Music education major Jarvis ready to help lead marching band as first African American female drum major

Published: July 01, 2021
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Brianna Jarvis arrived on the Auburn University campus to start her freshman year in the fall of 2017 as a shy introvert unsure about what her future would hold.

This fall, the senior will help lead the Auburn University Marching Band, or AUMB, onto the field in front of nearly 88,000 ferocious football fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium as they play the Auburn fight song and whip the crowd into a frenzy. That’s quite a leap for the first-generation college student from tiny Reeltown, Alabama, roughly 30 minutes down the road, especially considering Jarvis also is making history as the first African American female drum major in the school’s history.

Jarvis, a music education major in the College of Education, survived the grueling weeklong audition process last fall after throwing her band hat in the ring for the prestigious role and was notified in early December she had been chosen as one of AUMB’s four drum majors for 2021-22. She was selected along with DeZayveon Dickerson, Ryan Griffin and Parker Mercier to lead the 380-member marching band, and Jarvis can’t wait for the Tigers’ first game against Akron on Sept. 4.

“I can’t wait to hear a full capacity crowd,” said Jarvis, who will graduate next spring. “With this past season being so limited because of COVID, just getting the chance to practice on the field with other people has been great. The thing I’m most excited for is pregame. The mace routine is something we’ve been working really hard on.”

Jarvis served as trumpet section leader last year and said that was initially the peak of her goals with AUMB, but at the urging of then-drum major T.J. Tinnin, she reconsidered.

“He was like, ‘I think you should audition, and I think you would be a really good fit,’” said Jarvis, who also has performed with the Auburn Concert Band, Basketball Pep Band, AU Singers, Auburn Jazz Band and Trumpet Ensemble. “When T.J. and I started talking, we realized there hadn’t been an African American woman in the position, and I feel like that helped motivate me.”

Gravitating toward music

Jarvis followed her mother, Jennifer, into the world of band, first picking up an instrument at the age of 10 and joining marching band in seventh grade. She chose the trumpet partly to challenge herself to change her naturally timid ways.

“I was a really shy kid,” Jarvis said. “At that age and after watching several Friday night halftime shows, I realized that the trumpets were the instruments that got really cool melodic lines and a lot of solos, and I was a little bit of an overachiever. So, I wanted to try and push myself out of my comfort zone, and here we are.”

Jarvis would look on in awe when Auburn band students would visit her high school. She began to flourish as a performer and gain interest in what would eventually be her chosen career path thanks to the tutelage and encouragement of Reeltown High School Band Director Tyler Strickland, a two-time Auburn graduate who is now a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Iowa.

“I went to a really small high school, and college was something that I really wanted for myself, but Auburn seemed a little far-fetched,” said Jarvis, an all-state band selection her senior year in high school. “My band director went above and beyond trying to find opportunities for me trying to make things work. He was really helpful in trying to get things situated for me coming into Auburn, and I just want to have that same mentality going forward for people.

“I guess that’s why I ended up being a music education major. I wanted to do the same thing he did for me.”

Strickland is married to Ashley Norwood-Strickland, who became AUMB’s first female head drum major in 2006 [Deborah Whatley was the band’s first female drum major in 1972] and was an influence on Jarvis while helping Reeltown High School with band camps. Strickland—who played in AUMB during his time at Auburn—is proud of his former pupil Jarvis and sees big things in her future.

“I always knew she could do it, and I get chill bumps when talking about it,” said Strickland, who is writing his doctoral thesis about the history of AUMB from 1991-present. “She’s always been so motivated and self-driven, it really didn’t take much on my part except encouragement. She is a fantastic person, leader and musician, and there’s nobody better to be Auburn’s first female African American drum major than Brianna.

“She’s just a very motivated student and the best kind you can have. I really am so proud of her.”

Auburn on the horizon

Growing up in the Tallapoosa County town of roughly 275, Jarvis knew about Auburn because of its proximity, but considering her entire graduating class was smaller than the AUMB trumpet section, it seemed a world away from what she thought was potentially attainable.

“Going to college was a goal I had set for myself, and I really appreciate my mom being transparent with me and telling me I was going to have to get scholarships if I wanted to go to college,” Jarvis said. “I really appreciate her helping me, pushing me and helping me come up with a plan to get to where I wanted to be. She worked when I was in school, and my grandparents [Monia and Thomas Gay] took care of me, so it was definitely a team effort. They’re all excited, and I can’t thank them enough.”

Jarvis worked hard to secure the necessary scholarships—many of which were the result of individual donor generosity—and was given the chance to become part of the Auburn Family. She has received or currently receives the Achievement Scholarship, Ever to Conquer Scholarship, Robert W. Harris Memorial Endowed Scholarship, Annie Laura Newell Memorial Endowed Scholarship and the Provost’s Leadership Undergraduate Scholarship, as well as the Board of Trustees Scholarship, James W. and Elaine B. Lester Endowed Scholarship and the AU Marching Band Scholarship.

After enrolling at Auburn, Jarvis entrenched herself in AUMB activities and her studies, experiences that helped her come out of her shell, develop as a leader and make friends.

