There are stars still twinkling in the early morning sky when Jessica Henderson sits down at her kitchen table with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and coffee. It’s 5:30 a.m. on September 28, and in just about seven hours, Henderson will be leading the Pride of the Southland Band members to Neyland Stadium for kick off.
But kick off is not where game day begins for Henderson.
Before her alarm went off, Henderson dreamed she had missed practice and the march down to the stadium.
“I just never fully sleep the night before a game,” says the auburn-haired twenty-year-old.
The band’s tradition of excellence, precision, and the pressure to do it all perfectly rests on her shoulders. As if that weren’t enough, Henderson also challenges perceptions: she’s a junior in a position usually filled by a senior and a woman in a role that has typically been held by a male.
Henderson is only the second woman in the band’s 144-year history to hold the position of drum major. It’s a high honor, but one that doesn’t come without criticism.
“I tell people, ‘It’s a job. It’s not a gender,’” she says. “My sex has nothing to do with what I can do. I love this position.”
Path to drum major
The path to becoming UT’s drum major began long before Henderson stepped foot on campus. She joined the middle school band in sixth-grade in her hometown of Lavergne in Middle Tennessee.
“I chose the flute,” she says. “It’s a girly instrument, and everyone wants to play it because it’s so pretty.”
In high school, she auditioned for volleyball and marching band and made both teams. She ultimately chose band and became assistant drum major during her sophomore and junior years, winding up her high school career as drum major.
“With the way I’ve grown, the amount of people I’ve met through high school band, corps and what I’ve learned through my college experience, I can’t even fathom not doing band,” Henderson says. “It’s something I could not live without.”
When she made the Pride of the Southland Band her freshman year, Henderson started out marching with the piccolo, “but it gave me a headache so I switched to baritone,” she says.
She often found herself next to her identical twin sister Beth, also a baritone horn player.
By the end of her first semester, Henderson—an environmental science major in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources—would eventually audition for the band’s top spot. There was no manual or book on the position so she shadowed the sitting drum major to learn the moves and football plays.
Henderson quickly realized, however, she had to put in time to earn the trust of the 330-member band. She marched the baritone horn her sophomore year and took on other responsibilities.
“You have to be a squad leader before you can move up in leadership,” she says. “Going through that year, I needed to be in that role to gain the respect of other band members.”
This past spring, Henderson finally auditioned for drum major. She bested the other four candidates—all males.
A football game later in the day means more sleep time for Henderson. The Volunteers take on South Alabama at 12:21 p.m. so it’s a 7:00 a.m. start for the band.
She rises an hour after her partying neighbors have gone to bed and makes one final inspection of her gear before she leaving her off-campus apartment under cover of darkness.
Extra hat—check. Extra plumes—check. Extra white gloves—check. Four black whistles—check.
The four whistles are on or around the drum major at all times: one around her neck tucked under her jacket; a second around her neck, hanging in front of her jacket; and two more in a bag nearby.
One beep of her whistle, and the band responds to the unmistakable call to attention or action. It’s five hours before the game, and the band goes through one more rehearsal. By that time, it’s too late to make any changes, but Henderson anticipates that the long hours of practice three days during the week have corrected any glitches.
As the band readies for the march to the stadium, Henderson wraps her long ponytail into a bun and tucks it under her hat. She’s all smiles and wide grins but once the band lines up on Pat Head Summitt Street, she puts on her game persona complete with military stance and a straight face.
Henderson’s responsibilities go beyond the band’s pre-game and half-time shows. As the Vols duke it out on the field, she must keep track of the game plays to ensure the band performs at the correct time to cheer on the players, rouse the fans or intimidate the opponents. She also must stop the band during plays or risk being penalized for distracting the opposing team.
Assistant drum major Christian Angueira provides an extra set of eyes and ears for the game plays.
Henderson enjoys the field performance the most. Her favorite part of the band’s performance is the “Salute to the Hill,” in which she celebrates UT with a knee to the field and an acrobatic-like back bend.
“I practiced the back bend for so long that when I do it with my hat on, the feather always touches the ground,” she says with pride.
When Henderson graduates from UT, she desires to use her degree to serve others.
“I want to travel internationally and help provide clean water to countries that don’t have it,” she says. “It’s a necessity of life.”
Until then, she will lead the Pride of the Southland Band through the rest of the fall. The drum major position is for one season, and she’s yet to decide if she’ll reapply her senior year. For now, her focus is on ending the season strong.
Being drum major, Henderson says, “is a dream come true.”
Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)