Alumni spotlight: Conducting to the top
Graduate of Tomball Memorial's first class shares story of leading the first band students, conducting for thousands and finding his passion.
January 31, 2020
Playing the part
Adrenaline rushes through his veins, tens of thousands of faces mirror his and the bright stadium lights wash over him, along with the knowledge that this was the the culmination of months – years, really – of sweat, tears, and elbow grease.
That day in August 2014, Tomball Memorial ‘14 alumni Spencer Holyoak conducted the Crossmen Drum and Bugle Corps at the Drum Corps International (DCI) finals in Lucas Oil Stadium, finishing his first of three years as drum major of the corps and becoming the first and only graduate to achieve such a feat.
Drum corps, dubbed “marching band’s major leagues”, is a sect of marching band in which brass players, percussionists and color guard members under the age of 22 spend months performing and competing with intense, 11-minute marching shows. Each drum corps season culminates in DCI finals in August. As drum major of the Crossmen, Holyoak conducted the corps’ shows in various stadiums for up to 30,000 fans for three years.
Though his current career path has shifted away from music, Holyoak left his mark as one of the fine arts program’s most accomplished alumni. Holyoak is now continuing to impact others by studying psychology at Brigham Young University, and is currently finishing a year-long mission trip in Norway with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As part of the first graduating class at Tomball Memorial, Holyoak, a clarinet player, conducted the school’s first band members. Since the first class at TMHS initially consisted of sophomores alone, Holyoak auditioned for the position as a freshman at Tomball High.
“He was a solid band kid when he was a freshman at Tomball High School when I first met him, but from the time he was here he embraced that role of being drum major,” band director Andy Easton said. “He was definitely the strong leader of the band program for three years.”
Switching from THS to TMHS gave the first class of students a unique experience – students essentially held the task of starting the school and its programs, including the band, from scratch.
“It was different not having any seniors or upperclassmen around, everyone just kind of mingled,” Holyoak said. “We tried really hard to make our school what we wanted it to be.”
As drum major, Holyoak got his first taste of larger arenas while conducting in the state marching contest senior year. In between adjusting to the new school’s environment, however, his interest in the world of drum corps began. Holyoak first encountered corps freshman year of high school, watching the drum corps finals with older band members.
“That was a goal most of the time that he was in high school, he wanted to go be drum major for a drum corps,” Easton said. “Being a clarinet player, he wasn’t going to go march but that was definitely something that he wanted to do and that he and I worked on together. I helped him with his conducting before his auditions.”
Though the interest stayed in the back of his mind through most of high school, Holyoak’s skills as both a leader and team player continued to stand out.
“He was an outstanding leader, which you’ve got to be to be a drum major,” Easton said. “He was very friendly, fun-loving, everybody enjoyed being around him, but he could balance that with knowing when it was time to get to work.”
Shortly before senior year, Holyoak’s interest in drum corps intensified. In the middle of summer marching band camp, Holyoak drove out to Indianapolis to watch the DCI finals with two close friends.
“On Friday right after rehearsal we packed up all of our stuff, threw our bags into a car and drove to Indianapolis overnight,” Holyoak said. “That was crazy, and I think the thing that really got me was watching one band that performed Les Mis; it was the part where the entire corps is making straight lines. I was looking at the drum major the whole time and I was like, ‘I can do that, I can look like that!’”
After committing to the goal, Holyoak immersed himself in the audition process. Auditioning for the Crossmen Drum and Bugle Corps was a three day affair, with Holyoak and seven other young adults auditioning for one spot in the drum major lineup.
“You sleep with them, you eat with them, you shower with them you do the whole audition with them,” Holyoak said.
Nonetheless, Holyoak managed to survive the intensive audition, earning a prestigious spot as one of three drum majors for the corps.
“I called my mom after the first night and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do it,’ and she was like ‘no, no you got it’,” Holyoak said. “Finally I was told ‘we want you to be a drum major for the Crossmen Bugle Corps, will you accept the contract?’ I stood with the other two drum majors and from that point on it was go, go, go.”
