Banding together: The real director of the Marching Millers


Brenzlee Johnson and Aubrey Paul

Mikaela Westlund recognizes the sounds: the deafening clashing of sticks and mallets on drumheads, the shrill song of woodwinds, and the noise of booming brass instruments. It’s enough to drive most people away from the difficult task of conducting a band — sorting through all the commotion and clamor to find imperfections while directing your peers with confidence and clarity. As one of this year’s senior drum majors, Westlund isn’t one to shy away from that challenge. 

Westlund’s initial interest in marching band began the summer before she started high school. She says her love of music originated at home after watching her older brother’s participation in the Marching Millers program.

“I started as a freshman, but I was part of the show the summer before eighth grade,” Westlund said. “I [then] tried out for drum major as a junior after two years of marching.” 

According to Westlund, the newfound passion that she had for the art was seen from the very beginning of her marching career. 

“I always knew I wanted to be a leader in the band, I wanted to be able to support everyone who marched and not just a single section,” Westlund said. “It was important to me [to] have an impact on the other members and share my love for the activity.”

But what exactly does a drum major do? Westlund explains that the position is similar to an assistant for the box, which is where judges or directors sit, and acts as a leader for the field, or the group of musicians. 

“We conduct and help keep time for the band, but we also translate what the director wants to communicate,” Westlund said.

One major responsibility drum majors may face is performing under the scrutiny of their directors. For Westlund, along with her other drum majors, they must meet NHS band director Eric Thornbury’s high standards. 

“I would say that their ability to conduct and control time, especially without an audible pulse, is very important,” Thornbury said. “Our drum majors have to be some of the stronger musicians in our band because of that. It’s really hard to lead your peers.” 

Noblesville’s drum majors are hand-picked for the role, which is a unique process of its own. They’re selected from a pool of hopeful candidates who aspire to be the next leaders of the Marching Millers. In a normal year, only one or two contenders make the cut, but this year, three students were selected to lead the band. For the band directors, much consideration goes into picking the right musicians for the job.

Once the majors are selected for the year, they have to push through the pressure and meet the expectations their directors have set for them. 

“They’re the leaders on the field, and our rehearsal runs through them,” Thornbury said. “When the show starts [at football games], they’re in charge, there’s nothing we can do. We hope that our drum majors are prepared to lead the group very well. We always say the engine goes as fast as the leaders. We want the drum majors to be running ahead of the group and leading us to our goal every year.”

Former drum major and NHS graduate Cole Melton worked with Westlund during last year’s marching season, and the two were able to help Noblesville secure a spot in the state finals. 

“I loved working with Mikaela,” Melton said. “She was dedicated to working hard and always ready to learn, which is … essential to being a drum major. After all, you have to learn an entirely new musical skill.” 

Melton noticed Westlund’s diligence and commitment to perfecting her craft firsthand. As he worked alongside Westlund last year, leading practices and attending competitions together, Melton saw her love for marching band shine. 

“Mikaela doesn’t give up. At a summer drum major camp, a teacher challenged us to conduct two different meters at once,” he said. “At every chance she had before competitions, Mikaela relentlessly practiced the ‘double meter challenge.’ By the end of the season, she could get three or four measures into the pattern — a feat not even our band director could beat.”

Melton recognizes the difficulties of being a leader of the band when he recalls his time at Noblesville. 

“Being a drum major is about late-night conducting practice sessions in front of the bathroom mirror, greeting the new members after their first bus ride over from the middle school, and shouting a motivational speech from on top of a ladder outside Lucas Oil [Stadium],” Melton said. “It demands complete dedication, but if you can provide that, it’ll be the most rewarding experience you’ll have in high school.”

For Westlund, the opportunity to lead the group she loves has proven to be a tough job, but in the end, rewarding. She says that being in the position has allowed her to make new connections and receive exposure to other marching programs. 

“I love going to camp and meeting other drum majors from bands we’ll compete with throughout the season,” Westlund said. “The fact that I was drum major when we made state last year was amazing.”

By filling the position with enthusiasm and working through difficulties, Westlund has set the Marching Millers up for future success and, to some, has had a major impact on the lives and musical careers of those around her. 

“I love it,” Westlund said. “I have so much fun leading and being part of the band. It’s given me an opportunity to meet more people and encourage those around me.”