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Music education student embraces roles as drum major and marine


Matthew Darby is a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Passion for music and hard work drives Matthew Darby, junior music education major from Lubbock, to excel in and balance his roles as a drum major for the Abilene Christian University Big Purple marching band and a lance corporal for the U.S. Marine Reserves on a daily basis. 

Darby’s days are spent juggling rigorous music classes, rehearsals playing his clarinet and airplane maintenance for the Marines. When he goes into work for the Marines once a month, he arrives at 6 a.m. and is done around 4:30 p.m. before having to face the rest of his homework for the night. 

I’d say balance is more difficult in school being a drum major,” Darby said. “For instance, I had to go for drills for the Marines on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so I didn’t get a fall break like everyone else did. I went immediately from school to orchestra rehearsal, and from there I immediately left to go drill for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Then I immediately came back to another rehearsal on Sunday. It’s actually exhausting work.” 

Following in historical footsteps

Darby isn’t the first to attempt to juggle these two roles, although he is the first in the last 50 years. In the 1960s, Bill Reese served in the Marine Reserves and as a drum major at ACU. He graduated in 1967 with a Bachelor of Music Education degree before continuing in his role in the Marines. He was an executive officer of K Company, third battalion, ninth Marines, when he died in combat in the Vietnam War on Feb. 14, 1968. Today, his legacy lives on with a music department scholarship and a wall in the Fry Rehearsal Hall in the Williams Performing Arts Center named in his honor. Darby stood on the center podium in honor of Reese on Sept. 10 as the Wildcats took on Prairie View A&M during the Salute to Heroes game. 

Path to music and the military

Darby learned about the Marines in high school and was intrigued by the opportunities offered.He entered as a private first class and has since been promoted to lance corporal and is working toward a promotion to corporal. 

Being able to learn under others in the Marines is a very good opportunity for me,” Darby said. “Especially when you’re going and having to learn about fixing aircraft – things I thought were completely out of the realm of my possibility.”

Darby’s journey to becoming a drum major at ACU entailed an interview with the band directors, conducting The Star Spangled Banner and the fight song in front of the band, calling out simple commands and keeping time.  

Coming from high school I’ve always wanted to be a drum major,” Darby said. “I feel like it’s put me in a position to find ways to lead. I like being in a position where I can talk to people and help people out.”

Choosing a college

When Darby began to weigh his college options, he narrowed them down to three schools – The University of Texas at Dallas, the University of North Texas and ACU. His parents and sister are graduates of ACU and when he toured, he decided to continue the family tradition. Darby said the hospitality shown to him on his visits brought him to ACU. 

Everyone I met at ACU was very welcoming,” Darby said. “That kind of drew me in a little bit, and by the time I got accepted, I didn’t even really want to apply anywhere else.”


Matthew Darby rehearsing as a drum major with Big Purple.

Challenges and rewards

Darby said he fights through exhaustion each day but knows it will all be worth it in the end. Through his experience in the Marines, he’s been able to network with people of all life stages. As a drum major, communication is one of the largest challenges he faces. However, he has become friends with everyone in the band and found intentional, grounding relationships with many. 

Especially coming from a Marines camp, the way I led there was very different from how I need to be leading the band,” Darby said. “The Marines are expecting you to be a more authoritative figure , whereas in a band, I don’t need to be a leader with an iron fist but rather, especially at a Christian college, lead with compassion and mercy. Having both of those leadership styles in the back of my head is very useful.”

Dr. Steven Ward, director of orchestra and bands, is in his 17th year and believes Darby possesses leadership and a sense of discipline that adds to the standard of excellence for the band.

“Matthew is very responsible and communicates way ahead of time about his responsibilities with the Marine Corps Reserve,” Ward said. “He’s a great musician, student and leader so of course, we’re happy to work with him on this, balance has never been a problem.” 

Darby has plenty of opportunities to use his leadership skills as he performs with several ensembles, including Big Purple, a jazz combo, wind ensemble, the Abilene Civic Orchestra, a percussion ensemble and others. Dr. Kristin Ward, associate professor of music at ACU, has served in the department for 17 years and said Darby has a unique desire for excellence. 

“He’s a delight to teach, and it’s fun to watch his interactions with other students,” Kristin said. “He has an amazing work ethic and he always desires to know more. His role in the Marines has never gotten in the way of school or even in his performances. It’s pretty amazing how he’s able to balance all of that.”

What’s next

In the future, Darby hopes to become a jazz musician and continue his love for performing music. He said he’s grateful for all the opportunities and people who have brought him to this point with hopes of creating similar music experiences for his students in the future. 

“A lot of my teachers have been super helpful,” Darby said. “I would like to acknowledge them because without them I would not be able to be where I am today.”

Learn more about the Department of Music.

— Connor Mullins

Nov. 10, 2022

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