The marching band’s percussion section finds a kindred soul in a stick-spinning 5-year-old

By BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

When Heather McMeans noticed the signs advertising a high school marching band competition near her home in the Enka community of Buncombe County earlier this year, she saw it as yet another chance to support her son in a musical interest he has enjoyed for the majority of his young life. Little did the single mother know that the event would spark a friendship between her 5-year-old boy, Elijah, and members of WCU’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band drumline.

“Elijah has been drumming on anything and everything since he was 2,” McMeans said. “Having nothing to compare it to, I didn’t realize there was really something there with his interest and skill level until we started drum lessons recently. I just recognized my son had a passion for something so, as his mom, I wanted to present opportunities for him to explore that interest more.”

It was with that goal in mind that she took Elijah to the local marching band festival where the Pride of the Mountains was performing in exhibition. “My son brought his drum sticks – some kids have a blankie, we have drumsticks – so he could play ‘air drums’ along with the bands,” she said. After the WCU band’s performance, which McMeans said left her son “mesmerized,” several members of the drumline noticed the little boy holding drumsticks and came over to talk to the fledgling percussionist. One bandsman let Elijah play a few beats on his drums. “These guys were so kind to my son,” she said. “My son even showed them how he can flip his sticks, too. It was just an awesome experience for a little 5-year-old drummer who has big dreams.”

Elijah’s awesome experience did not end there, however. The Pride of the Mountains invited him and his mother to attend the annual Tournament of Champions invitational competition hosted at WCU in October. There, prior to the band’s exhibition show, Elijah become an honorary member of the Pride’s drumline, receiving a certificate of membership, official WCU drumsticks, a drumline T-shirt and, perhaps most meaningful, a pendant featuring a metal “W” made from a cymbal once played by a drumline member. “He’s one of us. We were all like Elijah, 4 or 5 years old and drumming on things,” said percussionist Victor Perez, a senior from Spartanburg, S.C., majoring in music education. “With the ‘W’ pendants, we all carry a piece of our past with us every time we play. And now so will he.”

Matt Henley ’93 MA ’95, assistant band director and drumline leader, presented Elijah with the honorary membership. “We were lucky enough to run into this little guy, this aspiring 5-year-old drummer, who has become a buddy of ours,” said Henley. “As members of a university music program, we try to inspire young people to get excited about music, to get excited about drumming. Hopefully, we lit a fire under this kid and one day he’ll be standing up here like these guys.”

That “one day” actually proved to be just a few minutes later, when Elijah banged out several beats as members of the drumline whooped and hollered their approval. Afterward, WCU drummers spoke of their musical connection to the 5-year-old. “I hope we have inspired him, but what he probably doesn’t know is that he inspires us,” said Hunter Black, a senior music major from Enka. “Sometimes you forget why you do this, why you put in the long hours of practice. Things like this, like meeting Elijah, make us feel good, make us feel like we’re doing something that matters.” Ryan Hill, a sophomore music major from Morganton, echoed that sentiment. “Elijah reminds me of me. I was in a car seat banging everything in reach when I was a child. I can see a bright future if he keeps it up,” Hill said.  “This has made us feel like we are actually giving back to the community and influencing someone else’s life.”

That’s what has meant so much to Elijah’s mom. “Very seldom do people stop and acknowledge another person. We’re a busy society and often do not want to be bothered. Here, the opposite happened,” she said. “These guys stopped, they dropped what they were doing, and they made a little 5-year-old boy feel like he was one of them. The dreams that seem to be planted in my son’s heart were nurtured and the impact these guys have made is absolutely priceless. This is an experience my son is old enough to remember the rest of his life.” Elijah refers to the WCU drummers as his “new buddies,” she said, and “he can spot a WCU magnet or decal on a car a mile away now.”

For Henley and his drummers, their encounter with little Elijah is another example of the band’s philosophy of “pay it forward.” Or, perhaps the group’s overarching viewpoint is best summed up by the title of the Pride of the Mountains’ 2012 field show, “How We Roll,” McMeans suggested. “If that’s how these guys roll all the time, they will be great examples to younger generations and will do well in life,” she said.