Success is just a toss away: a Feature Story on North Hills Drum Major James Polen


Gabrielle Thinnes

  Standing on the podium during a football game for the first time, drum major James Polen couldn’t believe that this was finally it- his final first performance at Martorelli Stadium. Filled to the brim with nerves, he took a deep breath. With the raise of his arms, the band, in sync, came to attention. Effortlessly, he began to wave his arms and the band began to play, this was it, the beginning of the end.

     For those who are unequivocally unaware, James Polen is the 2022-2023 North Hills Marching Band’s Drum Major. Besides being the drum major, James has a lot to offer. With regards to the band, he’s a member of the Wind Ensemble as well as a member of the acclaimed Jazz Band. As if spending both 1st and 9th period in the band room isn’t enough, James also spends his 2nd and 3rd period rehearsing in the band room. Although it’s technically the music lab, he spends his 8th period learning music theory as well. No wonder why he’s so good! The band program isn’t where James stops his excellency, however. He’s the Vice-President of the History Club and an acclimated student, taking several AP classes both his junior and senior year.

     This past April, James took part in leading the North Hills Music Department on their yearly spring tour. Members of the band, choir and orchestra left for Messiah University, where they took part in several workshops, bright and early on Friday, April 28th. After completing these workshops, the music department continued on to New York City, where they spent the next two days. 

          Reflecting on the music department’s last trip to NYC, James states that his favorite memory was “taking pictures at the top of one of the world trade centers”. Now that it’s 2023 and not 2019, James is excited to travel to New York with a new group. One would assume that James, being such an astute member of the band, would be well acclimated to these tours, but this is only his third tour with the North Hills Music Department. Due to COVID, both the 2020 and 2021 tours were unfortunately canceled, leaving the senior class only three tour experiences, with two being to NYC. Last year, the music department traveled to Walt Disney World, and although this was by far a fan favorite, James’s favorite tour remains the 2019 NYC trip. 

     Although James has only been on three tours with the entire music department, he has been on several other band trips with the Wind Ensemble. When asked his favorite memory from the band in all of his years at North Hills, he states, “The 2022 Wind Ensemble trip to the Poconos”. This trip took place in April of 2022, just before the tour to Disney began. Members of the Wind Ensemble traveled the Poconos where they earned the prestigious honor of performing at the PMEA All-State Conference. Despite lasting less than 24 hours, this was James’s most memorable trip. 

     As it is very well established, James Polen is a distinguished member of the North Hills Band Program, playing both the oboe and the saxophone. Polen states that he started out on the alto saxophone, but his elementary school music teacher encouraged him to try a rarer instrument because “it brings more opportunities”. This is when he decided to pick up the oboe, which quickly became his favorite instrument. A more versatile instrument, the oboe can be played in more sophisticated orchestras than the alto saxophone. Playing the obo has brought many opportunities for James, such as being involved in several honors bands…(research).

     Being a 5-year member of the Marching Band, James has experienced lots of change. From a global pandemic to new band uniforms (which he loves!), he’s gained a lot of wisdom from these experiences. As the 2022-2023 Drum Major, James was able to explore outside of the saxophone section and see the whole band. Just as he was watching the whole band, the whole band was watching him. This taught James the ever so important leadership quality of “consistently always doing the right thing”. Just as important as setting a good example, always having a positive mindset is just another lesson that James learned from this wonderful program. 

     Next year Polen will be attending Duquesne University to study music education with a focus on the oboe. He will, obviously, be participating in a college band. He’s been warned and is well aware that this program will be very different from North Hills, but he’s ready for a new challenge. When asked why he wanted to study music education, James said that the North Hills program really inspired him. The ultimate goal would be to reinvent another band program to be just as successful as this marvelous program. From all of the excellence that encapsulated the North Hills Band program, what James will really miss is the people, those who pushed him, encouraged him, and led him to pursue the same career path.