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Omaha Magazine

Marching Through a Unique Year: Drum Major Sarah Ernst Leads the Husker Marching Band

Jun 25, 2021 04:44PM ● By Mike Whye

After not performing in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium during football games in fall 2020, about 50 of the normal complement of 300-some members of the Cornhusker Marching Band played during the spring game on May 1, 2021. For many, it was their first and last public appearance of the academic year.  

Senior Sarah Ernst, who was chosen to be a drum major last spring for the 2020-2021 season, led the band in her first, and only, public appearance. She conducted the band during rehearsals just before game time, and then through the National Anthem and school songs inside the stadium.  

“We just had to accept the terms of COVID,” Sarah said. “It’s been a sad situation for the students who are in their last year.” 

Born in South Korea and adopted by Phil and Sharon Ernst of Columbus when a few months old, Sarah’s passion for music began at age 4 when she shared piano lessons with her mother.  They were joined by Sarah’s older brother, Ryan, who had been born in South Korea two years before Sarah.   

“We never had to tell her to practice,” said Phil. “She enjoyed music.”  

Without urging, Sarah began playing the clarinet in fifth grade and later followed Ryan to play in the Columbus High School marching band. She played in the school’s symphonic band as well. After a couple years, she responded to the urging of a friend to try out for the position of drum major of the high school band and did that for two years.

Sarah also helped band director Jeff Peabody during her senior year as a teaching assistant for the freshman band. “I learned a lot about music administration from the...perspective of teaching a music class. I enjoyed that,” Sarah said.

Near the end of high school, she considered studying psychology in college, but Peabody suggested that Sarah major in music. Considering how she liked teaching, she started her studies to become a music teacher by enrolling in UNL’s Glenn Korff School of Music. 

During her freshman year there, she applied to play in the Cornhusker Marching Band; however, she was not selected.  

“After that, I was really considering not auditioning again,” said Sarah, who nevertheless went on that year to audition for, and was accepted to, the university’s pep band, Big Red Express. With about 120 musicians, this band pumps up fans’ spirits at men’s and women’s basketball games, volleyball and softball games, gymnastic events, and wrestling matches.  

In the pep band, she met other students who were also in the marching band, and they encouraged her to try again to join the larger band. That time she was chosen, and played the clarinet in the marching band during her second year. Sarah then auditioned to join the school’s Student Leadership Team, a nonacademic group that helps other students with music instruction, marching, organization, and motivation, among other skills. The team also includes drum majors.  

Again, there were interviews and auditions. These included conducting the band through songs, and those wanting to become drum majors had to perform fast and slow struts and do that backbend all UNL drum majors do—the one where the feathery plumes atop their tall hats touch the ground behind them.  

Sarah once more wasn’t chosen. “I wasn’t actually serious about auditioning for leadership,” she said. “I just wanted to see what the process of auditioning for drum major looked like.”

Anyway, she added, she was fine with playing the clarinet in the marching band another year. Still, her competitive spirit urged her to audition one more time for drum major, this time at the end of her junior year. Because of COVID-19, the auditions were video submissions.  

When friends later texted her the results, saying that she was going to be a drum major, Sarah couldn’t believe them until she read the official results.  

Three others were also chosen as drum majors, and all help during the football games, said Professor Tony Falcone, associate director of bands. He said one stands on a ladder in front the band during the half-time shows while the others stand in other positions because the band takes up so much space on the field during its performances. He added that the drum majors rotate the positions between the home games.  

However, last fall was not a regular season due to COVID-19. No one marched. The scarlet and cream band uniforms remained in storage. The tall feathery plumes atop the drum majors’ hats never touched the ground during any backbend.    

Now 22, Sarah looks forward to student teaching in the junior and senior high schools in Raymond this fall. She will not, however, lead the band during the football games. “Student teaching takes up all your time,” she said.  

After graduating in December, she hopes to teach music in a junior or senior high school.  

“I’m sad to see her graduate,” Falcone said. “But I’m looking forward to the great things she’s going to do out there in the world.” 

Visit unl.edu/band for more information.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.