The response surprised Dr. Danny Frye.
He and his assistant band director, Chris Thompson, spent weeks this summer interviewing incoming freshmen through a computer screen to see if they wanted to join the newest tradition at High Point University.
They all said yes. All 40.
They’re now the newest members of the Marching Panthers. It’s a dream that Frye, HPU’s director of athletic bands, has had for two years.
Frye, Thompson and a few others have recruited the band’s largest freshman class during a global pandemic. They came to march, play music and receive a $3,000 music scholarship.
The marching band is now 78 members strong. This fall, they’re getting ready.
That requires a lot of practice, especially in a mask.
The Work Begins
It’s a Sunday afternoon beside a creek on campus. Frye begins to listen.
He stands before 10 lines of musicians in a field behind HPU’s Coy O. Williard Sr. Baseball Stadium. Even in his floppy white hat, black sunglasses and a mask that covers his entire face below his eyes, he’s easy to spot.
His microphone headset gives him away.
He wants band members to hear him through his mask. But as HPU drum major Mikaela Olmsted directs band members through another tune, Frye stands silent. When the band stops, Frye begins to teach.
“That’s good,” he says. “Trumpets, I want you to blow. This is not concert band. Also, ask yourself, ‘What is the legacy I want to leave here?’ This is part of your legacy. Either you know it, or you don’t.
“But I trust you. I know you’ll fix it if you think it needs fixing.”
Across the creek in a Millis Center parking lot, Thompson drills the drumline on another cadence. He knows the potential he hears. He played with the acclaimed Cold Steel drumline at North Carolina A&T University.
Today, Thompson directs the HPU drumline, the Panther Pulse. He’s in a purple Marching Panthers mask, wearing a microphone headset, encouraging his percussionists at every break.
“Alright, not bad,” he says. “Let’s do it a little quicker.”
The drumline starts another percussion drill. The marching band begins another tune. Frye and Thompson listen once again.
“It’s better,” says Frye when the band finishes. “Exceptionally better. We still have a long way to go. But remember, if you can survive this level of constructive criticism, you’ll do well in any job. Let’s keep going.”
Frye glances at Olmsted. She knows.
“Horns up!” she yells.
Creating A Legacy
Olmsted hails from Cameron, North Carolina. She followed her brother, KC, to HPU – and into the pep band. He played clarinet and graduated with a math degree in 2014. Olmsted graduated in May with degrees in business administration and music performance.
She’s now enrolled in HPU’s newest program. In May, she’ll obtain a master’s in communication and leadership, a degree she says will hone her leadership skills and better prepare her for a career.
She wants to be a professional musician. She’s played clarinet since she was 6. She marched in high school and worked her way up to drum major. When she came to HPU, she played clarinet in the pep band – just like her brother.
Last year, she became the band’s drum major. She felt nervous during that first rehearsal. Frye looked at her and said two words.
She did. She does now. Always in a mask.
“It’s a little weird because none of us are used to it,” she says, “but I know we’ll do what we have to do to spread school spirit and our passion.”
She remembers when the pep band had 20 members. The Marching Panthers is now nearly four times that size.
“I’m very excited,” she says. “I get to see my brother’s legacy and my own legacy continue on.”
Jordyn Whitted feels the same way.
She’s an HPU senior from Mebane, North Carolina, and she plays the alto sax. The band, she says, has helped her understand the importance of inclusion and appreciating people’s differences. After four years, she sees the band as one big family – and it’s getting bigger.
It now includes majorettes, a color guard and a drumline. She can’t wait to see what happens next.
“I’m glad to be a part of something new at a school that’s nearly 100 years old,” says Whitted, a Media Fellow who will graduate in May with a degree in strategic communications and a minor in marketing. “We’re setting a precedent, and I can’t wait to come back in 10 years and say, ‘They’re doing the same thing we did in 2020, except without masks.’”
The Magnet of Music
Meet Zach Amigo, Olivia Farrell and Nyila Johnson.
