Clark Atlanta’s marching band was in critical condition. Tomisha Brock is changing the tune.

Brock is the first female band director of the Mighty Marching Panthers
Tomisha Brock Clark Atlanta University marching band
Tomisha Brock

Photograph by Kenne Walker

Earlier this year, Tomisha Brock made history when she was named band director of Clark Atlanta University. She’s not only the first woman to lead the band, she’s also the first female band director in the entire Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. She arrived at a critical juncture for the once-formidable Mighty Marching Panthers, whose membership had dwindled to just six students by the time she was hired in June.

We recently spoke with Brock, 35, about turning the band around, what makes marching band culture so unique at HBCUs, and why there aren’t more women in roles like hers.

Was “marching band director” always a goal? When did you start thinking about doing this kind of job?
I began playing an instrument—the clarinet—when I was 10 years old, in elementary school, and I joined the marching band at the beginning of high school in ninth grade. I actually attended two high schools, Warwick High School in Newport News, and Smithfield High School in Smithfield, Virginia, and the band was a constant for me. When I went to college at Virginia State University, I just wanted to continue that experience of being in the band. I’ve always loved being able to travel for competitions and football games, playing all different types of music, and just learning something new every season.

Clark Atlanta University

Photograph by Horace Henry for Clark Atlanta University

Clark Atlanta’s band is famous for being featured in the movie Drumline, but when you came onboard this summer the band had withered to just six members. Were you concerned about how to rebuild?
Atlanta is a large area that’s known for having good high school music programs, so I knew that once we had a good plan in place, we’d be primed for success because of the band’s rich history. It was just a matter of strategy. We started by recruiting former Clark Atlanta band members that are still students here. Then we reached out to high school seniors. This year we’re starting the dialogue early with high school juniors and seniors. And we’re talking to community college students who might be looking to transfer. I set a goal to establish 64 members this year, and then shoot for 150 next year. So far we’re just shy of 70 members.

What caused the program to shrink like it did?
I think there were a myriad of things that happened: changes in band directors, a lack of overall support for the program. I’m not sure exactly what triggered the decline, but I knew they always had a strong core. Even when the band went down to just six members, those six people were strong musicians and advocates for the program. The history and the resilience of the program is strong.

There are just five women directing college bands in the U.S.—including you!—and no other female band directors in your conference. Why aren’t there more women in these roles?
Historically it’s been a man’s role in higher education, although we’ve had some trailblazers like Dr. Linda Moorhouse, who became the band director at LSU seven years ago. Just like with engineering and other male-dominated fields, you just didn’t see as many women going for these roles or universities hiring women for these roles. Now we’re finally starting to see an uptick.

Clark Atlanta University

Photograph by Horace Henry for Clark Atlanta University

Marching band culture is particularly strong at HBCUs. What’s unique about the band experience at an HBCU?
To me it’s the holistic approach. We do more than just teach how to march or how to play music—we teach life skills. For the students, it’s a social identity, almost like a family. As leaders, we serve as surrogate parents, and that keeps the bond going for many years after graduation. Not that other band programs don’t do that, but the way we nurture our students, it feels like home rather than just another extracurricular or a job.

January marks the annual Honda Battle of the Bands showcase in Atlanta. What makes it so compelling to watch year after year?
When you have this kind of event in a city with so many HBCUs, it’s almost like a homecoming, regardless of whether an Atlanta school is participating in or not. You feed off the energy of the crowd and the showmanship is incredible. This is the one opportunity for these programs to show what they’ve done all year. Everybody wants to be unique and brings it to the next level.

The Mighty Marching Panthers have participated in the Honda Battle of the Bands in previous years, but haven’t made the finals since 2013. Is that a goal for you?
This is a big goal—to give our students the opportunity to perform and benefit from the scholarship support. But I’m also looking beyond the Battle of the Bands, to something even bigger.

What’s that?
My ultimate goal is for Clark Atlanta to earn the Sudler Trophy, which is basically the Heisman for college bands. Only one HBCU has ever accomplished this, when Florida A&M won the trophy back in the 1970s. It would be a huge honor for another HBCU to win that award in the near future. And it would help me to accomplish my other goal, which is for Clark Atlanta to become a household name as the premier band program in the nation. It’s a lofty aim, but we’re putting everything behind it.