Finding her Rhythm

Sophomore earns drum major position


Sophomore Michelle Arriaga conducts during an afternoon band rehearsal. She arrives early and stays late for every practice to help out and to be there people. “I definitely have to dedicate a lot more time to the band program now,” Arriaga said.

With her heart pounding in her chest, sophomore Michelle Arriaga climbs onto the gleaming podium to conduct her first halftime show. Exposed and elevated before the entire stadium, Arriaga feels the excitement of a live performance rush through her. Looking out across the entire band and knowing that they are all in this together, she doesn’t feel nervous at all.

Sophomore drum majors are few and far between. When chosen, they are expected to be a perfect representative and leader of their band for three years. They sacrifice normal high school lives, but Arriaga has given up even more than most.

Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts is an art magnet school in downtown Dallas that is highly regarded for being a prestigious school. Arriaga was accepted into Booker T. Washington for dance. Throughout her 8th grade year, she planned on going there to pursue dance, but she chose to come to Hebron instead to be in the band.

“What made me change my mind was that when I looked back on it, my two years’ experience of being in the Honors Band at Killian with Mr. Chilton had really shaped me as a person and changed my life,” Arriaga said. “It taught me a ton of life lessons that my whole entire life of dance didn’t. The environment in dance was never as positive, and I never liked the people I was surrounding myself with there. Sure, band is equally as competitive, but it’s way more like a family and I definitely felt that at the freshman camp the band held in May. I knew that I had to come here instead of go dance after that.”

Robert Chilton, the head band director at Killian Middle School, was also the first to encourage her to go for the drum major position, after she led a student rehearsal for the trumpet section her 8th grade year.

“He approached me about it and showed that he had faith in me, and that was a big deal to me because I had always been second chair my whole life and was always kind of looked down on,” Arriaga said. “The fact that he believed in me really just opened my mind to the possibility that maybe I could do this. This program has opened so many doors for me, and I really felt that it was necessary for me to give back to the community. I wanted to show that I’m committed to this band 100 percent.”

To become a drum major, you have to make it through an extensive audition process: four written essays, attendance at weekly meetings, teacher evaluations, a round one audition in front of the entire student leadership team, a round two audition that includes considerable testing of ability to conduct, teach and keep time, and two interviews – a personal one with the senior officers and a formal one with the directors.

“The essays I wrote ended up totaling to 10 pages, and in my interview they were actually like, ‘So we see that you’ve written a whole novel about this,’ but I just had so much to say,” Arriaga said. “Compared to everyone else, my interview was very short, which I knew was a good thing because that meant they didn’t have many questions about me. That was when I kind of knew that I had a chance, because it went well and I spoke well about all my ideas. The whole process was so worth it, and even if I didn’t get it, I still learned a lot about leadership, staying motivated, and most of all, myself.”

Arriaga does her best to maintain a positive energy during rehearsal to be an example for the rest of the band along with Serena Bharia, Lauren Baker, and Abby Rieger. “The other drum majors do a good job of reminding me that I’m doing a good job, which is really nice to hear because we’re all carrying a lot of weight on our shoulders,” Arriaga said.

Assistant director JP Wilson said he is proud of how well Arriaga is doing so far and believes she is improving and learning from her mistakes every day; he is also excited to see how Arriaga will continue to lead the band in her next two years.

“I think that so far, Michelle is doing a great job trying to figure out her new role as a drum major,” Wilson said. “She is dedicated to doing the best job that she can and putting the best version of herself out there every day. I think she plays a very important role in the future as well. Picking a sophomore drum major is a big investment in the student. We feel that she will strive every year to be a better drum major than the year before. This is important because as an organization, we strive to do the same thing, so having leaders on the same page is very valuable.”

Taking on the role of drum major with only freshman year under her belt, Arriaga is dealing with entirely new levels of responsibility while trying to balance them with the other aspects of her life.

“The responsibilities in general have increased a lot, and that’s affected my personal life in that I’ve had a lot less time to do the things that I did have time for last year, like theater,” Arriaga said. “I’ve had to sacrifice a lot and I’m still involved in it through the Bravo class, but I am unable to participate in any of the shows this semester, which is really sad. It’s really hard for me because theater’s always been a huge part of my life, so I’m really upset about it.”

Being the head of a band of 300 students also comes with a new set of pressures, stress and expectations for Arriaga.

“It really depends on how you take things,” Arriaga said. “Because I am a sophomore drum major, I tend to get critiqued a lot more and I get blamed for a lot of stuff, but I try my best to stay positive. You have to learn to keep your head up high and take it the right way. I learned that from dance because it was extremely competitive – I’d get told I didn’t have the right body for it or I was too fat to do things. Being a drum major, you are in a very vulnerable state with people watching your every move, so it does get to you, but you just have to learn to overcome it.”

The other three drum majors, seniors Serena Bharia and Lauren Baker and junior Abby Rieger, all have a year of experience in the role. Being a sophomore drum major herself last year, Rieger is very impressed with Arriaga and her ability to blend in with the rest of the drum major team.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between her, a rookie, and the rest of us, who are going on our second year,” Rieger said. “She’s so bafflingly sweet that she has a handshake with probably every single brass player in the band. She really goes out of her way to connect with other people.”

Arriaga has high aspirations for the band’s UIL State marching competition this November, but mainly wishes for a good experience rather than a winning placement.

“I really try not to focus on the whole winning aspect of things, because I just want the band to have their best performance at the end of the season and to feel as though they’ve tried their hardest and done their best,” Arriaga said. “At the end of the season, that’s all you can control. You can’t control what other bands do or what the judges are going to think or what the scores will be. I just want them to walk off the field in San Antonio knowing they’ve had the best performance in them, and I hope that it changes them as much as it’s changed me.”