Three years ago, Matt Cloutier, then a Music, Theatre & Dance freshman, stood in his dorm room in South Quad twirling a shoe horn, trying to imitate then drum major Jeffrey McMahon’s baton twirling techniques.
Today, Cloutier, a senior, stands in front of the entire band and, soon, the entire Big House, having graduated from his self-described “really long shoe horn” to a baton. He takes off his hat and begins to bend backward, initiating himself into the Michigan drum major position (pun intended), all eyes on him. He has arrived.
Cloutier began his musical journey in fifth-grade band, playing the trumpet. He continued playing throughout middle school and his time at Grosse Ile High School, where he joined the marching band, but never had a desire to be drum major.
“The drum major role here is a tad different than it was in my high school,” he said. “By a tad different, I mean a lot different. Here, it’s more of a performance role as opposed to a conducting role. I saw what the drum major did my freshman year, and I was like, ‘Oh wow that’s pretty awesome.’”
At the University, the drum major’s responsibilities have much more to do with what happens off the field than on it. During Band Week, which is actually between two and three weeks during the summer depending on one's position, the drum major teaches the fundamentals of marching to the band for six to eight hours a day, first teaching all the new staff, then the new members, then returning members.
“I really enjoyed getting to learn about the teaching component,” he said. “It was really interesting over the summer; it’s so much more in-depth than I thought it would be. There’s so much more of a science to it.”
While Cloutier worked full time at AdAdapted, a technology platform, this summer, he went to Revelli Hall almost every day after work to practice his twirling and his teaching techniques. Former drum major Jeff Okala joined Cloutier to help with the transition, and past drum majors McMahon, David Hines Jr., Matt Cavanaugh and Gregg Whitmore all reached out to Cloutier with advice, too.
One of Cloutier’s favorite aspects of teaching is acting as a mediator between the staff and the band. As drum major, band members can approach him with any concerns they have, and Cloutier will work to find a solution.
“The staff’s not intimidating; they’re very nice, but it’s nice to have another student that’s a bit more approachable that they can come up to with any concerns or anything they have,” he said. “They can talk to me.”
The second part of Cloutier’s job is what he does on the field — the backbend, the twirling and the halftime performances.
“The twirling is fun because it’s the most creative,” he said. “You literally just make up whatever you want, and, as I’ve learned more twirling, it’s fun now because I can make stuff up more on the fly and just improvise my own little routine. That’s what I’ll end up doing during the halftime performances. There’s really not drill written out for me. Myself and the twirlers make up our own routines.
“During the twirling, I want to put some of my own personal flair into it and do some funny little dance moves and facial expressions,” Cloutier added. “It's funny; a lot of the past drum majors have been really big, big guys, so that comes across. A lot of the stuff they were doing was really intense, but I'm a little smaller of a guy — a little bit more goofy of a personality — just being able to show that in the halftime shows.”
But, let’s talk backbend. According to Cloutier, the first drum major to do the backbend without his hat on was Matthew Pickus back in 1993. Since then, it was off and on (again, pun intended) with which drum majors would keep their hats on or take them off until the early 2000s, when taking off the hat became more standard.
“Within the last 10 years it’s kind of become an unwritten rule for the student section,” said Cloutier. “They want to see the hat off. Before that, most people did it with the hat on; that gives you an extra two and a half feet.”
And Cloutier is a people-pleaser — he’s going to do the backbend without the hat, because he knows you want to see it.
"I want to bring an insane amount of enthusiasm for the band, for Michigan and for everybody out there in the Big House, too,” he said.
Approximately three years ago, a freshman Matt Cloutier stood on a volleyball court in the IM building trying to imitate then-drum major Jeffrey McMahon’s backbending skills. And for the first time, he succeeded.
Today, the senior Cloutier stands in front of the entire band and, on Saturday, The Big House. He takes off his hat and begins to bend backwards, all eyes on him as the top of his head reaches the ground. He has arrived.