For at least four student leaders in Kentucky State University’s marching band program, the band was a reason that they chose the Frankfort college.
KSU’s band, which is officially known as the Mighty Marching Thorobreds (MMT), performs at football game half-times, parades, festivals and more with a goal of entertaining their audience. The K-Rette Dance Team and the Silkette Flag Corps typically accompany the band’s performances.
This year, seniors Lord’Amani Cooper and Marlon Carter are the MMT’s drum majors. Senior Domonique Simmons is the flag captain and senior Carley Mitchell is the captain of the K-Rettes.
For Carter, his journey in marching band began in middle school and started with the snare drum before progressing to cymbals. He actually quit his program briefly, but his mom encouraged him to re-join it.
“I felt like it wasn’t for me, but then my mom was like ‘I didn’t put so much into this for you to not do this.’ So, forced love,” he said.
Now, he’s glad his mom made him go back to band because it’s “made me the person I am today.”
While in high school, KSU Band Director Alvin Level visited Carter’s band in Detroit, Michigan. Carter auditioned for Level on the snare drum and Level told him that he “had a lot of heart” to perform and encouraged him to come to KSU.
“It’s the reason that I’m here today,” Carter said of MMT.
Cooper first joined a school band as a freshman in high school and learned to play the trumpet, but his interest in joining started before that. His house was near the place where the band held practices, so he often heard and watched the marching band as they “paraded around the community.”
Another factor was one of Cooper’s favorite movies, the 2002 film “Drumline,” which is the story about a college freshman who joins a marching band at a historically black college and overcomes differences with percussion leaders. Cooper said that the movie is a similar depiction of what being in a marching band is like.
Cooper became a drum major at KSU during his sophomore year after trying out for the role his freshmen year. He was also a drum major in high school.
“Mr. Level is the reason that I’m here,” Cooper said of the band director. Level was Cooper’s high school band director, and Cooper said that Level inspired him to study to become a band director one day.
Simmons also said that Level was a reason that she became a part of KSU’s band. He was also her high school band director. Before coming to KSU, she attended another university, but took a semester off. Level called Simmons and asked her about what she was planning to do, she said. Knowing that Simmons wanted to study nursing, he recommended KSU’s nursing program to her and encouraged her to join MMT as a student.
“I consider him (Level), like he (Cooper) said, like family so I knew that I would be OK for a year away from home,” she said.
For Simmons, dancing has been her life. She started dancing when she was eight years old with a dance company. She said the members of her family are either musically-inclined or have rhythm for dancing, so she picked up both. She learned to play some instruments along the way, but dancing “seemed to stick with me more,” she said. She first picked up a flag during her freshman year of high school. Her favorite style of dance is majorette-style. As a college freshman, she became flag captain.
“It’s just something about when the band plays. It’s not like the songs on the radio,” Simmons said. “It’s just different with arrangements and pitches and stuff … just to the point of it being live and being played. You can actually feel the music.”
Mitchell started dancing with companies and studios around the age of nine. She did dance team in middle and high school and didn’t start marching until college. When she started looking at KSU as a prospective college, that’s when Mitchell learned about the K-Rettes. Knowing that she wanted to continue to dance, she contacted Level and his wife, Churi Level, who is the auxiliary director for the band.
Level came to KSU a few years ago from leading Oak Park High School in Detroit. He served as an administrator at the school, but still lead the band.
“The band room kept calling me back,” Level said.
Level had always wanted to lead a college band and Robert Griffin, the associate director for the band, contacted Level when the director position opened at KSU. Level said he knew of KSU from their recruiting events at Oak Park and his own visits to Kentucky. Level also sent some students to join the band as a high school director.
The band wants to maintain its growth, Level said. He wants to have at least 240 members in the band, as well as continue to work on its graduation and retention rates.
“I want to be one of those national powerhouse bands,” Level said.
Cooper said that he sees Level, not just as a mentor, but as “extended family.”
Simmons said that the tight-knit atmosphere in band makes being miles away from home easier. She’s from Detroit. Simmons described Churi Level as a “second mom,” as she knows she can call on Churi for anything. Mitchell said that the band students think of the Levels as “mom and dad.”
Level said that being a family is something that the MMT “preaches.” Everyone tries to look after one another.
Earlier this year, the band was named as the nation’s best HBCU marching band in the 2019 HBCU Digest Awards, a group of recognitions to honor individuals and groups from historically black colleges and universities from the national publication. To the seniors in MMT, this was a big deal.
“We try to show that every time that we perform,” Cooper said of the recent title.
The senior leaders were among Level’s first recruiting class in 2016, so they feel like the foundation for the band’s current success, Cooper said. When they first joined band, he said that the students were already thinking three years ahead and aiming for being one of the top college bands in the country.
“Just being apart of it makes us feel good because we know that’s going to be something that goes down in history,” Simmons said.
Students in the band have a reputation of having lots of school spirit and energy on campus. Mitchell said that in her role as a K-Rette, young girls often look up to her when they meet her.
“It makes me feel good that I can be a positive role model or that these kids want to follow up behind me.They might think that they just want to dance, but this is something that is putting me through college, and that might one day do the same thing for them,” Mitchell said.
In Frankfort, the MMT performs at various events for the community as a whole. The band has performed at Frankfort’s Christmas Parade. At the end of the summer, the band was a highlight of Bourbon on the Banks’ Friday night event Bourbon Street on Broadway.
Tom Bennett, the chair of the board for Bourbon on the Banks, said that organizers plan to keep in “close communication” with the band about future performances, maybe even some throughout the year. He said the band’s performance at the Friday night show was one of the “greatest jolts of energy in Downtown Frankfort in a long time.” He said that the crowd gathered stopped and paid attention to the band’s performance on the Old Capitol lawn. Bennett believes that some of the draw to the event, about 5,500, was because the band’s show was publicized.
“They are a tremendous asset to K-State,” he said.
The student band leaders all agreed that performing in front of an audience is something they enjoy.
“Showtime is the best. That is primetime,” Carter said.
Simmons said that feeling the energy from the crowd is exciting for the band. Mitchell said that the band is one of the most-hardworking student groups at KSU, so it’s rewarding to be able to show others what they have been putting their time into. The band practices together five days a week for about three hours. Some students also practice by themselves to hone their skills.
It takes about a week or so for the band to learn a routine and then another week to perfect it, Cooper said. He added that the band learns about two to three marching shows during football season.
For parades, the band starts working on that kind of performance during band camp at the beginning of the school year and then cleans their performance throughout the rest of the football season, Carter said. Preparing for a performance in band doesn’t take learning something entirely new week-by-week, but it’s building on skills over time.
The students said that one of their favorite kinds of performance are “battles,” or when marching bands go head-to-head in performances. KSU’s band sometimes calls this a “fifth-quarter” or “zero-quarter.” Sometimes the other band knows that the MMT will want to have a battle and other times they are spur of the moment.
No matter where they are, MMT members try to bring energy and excitement to a crowd.
“You never know what to expect from us,” Cooper said.