SWANZEY CENTER — Before Heather Doyle leads her marching band of 88 onto the field at Raymond James Stadium for the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, she had to wrap up another rehearsal Thursday and get to anatomy class.
Doyle, 17, is the senior drum major of the Monadnock Regional High School marching band, a coveted leadership position at the school with a stringent application process that includes a full resume, three letters of recommendation, a dry run at conducting the band and interviews.
She and the squad will fly down to Tampa, Fla., next week for the Outback bowl, where they will perform with and compete against some of the best marching bands in the country. The band’s strong reputation earned it an invite last year, and it will be the only representative of New England there.
Reserved but ambitious, Doyle has worked her way up the ranks in the program, having to grow into a more vocal and assertive role in front of the band.
“To be the drum major of the band, you have to be vocal, you have to be confident,” Robert Skrocki, the band’s director, said. “That’s something she’s grown into. I think it pushed her a little bit out of her comfort zone.”
Stopping at her locker between rehearsal and anatomy class, Doyle downplayed such praise.
“Sometimes, if I know what I’m doing, then yeah, (I’m confident),” she said. “But if I don’t, then I’m not very confident.”
With extensive acting experience on stage along with proficiency in the clarinet and baritone saxophone, Doyle is not short on skills for a high school performer. But out of them all, her leadership and confidence as the drum major may be the most valuable, and perhaps the most difficult to cultivate for a high-schooler.
She was recently accepted early decision to the musical-theater program at Dean College in Franklin, Mass., after a lengthy audition process, and has aspirations of performing on Broadway one day.
Musical performance runs in the family for Doyle. Her father, Ren, who works as a Swanzey police officer, plays the drums and is described by Heather as “a musical-theater person.”
Doyle also has a passion for science, so much so that she has a hard time picking a field she would specialize in down the road as a backup to acting.
“I love science — all of it actually,” Doyle said. “I took biology in 10th grade, and that was the start of loving science.”
Doyle also unabashedly geeks out when it comes to musicals.
She’ll listen to the soundtracks from classics like “Phantom of the Opera” to modern breakthroughs like “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Like many gifted performers or athletes, Doyle can be a quiet obsessive in studying her craft.
On YouTube, she prefers studying the choreography of elite marching band programs such as Ohio State University — known best for their sweeping cursive formation “script Ohio” — to watching the viral stars of her generation pull stunts and coin memes.
That attention to detail was evident when Doyle conducted alongside junior drum major Tyler Nash Thursday, her brown eyes surveying each section as she maintained the tempo and hit her marks with her elbows always held at an acute angle.
And this was just with the band sitting down.
For the real show, she needs to be on top of the movements of all 88 members, maintaining cohesion and pace among more moving parts than even the most elaborate football play.
In the contest formerly known as the Hall of Fame Bowl — before Outback Steakhouse bought the naming rights in 1995 — the University of Iowa will face off against 18th ranked Mississippi State University, a highly anticipated matchup between teams from the premier Big Ten and Southeastern conferences.
Monadnock’s marching band will perform at halftime in front of an anticipated crowd of more than 65,000, playing songs outside of their usual program in sync with the other invited bands.
That performance is preceded by the competition two days earlier, with the winner earning the honor of playing in the pregame performance alongside the bands from Iowa and Mississippi State.
On New Year’s Eve, the Monadnock band will soak up some sun in downtown Tampa, marching in the Outback Bowl Parade.
It is certainly a tall order for the program, and they face a competitive disadvantage coming from New England where practicing marching year-round is not feasible.
Skrocki added that this year’s early snow only compounded that problem, but he tries to make up for it with an energetic presence at rehearsals inside the high school’s auditorium.
“The challenge is to bring that much energy to a 3-mile parade,” Skrocki told the students Thursday morning. “This isn’t the town of Troy parade.”
Doyle likely will not struggle with that problem.
Scooting through the rows of chairs and instruments set down on the stage, Doyle touched base with colleagues before the band got into its main set of songs, including “Dream On” by Aerosmith and “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede.
Almost like a head coach and offensive coordinator, Doyle and Nash huddled between songs, covering their mouths to share notes on what they were seeing from the right and left sides of the stage.
Doyle even moderates several group chats organized by band section, responding to anything from inside jokes to solving the crisis of a member missing a uniform item.
According to Skrocki, highly involved band members like Doyle — who also plays the baritone sax in the jazz band — dedicate somewhere between 12 and 16 hours a week to music, on top of their academic and other extracurricular responsibilities.
Doyle played on the varsity soccer team in the fall, but before the team began training at the end of the summer, she had band camp the week before.
It’s a slog, but Doyle firmly believes that all the hard work pays off in the bonds formed between the band kids — not to mention the anticipated feeling of exiting the tunnel at the Outback Bowl.
“At first I was like, ‘What’s the Outback Bowl?’ and Mr. Skrocki had to explain what it was,” Doyle said, trying to contain her laughter. “It was really exciting to find out. ... And we realized we had to compete. We all became more serious about it.”
For Skrocki, the ultimate reward for everyone with Doyle at the helm is her natural fit as a role model.
“My goal when we select a drum major is to put someone in front of the band that the other students will want to grow up and be like,” the director said after rehearsal.
“The biggest thing about Heather is that she’s just a natural role model. She’s always doing the right thing, and she’s always a positive example that other students can look up to,” he said.
And come New Year’s Day, when Doyle steps up to the platform, her bandmates will indeed be looking up to her, along with Hawkeyes and Bulldogs fans attending the game and some proud Monadnock supporters watching on ESPN2.