Confidence colors Swierczek’s performance as drum major
Since women have been invading male domains for decades at Purdue, Stephanie Swierczek’s selection as drum major for the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band in 2001 didn’t really startle anyone.
But as only the third female to hold the position in 115 years of bands at Purdue, the Aurora, Ill., native has been turning some heads – and not just when she’s wearing black lipstick and fishnet hose as part of her gothic Halloween garb for Oct. 31 band practice or sporting a sundress and lei to conduct the Volleyball Band on Hawaiian night.
Confidence colors Stephanie’s posture as she works with the band in practice, struts onto the Ross-Ade field on game days, and conducts the band with strong, sure hand movements.
At the Iowa game, with 69,000 fans successfully doing the wave around Ross-Ade, Stephanie decided there was more fun to be had. Making a snap decision she signaled the musicians and successfully got the band and 68,700 fans to follow her in reversing the wave.
“I do it because I love it! I love putting on the uniform and doing something that impresses people, because it’s not something everyone can do. I love hearing the thousands of fans go crazy when we’re down there on that field, representing this school and supporting the team,” she says of being in band and being a drum major.
The junior political science/liberal arts major caught the leadership bug in high school when she served as drum major for the Waubonsie Valley High School Marching Warriors.
Band “is something I’ve always been passionate about. College is a lot more than books and classes. It’s spirit and friendship and memories. I didn’t want to lose those things just because I was leaving high school. Now it’s all happening on a bigger scale.”
Moving up to drum major at the collegiate level hasn’t been as easy as she’s made it look.
At first “I got some pretty nasty stage fright,” Stephanie admits. While nervousness comes with the territory for any rookie performer or athlete, the half-way point of the football season finds the drum major a lot more comfortable in her high profile position.
“I’ve learned to break game day down into little things that need to be accomplished. That way it doesn’t seem like one big overwhelming day,” she says.
Strutting onto the gridiron in her tall hat of black bear fur, that she’s playfully named Yogi, provides one of Stephanie’s most stressful moments on game day. Struts are more impressive, the more the drum major leans backwards as she or he moves across the field. “But I can’t lean back too far because I’m afraid Yogi (one-size-fits-all hat that doesn’t really fit) will fall off backwards and I’ll be choked by the chin strap.”
Her most glorious moment comes at halftime when she’s up on a ladder as part of a team of directors stationed around the field to guide the band through drills that create intricate patterns.
“I love the thrill of being on the podium in front of the crowd, hearing the roaring of the fans around me (I can hear my parents screaming for me over my right shoulder). I love looking out over the field and seeing every pair of eyes on me, or more exactly, on my hands,” she says. “Just to know I have some part in what goes on that gets the fans so excited and the band so intense is a wonderful thing.”
Purdue’s newest drum major knows her job calls for her to take charge and to set an example, not just on the field but in all the band’s varied activities. That presents challenges. “I have to be able to define things, to be able to joke around one moment then let band members know that now I really mean it,” she says.
“If band members think of me as a bad ass sometimes that’s fine. It means I’m doing my job. Most of my band friends are student leaders too and they know when I say something that’s me doing my job, it isn’t anything personal,” she says.
Like any rookie she’s made mistakes and learned from them. Part of her growth is finding the humor in embarrassing moments. She can smile when fellow drum major Shaun Jones teases her with “Steph 0, Drill Tower 1,” as a reminder of a painful encounter her head had with the tower. And she can laugh about the embarrassing moment all eyes were on her as she started to shout out the order of tunes for band practice and her mind went totally blank.
Seeing her speechless made the band dissolve in laughter. “And by the end of it I was on the ground laughing so hard I couldn’t blow the whistle,” she recalls.
“That happened Sept. 13 and it was the first time the band had laughed since Sept. 11. Afterwards I was sort of glad it happened because it got us all to lighten up and realize life goes on.”
Although she receives a lot of positive comments about being the third female to lead the Purdue band, she doesn’t like to dwell on the fact. “I don’t even think about it really. Sure, it’s great to be out there and visible, hopefully as an example for the younger women in the band to follow. But really I’m just trying to do my job the best I can,” she says.
“We’re one of the best marching programs in the nation, and to have my name associated with it is the greatest thing in the world. I want to give that pride and enthusiasm back to the members of the AAMB by doing the absolute best job I can.”
Shaun, a three year veteran at the drum major position, thinks Stephanie’s performance banishes any lingering stereotypes about women not being good candidates for band leadership.
“I don’t understand why people think the drum major position should only be reserved for men. Steph’s doing a good job of proving that’s flat out not true,” he says.
“Men and women have different leadership styles, neither is better or worse, just different. In my mind, our leadership styles compliment each other very well She’s got a lot of great ideas. I think she’ll take the drum major position up another notch.”
Stephanie does have the chance to be the first woman to hold the drum major position more than a year. Both of her predecessors – Anne Woods and Cathy Tuttle Russell – were seniors when selected for the post.
Experiencing Outback and Rose Bowl seasons as a marcher, Stephanie’s pile of memories promises to get even deeper and richer as a drum major. “I’m going to leave this place with a lifetime worth of memories,” she says, “and that’s worth more than anything education could provide.”
STEPHANIE’S PREDECESSORS: Anne Woods of Fort Wayne was the first woman to break into the previously all-male tradition of drum major in 1991-92. The second was Cathy Tuttle Russell in 1993-94. She still lives in West Lafayette.
Cathy and Anne never really knew each other, but “I knew just from sharing stories that she had a really hard time with other people in power coming up and saying you’re not doing it right, you’re a woman what are you doing,” Cathy says.
“I knew there were people out there who didn’t like idea of women being in band let alone being drum major, and that spurred me on,” she says. Since men way outnumbered women in her major (Interdisciplinary Engineering) Cathy felt comfortable competing in traditional male territory. “I decided I was going to kill them with kindness. I was going to make them like me,” she adds.
“I felt so honored that I was only the second female. It’s one of things that I’m really proud of in my life.”
At the time Cathy Tuttle Russell was drum major, Purdue was mired in losing season after losing season.
“I have no concept of what it’s like to be in band and have a winning season. I think the drum majors now have it easier. I can’t tell you how hard it is to get people excited when it (the game) is pretty much hopeless. You have to grin, have fun and do the banana cheer,” Cathy says.
“I had a really good time as drum major. My best memories are being in the stands and cheering on the band and trying to keep people in game even though we’re 40 points behind.”
Stephanie Swierczek’s selection as Purdue’s third female drum major and the first in 21th century signaled the continuance of a new tradition in bands for Cathy. “I’m really proud there’s another woman. It’s really neat Anne opened the door for other women to come into that position.”