They’re three freshmen, the newest members of the Marching Panthers. Amigo came north from Fort Mill, South Carolina; Farrell came south from Oakton, Virginia; and Johnson came from the other side of the country. She’s from Mountain House, California.
Amigo and Johnson play alto sax; Farrell plays the snare drum. All three back up what Frye found in a national study. One of big reasons students choose a particular college or a university is to join a marching band.
The music scholarship helped. But what solidified their decision to come to HPU was the chance to start a new musical tradition.
“It’s an honor to say, ‘I’m one of the first,’” says Johnson, a business entrepreneurship major. “I’m part of a band that’s keeping it positive during a huge pandemic. We’re bringing music to the school.”
“What my school lacked was spirit,” says Farrell, a psychology major. “But High Point has a lot of spirit already – think of the meaning of ‘extraordinary’ – and the band will bring a lot more spirit, especially during a tense time.”
Because of COVID-19, the pandemic’s deadly virus, Frye relied on two national studies to find guidance on how to keep his band members safe. They play in masks, their instruments have HPU bell covers, and those with a clarinet or sax play their instruments through a big, purple bag.
A year from now, following the arrival of a vaccine, band members will be mask-less. They’ll step into a 4,500-seat basketball arena and perform in HPU’s new campus centerpiece – the Nido and Mariana Qubein Arena and Conference Center and Jana and Ken Kahn Hotel.
Band members can’t wait.
“After COVID is over, we’ll be around all those people, feeling their energy, all of us rooting for our team,” Johnson says, “Like one huge family.”
At a recent Sunday practice, band members stood out six feet apart in 10 lines. In the second row, Amigo held a purple bag that contained his alto sax.
He earned All-State honors in South Carolina. His high school marching band made it to a national competition in Indiana, and his senior year, he was his band’s drum major. At HPU, he plays his sax wherever he can.
He plays inside The Café and at the Lakeside Gardens sitting in the Big Chair. Like Farrell and Johnson, he joined the band to keep music in his life.
“I wanted to keep playing,” he says. “It’s become a part of me.”
The Color of Music
Color guard is a part of Stephanie Caldwell.
She started as a high school sophomore in Lincolnton, North Carolina. She loved spinning huge flags on six-foot poles and throwing them in the air because the visuals matched the music she heard.
Caldwell calls it “spinning color guard.” It’s an avocation that gives her what her high school band director always said about marching band: “It’s a Joy like no other, a Joy with a capital J.”
As a senior at HPU, Caldwell helped create HPU’s first color guard. In 2019, she graduated with a degree in elementary education and went on to earn a master’s degree in elementary education at HPU.
She’s now a third-grade teacher at a school 15 minutes from campus. She’s also the coach of HPU’s color guard. Her captain is Addison Hartley, a junior graphic design major from Ripley, West Virginia.
Hartley calls herself an “OG,” one of the original members from Caldwell’s first color guard. Like Caldwell, Hartley found color guard in high school, and it merged her love for dance and music. When she practices and performs at HPU, she feels closer to home.
“I get text messages from home asking, ‘You still in color guard?’’’ Hartley says. “I tell them I feel blessed to keep doing what I love.”
“It’s a joy like no other,” she says. “I wanted people at HPU to experience that.”
The Work Continues
When Sunday’s practice ends, band members begin packing up their instruments and sharing thoughts about their two hours behind the baseball field under an afternoon sun.
“I need a shower,” a band member says, leaning against the center field fence. “I’m sweating so bad.”
In a Millis Center parking lot, Thompson’s microphoned voice floats across the creek. He’s encouraging his drumline one more time.
“Good work today,” Thompson says. “Make sure you stay hydrated. And make sure you do what? Practice!”
To Frye, band is a “microcosm of life.” His band members get it. They’ve come to know firsthand the importance of working together. Through the discipline of practicing and playing music, they know the life skills they’ll gain will help them the rest of their lives.
The practices twice a week exhaust them. But they know it’s worth it. They’re creating a new tradition at a university that began in 1924, and they are the university’s loud ambassadors in purple, what Frye calls the “Spirit of HPU.”
Here they come.