For Blake Brdak, the feeling really doesn’t get old.
He’s one of just 58 individuals to ever hold the role of drum major for the University of Michigan Marching Band.
Each time the Wolverines host a football game, Brdak gets to lead the band onto the field at Michigan Stadium — “The Big House” — in front of crowds of 100,000 or more.
“Everybody's screaming, the noise is crazy,” he said. “I can kind of see myself on the video board.”
Brdak has the unique opportunity of performing in the role of drum major for the Michigan Marching Band, while also having traveled the country for two summer seasons with the Boston Crusaders as part of the Drum Corps International Tour.
And according to Brdak, his experience in drum corps and college marching band were special in their own individual ways — many ways different and many ways similar — Drum corps afforded him friendships, taught him invaluable skills and traits, and provided life-lasting memories on and off the performance field.
But he was honest. That feeling of performing solo in front of hundreds of thousands at The Big House is hard to beat.
“I mean, there's no feeling like that in the world,” he said of his drum major performance experience at Michigan. “It's one of the few feelings that I think is more intense than being out there on (DCI World Championship Finals) night. It takes me to another level, because it’s just me out there doing the thing by myself.”
Blake Brdak’s marching music career began at Anchor Bay High School about an hour northeast of Detroit, performing on trumpet with his school’s marching band program.
While in high school, Brdak’s initial exposure to drum corps was a common tale — videos on the internet.
“I kind of fell in love with the activity from there,” he said.
Drum corps, though, was the final step in Brdak’s progression through various marching arts avenues. Brdak completed his high school experience and enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he joined the marching band as a freshman.
In fact, a performing experience in drum corps came at the recommendation of his University of Michigan marching band director, Dr. John Pasquale. Among those recommendations was the Boston corps, which ultimately became the top choice for Brdak.
His choice to pursue a spot in Boston Crusaders started an “atypical audition process,” one that began with 2020’s canceled season due to the COVID pandemic, but ultimately led to a position with the corps for DCI’s abbreviated, noncompetitive 2021 “Celebration Tour,” as well as 2022’s full-summer 50th anniversary slate.
Brdak had his hesitations auditioning for a drum corps. Nonetheless, he went for it, and he’s glad he did.
“I definitely wasn't sure if it was something that I was even capable of doing,” he said. “I'm really proud that I took the leap and dove in and chose to do that.”
Brdak has plenty of reasons to be thankful for his drum corps experience — one that featured two very different summers.
As a whole, it decidedly enhanced his work ethic. It taught him physical and mental stamina, to push through a full summer tour. It trained him in, as he put it the mindset needed to be successful.
And even though it wasn’t necessarily 100,000 football fans on a Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he got to make some pretty cool performance memories, too.
“(The DCI World Championship Finals) has so much attached to it,” he said. “It's your last night with many of your best friends that you've made all summer. That feeling is something that you can't replicate.”
Following his age-out summer with Boston Crusaders in 2022, Brdak returned to Ann Arbor for his junior year as a computer science major.
And when preparations rolled around for his senior year, 2023-24, Brdak knew he wanted to take on the rigorous process of auditioning for drum major. He knew he was ready, too, largely thanks to the skills he’d picked up as a drum corps performer.
“I learned a lot about work ethic, and how to commit myself to something,” he said. “And I really think that I applied that here, when I came back to college band and then auditioned for drum major.”
Brdak’s drum major audition process went far beyond conducting — at the University of Michigan, and many other universities, drum majors are fully integrated into the band’s on-field performance, marching onto the field, spinning a baton, and even performing stunts of an acrobatic nature.
Arguably chief among those stunts is the iconic “backbend” performed by each Michigan drum major since the 1960s as part of the band’s pregame tradition. While leading the band on to the field, the drum major will bend directly backwards and touch their head to the turf before snapping back to upright position.
As such, Brdak’s journey to the role of drum major took plenty of training. He’d also gone through the process ahead of his junior year, so he’d had plenty of extra time to train in the skills expected of a Michigan drum major.
“If we're talking about the backbend, specifically, it took me about three months’ worth of stretching to do it for the first time,” he said. “And then, probably another two months’ worth of practice to really get it nailed down in a solid way where I was comfortable and knew I could do it every time.”
The audition process featured multiple rigorous rounds, and ultimately culminated in four finalists performing in front of the full Michigan Marching band, who then voted on the candidates.
When it was announced that Brdak had won the vote, he described it as a “dream come true.”
“Of course, my friends are all getting excited,” he said. “I'm just sitting there, like, ‘Wow,’ having finally managed to have this moment that I'd been working for for so long. It was an incredible feeling.”
Brdak’s responsibilities as drum major, as he described, are broken down into two separate facets, one side being public-facing, and one side being internal.
Externally, he’s a performer. He executes a full pregame routine, and twirls baton as part of the band’s halftime show. He also interacts with fans, alumni and supporters, as a representative of the program.
And internally, he’s a leader. He helps run rehearsals, and he helps teach technique for each week’s individual show.
“Initially, what drew me to the role was the leadership aspects,” Brdak said. “But then during the training process, I knew that I had to prepare all this performance stuff for the audition. And I really fell in love with that side of it as well.”
With Michigan’s football season nearing its close — the Wolverines, fresh off of a win over rival Ohio State to complete a 12-0 regular season, will compete in the Big Ten Football Championship Game, before likely appearing in the College Football Playoff — Brdak’s focus will soon be in full-gear toward his career.
Brdak said he hopes to cast a wide net. He’ll pursue a career in software engineering and, as he put it, will hope to take some form of adventure in a new job or new city.
And of course, for a two-year drum corps performer and college marching band drum major, an adventure wouldn’t be anything new.