Marching Band.


Lisa Barry: How much discipline and practice time does it take to be the drum major for the U of M marching band? 

Walter Aguilar: Outside of rehearsal, it takes a lot, especially when you are auditioning. I remember my sophomore year during the regular season, during the fall of 2018, every Wednesday, I would go to the field behind Tappin Middle School here in Ann Arbor, and I just go out there and do stuff by myself. I record myself, especially during 2020, as I was preparing for that big audition. It was hard to interact with people for many reasons. Many fields weren't even open, so I recorded myself a lot. You know, how can I improve? How can I be better? And it takes a lot of individual responsibility, accountability, and discipline, like you said. And, at times, it's tough. There have been videos on my phone of just some training sessions where it just wasn't my day. You know, I got this and this and that, and you have those days. But it's those days that make the good days, the successful days, worth it. And so, it takes a lot of discipline, like you said. But I would argue also that can be applied to the rest of the band.

Lisa Barry: Right. 

Walter Aguilar: Not just me. It's not a one-person show. 

Lisa Barry: Right. 

Walter Aguilar: It takes a village here. 

Lisa Barry: Right. 

Walter Aguilar: All of us, we all work hard to do what we do, and I'm proud because we do it very, very well. 

Lisa Barry: Take us onto the field with you. There you are in Michigan Stadium. Thousands of fans around you, and this coming Saturday, the big football game against Ohio State. What are you feeling and what are you taking in when you're on the field with all that is going on around you? 

Credit Walter Aguilar
Walter Aguilar

Walter Aguilar: You know, that's a great question, and that connects to the theme that I've been trying to share this season. I wasn't supposed to be here this season. And what do I mean by that? I was supposed to graduate last year, but because of COVID, I decided to come back and have that experience and serve the band in what would be a difficult year. We took about 18 months off. The big question of the season for the directors and the staff and the student leaders and myself has been how do we go back to doing exactly what we do? Well, we've taken so much time off, and that's been difficult this year. But we've lived up to that challenge, and we've done it very, very well, like I said. And so, the theme of this season that I've been trying to share for others is that so many of my classmates, the class of 2021, they didn't get this final season. They didn't get this final opportunity. And that's heartbreaking. And so, what I've been trying to spread is to enjoy every single second, to soak it all in, and to never take it for granted. And I engraved all of the initials of the class of 2021 on my baton this year. You know, that's a great reminder to just enjoy it all. And so, I've been trying so hard to enjoy every single second, every interaction that I have with the 400 people in the band. Because it's special. It's an honor to not only represent the institution and those that have come before us, but the Michigan marching band is full of so many talented and dedicated discipline and just smart and just great overall human beings. And it is an honor to be able to enjoy that and spend time with that with them. And so, when talking about this game that's coming up, on top of being a huge rival game with great stakes on the line, I mean, it'll determine who goes to the Big Ten Championship, who goes to Indianapolis, and potentially who goes to the College Football Playoff. But for me and for the seniors this year, it's our last home game in the Big House. And so there will be added level of emotion, but I hope that it doesn't change where we just try to enjoy every single second. 

Lisa Barry: I feel like these are experiences and sentiments you will carry forth with you in anything you do and everything you do or your career moving forward. 

Walter Aguilar: Oh, absolutely. The skills that I have learned here, I mean, leadership is a huge one, obviously, but also time management. We are so busy, and you have our tough schedule. I mean, we have four back-to-back games this September. That means, like, four one week shows, basically. We only have about four or five rehearsals to learn an entire show, to memorize music, to know where exactly we're going, to have good visual form and technique, and that's not easy. And so, it's busy. But those skills have made me not only a better student, but in the future, a better professional as well. And so, so many skills that we learn here. And that's part of our mission here, of course, to have a great experience to have the highest level of musical and artistic performance, but also to prepare ourselves for the future because of skills that we learned here are ones that will cherish and champion for the rest of our lives. 

Credit Walter Aguilar
Walter Aguilar with his engraved baton.


Lisa Barry: University of Michigan drum major Walter Aguilar. Thank you so much for giving us a little insight into what's going on as you are leading the marching band on the field. Best of luck this coming weekend and the best of luck in your life moving forward with all you've learned and are sharing with us. 

Walter Aguilar: Thank you so much, Lisa. And, as always, Go Blue! 

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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