Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series on drum majors for area college marching bands.
Notice anything different?
Yes, that’s a girl leading the LSU Tiger Marching Band onto the field for “Pregame.” But she’s not the first.
Mary Bahlinger is actually the third woman to wear the LSU drum major’s white uniform, a goal for which she’s been striving since joining the Mandeville High School Marching Band.
That was in ninth grade. Bahlinger had never played any instrument before that time, but she knew she wanted to be a member of the band at LSU.
“I love the band. I’ve loved it since I was 8 years old,” Bahlinger says. “My first LSU football game was LSU-Arkansas in 1998. I had no idea if LSU won, I just knew the LSU Band was the coolest, especially after seeing them do the ripple up in the end zone before ‘Pregame.’”
The ripple happens when the entire band hunches over, waiting for the drum major to take his — or her — place to begin marching. Then immediately on the first step, band members stand straight in intervals, causing a ripple effect from the west sideline to the east.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to be in the LSU Band,” she says.
Bahlinger then learned both her mom and dad played musical instruments in high school. Her mom played flute, but Bahlinger chose her dad’s instrument, the saxophone, and later led her high school band as assistant drum major.
“I joined the high school band with the idea of becoming a member of the LSU Band,” Bahlinger says. “LSU was the only college I applied to when I was a senior.”
And Saturday, she’ll make her Tiger Stadium debut when she leads the Tiger Band from the south end zone before LSU’s game against Sam Houston State University.
Tiger fans know the drill. Bahlinger won’t be a part of the ripple this time around but its mainspring, and fans will cheer through the pageantry of it all. The cheering will grow louder when Bahlinger blows her whistle, and fans will clap to the drum beats.
Then comes the moment when all eyes will be on Bahlinger. It’ll happen before the band halts for the drum fanfare leading to those first four notes. Everyone will be waiting to see if she catches the baton after what has become known as “the toss.”
Every LSU drum major performs the toss at pregame, throwing the baton high in the air. It twirls a couple of times before being caught and plunged into the ground. When it’s executed with precision, the toss can be a beautiful thing. But some past drum majors have missed the catch and opted out of the toss for the remainder of the season.
“Oh, I’ll be performing the toss,” Bahlinger says. “I’ve been practicing it all summer, and I’ve caught it every time. I know the crowd waits for it.”
Each of her words is laced with confidence. This is her sixth year in the band, and last spring was her third tryout for drum major. She put a lot of time into her tryout preparation in 2013, but she took a different approach in 2014, seeking advice from friends. She even returned to Mandeville High to try her hand at conducting her old band.
Finally, a friend gave her some valuable advice.
“She said, ‘Walk in with confidence,’” Bahlinger says. “I’d tried out before, and I knew what to expect. But my friend was right. If I walked in with confidence, everyone would see it.”
Bahlinger realizes that her position carries a big responsibility.
Band Director Roy King expects her to be at the right places at all times. It’s her whistle that signals the band to line up on Dalrymple, to step off for pregame and halftime.
Yet there is a delicate balance. Bahlinger has friends throughout the band’s 325 members, and she wants to maintain these relationships.
“I thought about all of this before I decided to try out for drum major,” she says. “I thought about what I wanted to be as drum major. A lot of people see this position almost as separate from the band, but I want to make this position as great as it can be. I’m the leader, so I have to set an example. But even though I’m the drum major, I’m still a part of the band, and I’m still approachable.”