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VUU Ambassadors of Sound Marching Band gets first female drum major

Bonnie Newman Davis | 9/6/2019, 6 a.m.
Diamond McGhee’s usual wide smile projects confidence. But the smile disappeared last week as she pulled her hair into a ...
Diamond McGhee was a majorette with the VUU Maroon Elegance twirlers for the last two years. She will see the band from a different vantage point in her new position as co-drum major. Photo by Regina H. Boone Richmond Free Press

Diamond McGhee’s usual wide smile projects confidence.

But the smile disappeared last week as she pulled her hair into a ponytail and focused on the students standing before her playing their instruments — clarinets, cymbals, drums, flutes, trombones and trumpets.

This was band practice, but not just any band.

This was Virginia Union University’s 100-member Ambassadors of Sound Marching Band and the sound had to be loud and the moves tight.

Ms. McGhee made sure of that.

The 20-year-old junior from Portsmouth, who is majoring in psychology and criminal justice, is the first female drum major for the VUU Ambassadors of Sound, a group that started six years ago after the marching band went on a hiatus at the private school.

Drum majors Diamond McGhee and Nathan James will be leading Virginia Union University’s 100-member Ambassadors of Sound Marching Band.

Richmond Free Press

Drum majors Diamond McGhee and Nathan James will be leading Virginia Union University’s 100-member Ambassadors of Sound Marching Band.

Her role as drum major is being shared with Nathan James, a VUU senior who graduated from Highland Springs High School in Henrico County.

He played the trumpet in the Highland Springs marching band; Ms. McGhee has been a majorette with the VUU Maroon Elegance twirlers for the past two years. She has been commanding a baton since age 11.

Together, she and Mr. James are known as Mr. Maroon and Miss Steel, a play on VUU’s school colors.

Dressed in matching maroon and gray shorts and T-shirts for band practice, the co-drum majors were expertly conducting the Ambassadors of Sound, leading the band in unison.

Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” segued into Beyoncé’s “Before I Let Go.”

While this was only a rehearsal at Barco-Stevens Hall on the VUU campus, Ms. McGhee said the band will be ready for its debut Saturday, Sept. 7 — game day — when the VUU Panthers take on Hampton University in Hampton.

“Being in the band, you learn something every day,” Ms. McGhee said, noting that rehearsals generally last three to four hours daily. “Yesterday we went through the drills and all the moves. Today we’ll clean up everything.”

At 5-foot-2, Ms. McGhee said she first considered becoming a drum major while in the Mighty Marching Greyhounds band at I.C. Norcom High School in Portsmouth.

Through the years, she joked about trying out for the drum major position at VUU, but didn’t muster the courage to do so until last spring.

In addition to completing all the administrative requirements for the audition — application, letters of recommendation and transcripts — Ms. McGhee also had to mentally prepare herself.

Being the middle child among four siblings helped, she said.

“Growing up in a house where people are tough critics, I’m used to it,” she said.

Among the skills on which she was evaluated were learning to conduct the band, performing dances and steps with precision and being a team player. Five other students vied for the position as well, including another female student.

She smiles when she describes her reaction to being selected as co-drum major.

“It’s cool!” she said. “I feel a lot of different ways about it, but it’s an honor, especially because it’s never been done before.”

The VUU junior from Portsmouth leads a rehearsal last week, perfecting the moves and the sounds.

Richmond Free Press

The VUU junior from Portsmouth leads a rehearsal last week, perfecting the moves and the sounds.

Fayesha Cousins, the marching band’s director, acknowledges that another female drum major, Mellonie Anne Boyd, known as “Mitey Mite,” led the university’s marching band in 1989. But several years went by in which VUU had no marching band.