The University Record, July 9, 2001

For first time, woman chosen to lead Marching Band

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

The Michigan Marching Band always has been led through the tunnel into Michigan Stadium by the “man up front”—the drum major. Until this year.

After auditioning for the coveted title for three years, Karen England of Greenville was elected drum major by her fellow band members, the first woman to do so for an ensemble that made its initial appearance on a football field in 1898 and didn’t admit women to its ranks until 1972.

“I wanted this more than anything in the world,” England says. “Over the last few years, I knew I was going to have to make the band my No. 1 priority. That preparation will help me this fall in working with the Marching Band students and staff, some of the finest leaders at U-M. I am so fortunate to work with and for these people.”

Leadership is nothing new to the 22-year-old, fourth-year student majoring in astronomy and astrophysics with hopes of joining the country’s astronaut team. She also led her high school band for two years before playing clarinet for the U-M.

In her junior high years, England was a member of the Greenville Young Astronauts, led by a teacher who had worked for NASA. Together, they joined hundreds of other youngsters at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. There, England received the prized “Right Stuff Award,” signifying who has the “right stuff” to become an astronaut.

“One of the reasons I chose U-M was because of the opportunities I would have here as opposed to any other school,” England says.

Her U-M years haven’t been easy. Without a solid background in upper-level physics, she started from scratch. “During my intro courses, I was encouraged by many people to switch majors,” England says, “but this is really what I want to do with my life. It’s what I really believe in.”

England took advantage of the U-M’s Space Grant Consortium, an outreach project funded by NASA and designed for university students to teach younger students about space through workshops on gliders, wind tunnels, rockets and problem-solving exercises.

Last year, England joined a team that participated in the NASA Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program. She learned about the project through the Michigan Students for Exploration and Development of Space program. Team members traveled to Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they spent time with astronauts and sat in on talks.

England is well aware of the responsibilities that come with leading one of the nation’s premiere marching bands. She instructs section leaders in the fundamentals of marching in the U-M tradition and this year hopes to include more physical training measures in the program. She is especially concerned that band members are fit, that their feet and ankle muscles have been strengthened to endure the high-stepping marching techniques, and that they eat properly and get enough fluids.

Proper hydration is particularly important during the early part of the performance season, England says, when temperatures in Michigan Stadium are high and the band is wearing wool uniforms.

England’s own fitness regimen includes running the stairs of the stadium, lifting weights and doing stretching exercises that enable her to perform deep backbends and high kicks.

Fitness doesn’t stop with physical conditioning. Mental fitness also is important to Marching Band members. England visualizes the entire show before each performance. “I feel I was most prepared for tryouts this year as opposed to any other year because I had prepared mentally as well as physically,” she says.

Honored that the Marching Band acknowledged her skills and leadership qualities, England also is aware that she has become a role model for young women who aspire to succeed in areas that previously have been dominated by men. Her advice to young women comes from a quote her mother gave her: “First ask yourself what you want; then you have to do it.”

“I truly believe it can be that simple,” England says. “You use the goal quote as a mental tool. If you acknowledge what you want to do and put your mind to it, you can reach that goal.

“Don’t let those who came before you or what’s generally accepted prevent you from following your dreams,” England continues. “If you want something, do it to the best of your ability. Do it for you, and let others worry about the politics.”