Amidst flashes of red and white, a formation of bellowing horns and twirling flags makes its way onto the field. At the front of this thrilling ensemble stands 21-year-old Carl Huang, baton in hand, salute at the ready.
Huang, a fourth-year microbiology undergraduate from Sunnyvale, California, was appointed this year’s head drum major for the Santa Clara Vanguard, an international drum and bugle corps made up of brass and percussion instruments, synthesizers and color guard. The Santa Clara Vanguard is a six-time world champion with Drum Corps International, the governing body of the drum corps community.
As head drum major, Huang leads and conducts the 152-member ensemble for its 10-week summer tour. His role involves not only keeping the Vanguard in tempo, but also guiding his peers.
Huang began his drum corps journey when he joined his high school marching band as a trumpet player. He quickly moved up to be the high school’s drum major, and eventually joined the Santa Clara Vanguard organization. And after seven years in drum corps, this will be his last, as members “age out” at 22.
In fact, a tradition among the Vanguard members to write on their arms the number of their remaining marching days helped him appreciate the experience even more as his time winds down, he said.
“Last year, I remember writing 365 days left on my arm,” Huang said. “We had a kid who was 16 years old at the time, and his arm said 3,000 days. That made me realize, you won’t have those moments with the people around you forever, so just give every moment 110 percent.”
Drum corps is not just about music — it teaches personal growth as well.
“In leadership, you shouldn’t be telling people to drag the cart while you’re sitting on it,” Huang said. “You should be with your group, pulling the cart together. It’s all about sharing the love and making sure everybody’s moving forward together and nobody’s left behind.”
Huang’s parents started him on piano in first grade, and Huang said he’s glad they taught him the diligence to practice every day.
“They helped me find reasons to enjoy something that I’m doing instead of just thinking everything is all work,” Huang said. “I think that’s been the crucible for me being able to enjoy music altogether.”
His mother, Yun Dai, an engineer at Cadence Design Systems, said she believes music is an important aspect of her family’s daily lives. Growing up in China, she played traditional Chinese string instruments.
“I always thought music would help [my children] improve their personal integrity and happiness, and also help them out in times of difficulty,” Dai said.
After years of piano, Huang and his sister, Elizabeth, decided to switch to other musical fields.
“We figured out that piano didn’t really fit them,” Dai said. “I told them, ‘If you really want to quit piano, you can quit piano, but you cannot quit music.’”
That’s when Huang started trumpet.
When it came to college, Huang said he wanted to broaden his focus and decided to pursue microbiology.
“Drum corps has taken up all my summers,” Huang said. “I’ve never really needed that extra outlet to study music.”
During the school year, Huang focuses on science. He currently works in a neurobiology, physiology and behavior lab at UC Davis, studying how environmental stresses affect metabolism.
When the drum corps season draws near, however, the rigorous schedule makes spring quarter classes challenging. He has to juggle his studies with blocks of all-day rehearsals that start in mid-May.
“I spend a lot of time emailing different professors and talking to faculty members to keep myself on track,” Huang said.
Sometimes his dual interests have led to serious discussions with his parents, who always encourage him to excel academically.
“But we figured that because he loves music, he could take an extra one or two quarters to finish school,” Dai said. “This year was really important, because [it’s his last in drum corps].”
Huang said he is grateful that his parents understand his passion for music.
“As much as they want me to focus on school, they still realize how important music is to me and how important it has been to my growth as a person,” Huang said. “I’m really appreciative that they fully support me doing this.”