Alum Caroline Okuno becomes youngest First Marine Division Band drum major

January 20, 2022 — by Howard Shu
Saratoga High alum Caroline Okuno from the 1st Marine Division Band out of San Diego poses for a photo in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Okuno, a graduate from the class of 2019, returned to SHS to perform for band students.

In early October, when Staff Sergeant Jay Black, a recruiter from RSS San Jose South, walked into the SHS band building and introduced himself and the San Diego-based Marine Division Band, junior Alison Okuno and senior Christopher Okuno eagerly anticipated watching their sister Caroline Okuno perform in the professional band. 

Caroline, a class of 2019 alum, returned to the school as drum major for the 1st Marine Division Band San Diego to perform for 1st- and 3rd period band students in early October.

At the beginning of the period, music students could hear the band warming up just outside the room before the introduction concluded with Black saying, “OK, here they come.” Alison and Christopher heard Caroline’s voice coming from outside, and immediately following that, the 40-person band came into the room, marching in formation to the tune of the drumbeat. 

“It was perfect. Their uniforms were pristine; each member was perfectly in step with everyone else,” said Christopher, who is one of three drum majors in the SHS band this year. 

After finishing their first piece, the band introduced themselves and talked about their experiences before playing the next piece, which mainly involved the brass band, and a few jazz pieces in a New Orleans style. The band then discussed how high schoolers could enter their program and performed one more piece before marching out.

“I was proud of Caroline and just really impressed by everything that they were doing,” Christopher said.

Caroline pitched the idea of performing at the school when she visited SHS in July during band camp. She talked to band and orchestra teacher Michael Boitz about her work in the Marines and Boitz asked if her group could come play for the school band. 

Following that, Staff Sergeant Eric N. Gonzales, official drum major and narrator for the First Marine Division band, organized the event with Boitz. 

Though Caroline said it felt a little strange to return to the school and see a new group of students, many of whom she had worked with when they were in the fifth grade beginning band, she very much enjoyed the experience.

“Seeing how the school changed and then getting to still be involved with it was a really neat experience,” Caroline said.

Caroline, the youngest musician ever invited to be trained as a Marine Drum Major, is not the only musician in the Okuno family: Christopher plays the euphonium and Alison plays the trumpet. The siblings also have an older brother named Michael who is in the Second Marine Division band in North Carolina.

According to Christopher, the goal of the Marine Division bands is  to perform in as many places as possible, from all 50 U.S. states to other countries like France, to represent the Marine Corps. 

“Every Marine is first and foremost a rifleman,” Christopher said. “They’re given the same training as any other military job is given, so they’re trained in shooting, and they’re also kept to physical standards and have several hours of [physical training] every day.”

Members of Caroline’s band practice individually in addition to regular group training.

On average, the band performs two to five times a week, but during peak weeks, they can perform up to 12 times a week. For example, when they were in the Bay Area during San Francisco Fleet Week, an annual public event that honors the contributions of people in the U.S. Armed Forces, the band performed two to three times a day for a total of about 12 performances throughout the week.

Caroline said she discovered a passion for music when she started playing the flute in fifth grade. Going into high school, she started playing the piccolo for wind symphony and symphonic wind ensemble, trombone for the marching band and saxophone for the jazz band.

Christopher said her passion for playing instruments and her leadership grew because of the band program during her high school years.

“A lot of people were really inspired by her because she committed to marching band and raised the underclassmen in a lot of ways,” Christopher said. “She really committed to experiencing marching band and having the best time possible. A lot of us are still affected by that today.”

In her senior year, Caroline made it into the county Honor Band and All-State, after which a Marine Corps recruiter found her name on a list of All-State musicians when she was applying for colleges. After the recruiter talked to her about the Marine experience and subsequent opportunities, she was convinced to try to join.

Caroline was accepted into the Marine Corps Band after auditioning during the last month of high school. In July 2019, about a month after she graduated, she went to boot camp for 13 weeks. 

“We get to shoot rifles and fight people in boot camp. We get to hit people. It’s fun,” Caroline said. “It’s honestly kind of humbling because you meet a lot of people from different backgrounds. I’m always meeting people from New York, Missouri, Idaho and just everywhere from every different walk of life.”

After boot camp, she went to Marine Combat Training (MCT), which is also required for all Marine musicians. The training, which occurred over the duration of one month, included developing skills for combat, training with machine guns, hiking and physical training. 

Then, she and other musicians were sent off to the Naval School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia, which trains naval, Marine Corps and army musicians all in the same place. 

The Basic Musician’s course, the course she was enrolled in, lasted six months and teaches students how to march, play jazz, do music theory and sight sing. 

After Caroline passed these hurdles and graduated, she went to Camp Pendleton in Southern California, joining one of 10 Marine Corps bands and has been there ever since.

“I’ve been here for a year and four months about now and my job is to play flute and piccolo, march around and sometimes do drum major things,” she said.

She is now coming up on two years as a Marine Corps musician and has begun training to become a drum major for the band since March.

The drum major’s role varies from band to band, but oftentimes, they serve as  representatives of the marching band and lead performances, meaning they are at the front, often conducting with a baton. They also have the responsibility to perform and be “clean,” exact and precise, since they are essentially the face of the marching band and the first person spectators see when the band enters.

Caroline’s responsibilities as drum major in the performance at the school included calling the commands to get the band’s attention and get them to start marching off.

“Caroline has a lot of natural skill and she’s also very strong mentally,” Christopher said. “I never expected or forethought of the possibility of her becoming drum major to this extent or doing anything beyond just being a musician, but I’m not surprised by the fact that she did manage to do it because she’s really amazing.”

Though Christopher is not looking to join the Marine Corps Band like his sister, he is still inspired by the path she has taken.

“In terms of her skills as a leader and her pathway of always achieving excellence, I aspire to be like that,” he said. “When she presents herself to an audience, she’s bold and knows what she’s doing.” 

Throughout her journey being in the marching band at Saratoga High, Caroline said one of the most important things she learned was to take initiative.

“You can’t expect things to come to you in life and you have to go out and work for them,” she said. “I put a lot of work into that marching band trying to improve myself and improve the people around me, especially once I got to be a section leader with the trombone section. Being responsible for their well being and for their success really taught me to find a place and fill that role wherever I go.”

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