The UW Marching Band was established in 1885 and drum majors, student leaders within the band, have led the musicians on the field nearly that entire time. According to Songs to Thee Wisconsin, a book that chronicles the history of the UW Marching Band, details are sparse on the first few drum majors.
In the years before 1920, the Marching Band had close ties to the military, so there was little of the showmanship we expect to see today. Drum majors were dignified, no-nonsense leaders, easily recognizable in their tall white, military-style hats. They were responsible for giving commands (keeping time with their baton or using a whistle) to ensure the rest of the band marched in sync.
The first drum major to capture fan attention was Charles Williston, who took up command of the band in 1927. A member of the press wrote that he was “the neatest strutter in the Big Ten, and the handiest with the baton.”
In 1972, Director of Bands Mike Leckrone ushered in a new era of drum majors at UW-Madison. He wanted the drum majors to show more flare, so he instituted shorter twirling batons, and replaced the regulation-style trousers with breeches and boots. That year, when drum major John Strickler ’75 strutted onto the turf at Camp Randall and executed a graceful backbend at the beginning of the On Wisconsin Fanfare, a tradition was born.
Today, the UW’s drum majors are well known for their high energy. Any member of the band can try out for the coveted position of drum major at the beginning of the fall semester. Leckrone and the band’s field assistants judge the drum major candidates’ ability to twirl and toss the baton, invent a creative way to catch it, march, give vocal commands and bow — extra points to those who can bend so far backward that the tip of their tall white hat touches the ground. Hopefuls must also come up with inspiring words for the band, because the drum major always gives the final address after practices and football games. Finally, Leckrone and the field assistants interview all drum major candidates. Because drum majors are the only members of the Marching Band who do not play their instruments, candidates are not judged on their musical abilities.
After the tryouts, one drum major and one assistant drum major are selected. (The assistant drum major suits up for the Homecoming game.) The drum major starts each pre-game show with five whistle blasts and later a sixth to start the “run-on” to the field. The drum major makes a final appearance during the finale of the UW Varsity Band’s spring concert at the Kohl Center.