When Kelly Ballard, GPS band and orchestra director, ventured to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville for undergrad, she knew she wanted to study music. In fact, she received her degree in vocal music. However, in addition to a beautiful singing voice, Kelly also played the piccolo in the UT marching band, the Pride of the Southland Marching Band. “Flute was my main wind instrument at the time,” Kelly said, “but the drill The Pride marches is unsafe for flutes because of how close they get!”
Kelly had been her high school’s drum major her junior and senior years, which gave her the confidence to apply for the same role at UTK her junior year. “It was pretty much a known fact around the band as well as with alumni that women weren’t selected for the role of head drum major,” she said. Regardless, she wanted to try. The process, she explained, is pretty rigorous. “It begins with a written application for anyone who is interested. If your application is accepted, you move forward with a formal interview, a prepared marching sequence, a demonstration of the high kick ‘strut,’ a prepared stand tune of your choice that you run a rehearsal with, as well as turn at leading actual music in the stands during the spring football game,” she said.
Her effort and skills paid off, and she was awarded the role as the first female drum major in UTK history in 2005. Since her tenure, three other women have also earned the title. When she was selected for the role, she admitted feelings were a bit mixed. “To be the first woman in, at the time 137 years, to do something was very heavy,” she said. “A lot of people were thrilled, and a lot of people were upset. As a people pleaser and someone who wanted to be liked, that was a big weight to carry!”
But the experience was something she looks back on fondly. In early November, Kelly traveled back to her alma mater for Homecoming Weekend, where each of the female drum majors were recognized. “Having the chance to stand out there with the three women who have followed me meant so much, and that feeling was not wasted on me,” she said. “To do something that you truly connect with, something that you really had to work for, and have it become a reality is an incredible thing!”
The four women were charged with leading homecoming, and they received the music to rehearse about a month before. Once the weekend arrived, there was little downtime. “The night before homecoming we met at dinner and talked and laughed about all of our shared experiences. We had a blast!” she said. “The next morning, registration began at 6, with music rehearsal at 7:15 and out onto the practice field until 9. It was cold and exhausting, but so much fun! Then we had a very quick donut and coffee break before we followed the parade route and marched to the stadium, and then enjoyed the game until halftime. We played in the stands minimally, which is always a good time!”
Halftime, she said, was incredible. “To see what we could put together in just a couple of hours was amazing! Some of the alumni were in their 80s! Everyone came together to put on an amazing show. We played music honoring women of Tennessee including Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton!” Kelly conducted Aretha’s “Respect.”
Kelly enjoyed being back on campus and said, “Everything is different, and yet it still feels the same.” Watch a video from the day's festivities here!