Entering the major leagues
Entering the world of drum corps right after high school immersed Holyoak into a vastly new experience – far different than the average college freshman. Participating in corps for three years meant enduring 12-hour rehearsals in May and spending June through August on the road touring. The corps would often wake up at 7 a.m. in one location, spend the day practicing and performing in stadiums of thousands, and arrive at the next location at 4:30 a.m., ready to do it again.
“Now I have a benchmark because whenever I’m stressed I just go back and think, ‘I’m not as stressed as I was in drum Corps,’ so I’m OK,” Holyoak said.
Spending his first fall semester after high school working full-time at PF Changs, Holyoak started off at Lone Star College before transferring to Brigham Young University after his third season with the corps. As participating in corps came with a price tag, Holyoak juggled working full-time, attending college and conducting the corps, all while attempting to avoid debt.
“The first season was kind of a roller coaster,” Holyoak said. “It was pretty crazy because it was my rookie year, a little intense, but I was just trying to stick with it and do what I could.”
His new responsibilities, which included leading the corps and helping run administration, came with perks as well – as drum major, Holyoak essentially became one of three “faces” of the corps.
“You’re doing interviews and photoshoots, which can be cool but also really intimidating,” Holyoak said. “Conducting is ten percent of your job, I would say.”
Building leadership skills was just part of the program’s benefits. Forming a friendship with fellow drum major Caitlin Hall, for instance, gave Holyoak someone who understood what he was “dealing with when in tough moments.”
“The leadership and people skills Spencer gained while being a drum major in high school and Drum Corps have already proved to be an asset,” Spencer’s mother Tracie Holyoak said. “While on his Church mission [in Norway], he has been in many leadership positions and given him experiences which will last a lifetime.”
Earning such life skills came in many different ways.
“There was one moment where I really lost my cool and completely blew up on someone in front of everyone. I took them in pretty hard,” Holyoak said. “I remember that night at semifinals, Caitlin took me aside and was just like, ‘you are going way below your potential, and you need to figure this out’ and that really struck a chord with me.”
People skills weren’t the only thing Holyoak discovered in drum corps – though he started college pursuing music education, he pivoted to studying psychology while in drum corps. Holyoak realized that helping and connecting with others was his biggest draw to the corps, which led him to reorient his career choices.
“I started to question whether I wanted to do the drum corps thing much longer,” Holyoak said. “I kind of realized I wasn’t super into the whole music theory thing and being a band director was not really what I wanted to do.”
Though drum corps provided many new memories and experiences, certain aspects of the activity began to take a toll. These experiences ultimately pushed Holyoak to leave and attend Brigham Young University after the third season, a year before aging out of the corps.
“I was going to be the head drum major of the corps, all the dreams fulfilled, but I was like ‘I think I’m going to walk away from this because I don’t know if I like who I am,’” Holyoak said. “It’s not that I have a negative taste for drum corps, it changed my life in many positive ways, but if there’s anything I’ve learned in a really big existential way it’s that we can’t just let life happen.”
For Holyoak, learning to slow down became a valuable asset in life.
“There’s this weird pressure in a society where you have to know what you want to do with your life at 15 and have your career done,” Holyoak said. “That works for some but it leaves a lot of stress, so slow down. I haven’t got a bachelors yet, and sure I could move faster but I’ve also lived a pretty exciting life so far.”
Though he can’t go back to high school, Holyoak maintains that for current students, it is valuable to enter new situations and explore different fields. Exploring options introduced him to his current career path of marriage and family therapy.
“I’d never heard about marriage and family therapy, it never crossed my mind, so keep yourself open because there’s a lot of things you can do that you haven’t heard of yet that you will when you’re in college,” Holyoak said. “I ended up in a social dance class, and I always thought dancing was weird but it was so fun, so branch out, learn a little bit about yourself and have fun.”
While his time as a leader in both Tomball Memorial and drum corps have come to an end, with Holyoak preparing to finish off his Norway mission trip and return to BYU in the next phase of his life, Holyoak still looks fondly back at both experiences.
“I think that he will always make a difference in the lives of others who interact with him,” Tracie said.