Don’t be fooled by Devyn Miles’ lanky, 110-pound frame with a baby smile that will charm even the toughest heart.
At 5 feet 10 inches tall, she does not settle for the conventional. In fact, she challenges the status quo.
And that, along with hard work, has earned her front-row presence with the Aristocrat of Bands, as the only female drum major on the Tennessee State University 221-member marching show band.
Miles’ presence breaks a long all-male dominance of the now four-member squad, considered the heartbeat of the band. She becomes only the third female drum major in the marching band’s nearly 70-year history, and the first in almost 20 years.
“I had been watching and wondering how come there is no girl up there,” said Miles, a junior computer science major with concentration in ‘bioinformatics,’ and a French horn player in the marching band and the Wind Ensemble.
After being with the band for three years, Miles was just not pleased with the continued absence of a female on the leading team, referred to as the ‘Fantastic Four,’ although she knew it would require a lot of work.
“Just then the call came out for applicants to try out for two drum major spots, and immediately I said to myself, ‘This is your chance Devyn,’” the Atlanta native said. “But there were some key requirements. Before even applying you had to have proven leadership skills, a minimum 2.7 GPA, and playing ability.”
For Miles, those seemed to be the easy part. She was averaging almost a 3.0, had been playing instruments since middle school, and she knew she could lead. She applied and made the final cut as the only female along with four males to compete for the two spots.
Miles was ready for what laid ahead—the auditions and conditioning. In fact, according to Acting Band Director Dr. Reginald McDonald, Miles was a formidable competitor in the tryout. She asked for no favors, and wanted no special treatment because she was a female.
“Actually what helped Devyn during the try-out process was that she did not look different from the men,” McDonald said. “She went out of her way to make sure that she was able to keep up with the men and that no one in our audience was able to distinguish the one female from the three males until they took off their hats.”
In the long history of the marching band, Miles’ team of applicants was the first group to go through a tryout to become drum majors. Prior to spring 2013, McDonald said the band director selected drum majors.
“First I was scared and felt some intimidation about the amount of work involved in the tryout, including a lot of practice,” Miles said.
But she was used to hard work. Playing the French horn, arguably the most difficult brass instrument to master, one must practice a lot. That she did in the tryout, to master every move, step, detail, and definitely, throwing and catching the mace.
“You can’t let your mace fall. It’s sacred,” Miles said. “I set my mind to it with a lot of practice until I found a comfortable way to do it.”
Miles was selected along with another male. Today, she is a key part of the ‘Fantastic Four’—standing tall, moving in unison with the others and gracefully tossing and catching her mace, as she and the other three drum majors whistle and signal commands to their fellow marchers.
“Devyn is a very capable part of our team and I am glad to have her as a member of the Fantastic Four,” said Semaj Wansley, head drum major and a senior music major from Moss Point, Miss. “I admire her work ethic. She overcomes those difficult obstacles placed before her, and I am sure that’s going to take her far in life.”
While Miles is thankful to her fellow band members and directors for their support, she can only imagine the difficulty her earlier compatriots faced more than 30 years ago (when the band allowed its first female) to make it possible for her to even dream of becoming a drum major.
“A lot of people supported me and there was no resentment toward me, and I thank them for that because if it was not for that support I probably wouldn’t be here,” Miles said. “I feel very fortunate and blessed because I heard it was not so smooth for the other females who were here before me. Their struggle and perseverance helped to pave the way for me.”
Felicia Carter Johnson was one of those females. As the first woman band member to become a drum major at TSU, Johnson, a Birmingham, Ala., native, had a bumpy start.
“I was teaching a dance routine when Prof. Edward Graves asked me if I was interested in becoming a drum major,” said Johnson, a 1983 graduate (biology), then a sophomore with a dual role of playing the tenor saxophone in the marching band and the baritone saxophone in the Jazz Band.
She agreed but little did she know the amount of resentment she would receive from her fellow band members.“I was resented mainly by the men and some even quit because I was asked to join, and that really hurt me,” Johnson said. “But I realized that I was a musician first, and I didn’t think it (drum major) was handed to me. I felt I earned it because I was just as qualified and good as any of them. There were many others who supported me and some of those who quit started coming back when they saw how well the band was doing. Some apologized to me later.”
Johnson’s perseverance, talent and leadership showed that women were just as capable as men, and paved the way for other women such as Quanda Watkins (’92 – sociology, trombone) of Atlanta, who would later become only the second female TSU drum major, and now Miles. These women, together, prove that anything is possible. You just have to have the courage to steer ahead.
“I am glad I didn’t just think about wanting to be a drum major. I saw the opportunity and I went for it,” said Miles, whose dream is to become a music producer or arranger.
For now, Miles is making sure her mace never falls, and staying in step with the Fantastic Four.
Don’t forget to come out on Saturday, Oct. 26, when the Fantastic Four and the Aristocrat of Bands lead the TSU Homecoming parade down historic Jefferson Street.