AN EARLY INTRODUCTION
For Claire Wilcox, drum corps is a family affair.
Years before the Phantom Regiment conductor ever took the podium, she was well-aware of the community surrounding the marching arts. The daughter of a percussionist, she knew about the culture of the activity—and particularly, that of the Phantom Regiment.
“My dad actually marched in the ‘80s on bass drum with the Phantom Regiment,” Wilcox said. “I’ve always known about drum corps, and about the Phantom Regiment because of that.”
Wilcox, a music education student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, found her passion for marching music early on. Before her first exposure to Drum Corps International, her high school band career sparked an immediate interest in the activity.
“When I got into high school, I was super into marching band,” she said. “I was drum major there for two years and all of my best friends were very into DCI.”
Drum corps, specifically, influenced her conducting pedagogy. Wilcox drew inspiration on style and technique from various online videos of DCI drum majors. And one corps, in particular, not only held her attention, but encouraged her persistence and desire to continue learning.
“I was always watching other conductors,” she said. “I found myself watching videos of Phantom Regiment conductors and wanting to look like them. I wanted to learn from that legacy and to be a part of it.”
Her passion for the activity continued throughout high school, and all the while drum corps was, at times literally, in the background of her life.
“There used to be a show at McKendree University, which was about 10 minutes from my house,” she recalled. “I remember, both years it was there I couldn’t go, but I could hear them performing in the distance even though they were miles and miles away. That always just blew me away.”
And when Wilcox attended the DCI World Championship Finals in 2016, she knew that the drum corps activity was something she was going to pursue.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Wilcox commented. “I knew I couldn’t be done with [performing] after high school. I think that’s when I really decided I was going to audition.”
Before long, Wilcox found herself at a Phantom Regiment audition, and for the 2018 season, making her debut on the podium as head conductor for the corps.
Since her debut as head conductor of the Phantom Regiment, Wilcox has seen an increased social following and become a role model for young women across the country who see her accomplishments as extraordinary.
Being a woman has nothing to do with your chance to succeed and that shouldn’t ever be something you allow to hold yourself back.
But Wilcox, amid the recognition of her role, stressed that her achievement came from a dedication to her craft — and nothing unattainable at that.
“All of the messages I get from young girls who are inspired by seeing a woman on the podium are important,” she said. “But I’m no different than they are. I signed up and went and did it. Being a woman has nothing to do with your chance to succeed and that shouldn’t ever be something you allow to hold yourself back.”
And her performance has caused a noticeable ripple effect. Remembering back to her first year, she explained that out of nearly 40 drum major candidates, eight were women, with only two making it past the first round of auditions.
“This year, it was almost half and half,” she said. “Through semifinals and finals, the majority were actually women. That was insane to see. It was such a drastic shift from what it had been and what I had seen.”
I would like to see more women ‘going for it’ without a pressure to be something that they’re not.
Wilcox’s platform is unique, and the excitement of her story is legitimate. In many ways, she has played a major part in helping break a glass ceiling in drum corps, adding living representation to the ranks of female leadership in the activity.
But with the buzz surrounding her success as head conductor, much of her recognition focuses exclusively on her gender, overlooking her leadership and conducting qualifications. And while recognition is an important aspect of representation, the only aspect that should be overlooked, she says, is gender.
“There should be no special treatment either way because of my gender,” Wilcox commented. “I definitely long for recognition based on my conducting and my abilities and the hard work that I bring to the table, rather than just the fact that I’m a female.”
In the future, Wilcox hopes her story, and the representation it exemplifies in drum corps, inspires young women to remold roles that might seem to be outside of their spectrum.
“The way we see women and their opportunity is mostly a societal thing—I would like to see more women ‘going for it’ without a pressure to be something that they’re not.”
Phantom Regiment’s 2019 production, “I am Joan,” is an example of just that. According to the corps, the show “celebrates bold, empowered women and the spirit of revolution through the lens of Joan of Arc, one of the world’s most prolific independent women.”
“The word that comes to mind when talking about shows like this is ‘authenticity,’” Wilcox said. “It really comes from a place of looking at the organization—not just how they’ve treated women in the past, but what they’re doing to move forward.”
Any woman can do that.
The future is bright for the drum corps community. It is a place where the importance of diversity and achievement seamlessly weave into one another, and above all, one where individuals are given a platform to pursue their passions.
For Claire Wilcox, her personal passion of conducting will continue to inspire young women in leadership roles. And to her, the accomplishment is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a result of the dedication poured into her work.
Drum Corps International