Seth Estes knew that being on the drum line of the Western Carolina University Pride of the Mountains Marching Band would mean hundreds of hours of practice, rehearsals and performances. It started with the field shows at football games when he was a freshman and ended with the band’s great triumph, leading the 2014 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City his senior year.
But the momentum that all that marching and drumming brought to his after-college plans produced an unexpected surprise for Estes, who graduates in May with a bachelor’s degree in music education and already has a job waiting. He has been selected for a position on the drum line of the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, known as “The Commandant’s Own,” in Washington, D.C.
“It’s kind of unbelievable and I couldn’t imagine being able to say this would happen a year or two ago. There’s been a lot of hard work, but everything seems to have built on itself,” said Estes.
In “The Commandant’s Own,” he will be part of a long-standing music tradition in the Marine Corps. The group’s 90 musicians play in several hundred public shows and ceremonies each year and give special performances for audiences that include U.S. presidents, world leaders and other dignitaries. The corps, a sister group to the U.S. Marine Band, frequently appears in parades in the nation’s capital. The members also tour nationally and internationally.
All the corps’ musicians are on active duty, and Estes will be enlisting in the Marines before he moves to Washington. He reports for 13 weeks of basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, in early June. After that, he will reside in the historic Marine barracks at 8th and I Streets, near the Capitol Building.
Music and performance are top priorities for “The Commandant’s Own,” and its members are rarely deployed. Estes expects to be permanently based at the barracks, which also is the official residence of the commandant, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the Marine Corps’ highest ranking officer.
Estes caught the attention of the military in the summer of 2014 when he was participating in the competition of Drum Corps International, an annual event that attracts young musicians from all over the world. Estes was drumming with “The Cadets,” a group based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, that won third-place in world championships in the competition. Representatives of “The Commandant’s Own” who attended the event invited Estes to try out for their drum line. He traveled to Washington during his holiday break in December 2014 for an interview and audition, and was offered his position soon after he returned home.
Growing up in Lincoln County, Estes joined his school’s symphonic band in seventh grade, learned to read music at school and practiced after class in the band room. At East Lincoln High School, he switched to the marching band directed at that time by a WCU alumnus, Dustin Stamey. A former Pride of the Mountains drum major, Stamey encouraged Estes to enroll at WCU, major in music and join the band. He still stays in touch with Estes who, he says, was always a memorable student because of his love for music and marching.
“Seth has a lot of natural talent, and as he matured he was always trying to be a better musician,” said Stamey, now the assistant principal at East Lincoln Middle School. “Through the arts education programs in his schools, he had some amazing experiences and a chance to excel and these opportunities are shaping his entire life.”
Matt Henley, WCU assistant director of athletic bands, said Estes has been an “amazing asset” at the university. “I’m exceptionally proud of him,” Henley said. “From the classical stage to the marching band, he’s an exemplary model of talent combined with work ethic.”
Estes served as the bass drum section leader for the 2014 season of the Pride of the Mountains. He also has performed in a variety of musical groups, including wind and percussion ensembles, radio shows and Purple Thunder, the indoor percussion group at basketball games.
During his freshman year at WCU, he and the Pride of the Mountains marched in the 2011 Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day. As a senior, the WCU School of Music named him the Instrumental Performer of the Year for 2014-15.
Though the soon-to-be-enlisted Marine is feeling “legitimately nervous” about being in boot camp during the hot summer months, he says that all the hours on the field practicing with the Pride of the Mountains gave him an excellent preparation for the military and his music career.
“I came here to be in the marching band because that’s what I love to do, and now I get to keep doing it,” said Estes. “I learned the habits of preparation and practice at WCU. I think the band program has been developed in a way that helps its members succeed.”
A 2010 graduate of East Lincoln High School, he is the son of Kelly Estes of Denver and David Estes of Gastonia.