“Coming into band camp and auditioning was super intimidating, but the thing that helped me the most was getting a true taste of what the Auburn Family is during preseason camp,” said Jarvis, who has worked in recent years with students at Reeltown High School, Loachapoka elementary and high schools, Horsehoe Bend High School and Smiths Station High School. “You might think the veteran marchers would be self-involved and only worried about themselves, but there were so many people checking in on us and wanting to get to know us and make sure we were OK. They were just really involved with getting us comfortable and wanted to help, and it really felt like I was part of the Auburn Family.

“It helped me open up, and over the course of time, I wanted to do the same thing for incoming freshmen. It really helped shape me as a person, helped shape my goals for what I want to do as a teacher and develop a lot of life skills I wouldn’t have had normally just being a student.”

The power of mentorship

Jarvis plans to become a band director and music teacher at the middle school or high school level, and she has been able to gain invaluable experience as a mentor and leader through AUMB. She has worked as an undergraduate instructor for the Auburn University Music Project and has served as a mentor for the College of Education’s EAGLES program—for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities—through the Department of Music’s United Sound.

Jarvis—who is a member of the Kappa Kappa Psi national honorary band fraternity—recently picked up a big fan and enthusiastic mentor of her own in the form of Jeffrey Rowser, the first African American drum major in AUMB history. Rowser, now the band director at Morgan County High School in Madison, Georgia, was the university’s first Black drum major from 1978-80 and also the first in the Southeastern Conference.

“The amount of encouragement he’s had for me right off the bat was amazing,” said Jarvis, who was able to meet with Rowser in Auburn earlier this summer. “He sends me encouragement and little nuggets of wisdom literally every morning. He’s going to be a really good mentor for me.”

Rowser said he sees a lot of himself in Jarvis and is confident she will be a great leader for AUMB.

“She’s going to be simply outstanding,” said Rowser, who earned music education bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Auburn in 1980 and 1982, respectively. “Obviously, she showed some skill sets long before she became a drum major because of the trumpet leadership role she had. Her musicianship is so top-shelf, and she communicates so beautifully.

“Brianna represents a truly high level of excellence. She is such a delightful person, and I’m really happy for her.”

His advice to Jarvis was simple.

“I just told her to be herself and lead within her own personality,” Rowser said. “She doesn’t need to change anything, because Auburn University obviously liked what they saw in her already. So, she doesn’t need to let her leadership role change her. She’s going to be phenomenal as she is.”

Marching Band Director and Associate Director of Bands Corey Spurlin certainly concurs, and he has been able to see Jarvis’ progression firsthand during her time on the Plains.

“We are greatly looking forward to Brianna’s leadership as drum major of the Auburn University Marching Band,” Spurlin said. “Last season, she served as trumpet section leader and did an outstanding job. She is a talented musician and teacher with unwavering character and commitment.

“She is the type of student and leader who inspires others to give their best effort on and off the field. As our program transitions back to normal operations, we are extremely fortunate to have Brianna as one of the top student leaders of our band.”

Making history, inspiring others

Jarvis embraces the historical significance of her selection as the school’s first African American female drum major. However, she prefers the term “resource” instead of “role model” and hopes girls in middle school and high school look to her as an illustration of what they can strive to achieve.

“With my particular background and story, I would hope more people that relate can find comfort in being able to reach out to somebody who has more common ground with them than some of the other people who have been in the position in the past,” Jarvis said. “I hope that common ground would help make them more comfortable auditioning and continuing to participate in band. I hope in the same way it also will help encourage Black families to continue to support their children’s participation and success in the arts.

“Someone wants you there and wants to see you succeed. There are people who are resources and are willing to be in your corner and help get you to where you want to be.”

Rowser knows full well what it means to be a pioneer at Auburn and is encouraged by the knowledge that his example helped set the stage for others like Jarvis to succeed and thrive.

“I think it speaks to the fact that there’s opportunity for people from any background,” he said. “You just need to demonstrate the skill set needed for the position you’re seeking. There’s some openness, and more acceptance now than there was in my time.

“I just think that no one should feel that their ethnicity or religious beliefs or whatever should be a hindrance to them. This is just a reminder that Auburn people come from a lot of different backgrounds.”

Jarvis and her fellow drum majors have been hard at work this year helping Spurlin and AUMB Assistant Director Nikki Gross prepare the nearly 400 band members for the fall. They also have been helping conduct camps, recruit high schoolers and give talks about AUMB at Camp War Eagle this summer, as well as assist with organization and planning for all things related to the band.

“There are so many logistical things we have our hands in and work with the directors on,” Jarvis said. “I literally feel like a baby band director already.”

Now a leader on campus and with AUMB, Jarvis cherishes her role and status as a proud member of the Auburn Family.

“It means the world,” she said. “Living so close to Auburn my whole life and seeing it from a third-person perspective, you just see the influence and the impact of it. To be a part of it now, it’s so crazy. If I had told myself back in seventh grade where I would be now, I feel like she’d be like, ‘Wait, what?’

“There are so many positions I’m in that I didn’t expect myself to even try for, much less actually be in, so to be able to be here and be part of the Auburn Family and be in the position to impact future generations of the Auburn Family, it’s indescribable. I’m so thankful.”

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