Bang Co stands in the middle of a parking lot surrounded by more than 200 of his closest friends. His gloved hands grip a four-pound silver mace that gleamed in the sun. His expression hidden behind dark sunglasses, the band, his band, continues to play the third song of its homecoming show, “Get It On.”
Co is the drum major, the student leader of Indiana University’s renowned marching band, the Marching Hundred. He tosses the mace up and catches it with his left hand as the song finishes. He shakes his head in disgust- the toss wasn’t smooth enough- and wipes his forehead with the sleeve of his white Kilroy’s t-shirt.
He has three days to perfect his routine for the homecoming show, and nothing but perfection will be good enough.
He has to push himself to an elite level or he’ll get bored. It’s that challenge, that drive to be better, that keeps him going. Without the constant motivation to get closer to perfection, Co said he wouldn’t be where he is. He might not be in band, let alone the drum major. Every limit has to be tested. He wants to know how far he can go. He knows it might even be unhealthy, but he can’t stop. He enjoys it.
With Co, it’s a battle between what’s idealistic and what’s realistic. No one is harder on himself than he is. Even if others expect perfection, he expects himself to be better than perfection. He knows it’s not possible, but that won’t stop him from trying.
The drum major is the face of the marching band. He leads the band onto the field, helps run rehearsals, assists the directors and most of all is a leader. The drum major is the face everyone in the band instantly recognizes. In Co's case, he has seen every other member of the Marching Hundred’s first day with the band.
Co stands in his own corner of Gladstein Fieldhouse. An exit sign glows green above him as he puts on his all-white uniform with red trim and black boots with the IU insignia on his chest. The uniform means something to Co. It represents a family, a tradition and an entire state. He will put on this uniform for the last time at the conclusion on the football season after the school’s first bowl game since 2007.
In less than an hour his talents will be watched by more than 40,000 people, yet he has no nerves. After all, this is his sixth homecoming with the IU band and second as drum major. Co is the first Asian-American drum major in IU history, and the 23-year old master’s student had just performed in front of a sold-out crowd against Ohio State the week before.
Game time. Co gives a series of thumbs-ups before leading the band on its march to Memorial Stadium. Four small children stand on the curb in the stadium parking lot with their arms outstretched. Co runs over and high fives each one of them before returning to his place in front of the Redsteppers and marching down to the field.
He remembers being confused. Why did he have to go to one place to see his dad and another to see his mom?
Co's parents got divorced when he was still a toddler. They had lived together as a family in Lincoln, Nebraska, for less than two years. Neither parent spoke English well. His mother’s side of the family was from Vietnam, and his father’s was from Hong Kong. Vietnamese and Cantonese were the languages spoken at home and would cause Co to need English as a second language courses in elementary school. He grew attached to his teacher, whom he viewed as a second mother to him while his own mother went through medical school.
During fourth grade, in 2002, Co's mother came to him with news. They would be moving to Indiana.
Co was devastated. He would be leaving behind his favorite teacher and his father, who would be staying in Nebraska.
“Having to say goodbye to those two people was difficult for me,” Co said. “It was heartbreaking. It took me quite a few years to understand and accept that things happen and life moves on.”
Co's music journey began in fifth grade when he joined the school orchestra, but just a year later he switched to band, where he picked up the flute.
Co chose the flute because it was the only instrument he couldn’t make a sound on.
For three years, he was terrible. Last chair or close to it each year, there didn’t seem to be a future for Co and the flute. Years later, his middle school director Steve Humphrey would tell him half-jokingly that he was so bad he wished he’d have quit because he didn’t add anything to the band.
Co pressed on.
“I saw a lot of people who were giving up or had an apathetic tendency towards band," Co said. "They didn’t appreciate the values of music and band, and it made me think about why I enjoyed it.”
For Co, music was about making a connection with the self. It wasn’t black and white.
“I never realized I was driven or ambitious until I got into music,” Co said. “Sometimes I would ask myself why do I keep at this ... It was frustrating because I was so bad. I didn’t realize I had this characteristic.”
In high school, things changed. He joined marching band and made wind ensemble his sophomore year, where he truly felt a sense of family within the band program.
By the spring, his friends had convinced him to try out for drum major. He was addicted to the rewarding feeling he got when his hard work paid off. Soon enough he was being interviewed by band directors, writing essays, being tested on conducting, marching and vocal commands. He was named drum major for his junior and senior years.
Stanford or Indiana? He was accepted into all of the schools he applied to but was left with his father’s alma mater and IU, the in-state option, as his final two options.
He says the choice was easy: he wanted to stay close to his family. He has a role within his family and said he doesn’t want to stray far enough away that he couldn’t come home. You could say he doesn’t want to say goodbye like he did all those years ago. The oldest of three brothers, he’s the family rock. His father is in California with his new wife. His mother is in Indiana with her fiancé.
He talks to his brothers and mother nearly every day. He talks to his father every week. He said he often thinks about where he came from.
He takes every chance he gets to be with family because he said he doesn’t want to lose it. Most of him is comfortable with staying this close to everyone he loves, but there is always that sense that he needs to live life by himself and see what’s out there in the world.
“I’ve come to the realization that I need to go out on my own, face life by myself, learn all these lessons on my own, so that I can better support my family in the future,” Co said. “Without certain lessons, then how can I help the family grow?”
It wouldn’t be the last time he would have to make a decision like this.
He didn’t pursue being drum major at IU for anyone but himself. He needed to prove to himself he was still good and he still had it. He needed to validate everything he had done in high school. It was difficult for Co not to be drum major for his first four years at IU, but not being in band was never an option.
“You don’t get to do marching band forever,” Co said. “There’s only a very limited time. Eight or so years, and that’s so miniscule in the grand scheme of your life. So I wanted to take every opportunity I could to march.”
Upon becoming a member of the Marching Hundred his freshman year, he had already made a decision. He would audition for drum major every year until he was chosen, and he did.
Marching Hundred Band Director Dr. Dave Woodley said Co was top two in every category he and his panel judged. Woodley and his team would judge prospective drum majors on whistles, conducting, voice commands, marching style and on a specialty that was to be performed to show they were a showman. Co did a combination of dance and spinning the mace.
“He was a very popular band member,” Woodley said. “And I don’t mean that as, ‘oh he’s friendly,’ but just you could tell when he interacted with the other piccolos and with the other band members, there was just that leadership quality about him that I knew would be important.”
Co was such a popular choice for drum major that Woodley said the applause he received when announced at band camp was likely the loudest he’s ever heard in his 23 years as director.
It was the start of something special even when compared to successful drum majors of the past.
“He has worked the hardest and continues to work the hardest,” Woodley said. “I don’t think Bang ever mails it in. He’s always asking questions, he’s always trying to get better, and our rehearsals run as smoothly as they’ve ever run, and that’s based on Bang’s leadership style.”
Co's hard work is noticed by others too, not just directors. Junior Jeric Tumang lives with Co, and is a junior in the band.
“Bang is a good drum major and leader because he puts his heart and soul into everything,” Tumang said. “He doesn’t do anything without it being the best he can do and it really helps inspire others.”
In May, Co will graduate with a master’s degree in public health. Yet after six years of school, he has decided he wants more and will attend law school at IUPUI -- again, close to his family. One of his younger brothers will also join him at IUPUI. He wants to remain close with the band. He wants to remain close with his family. He has so many goals and aspirations that he feels law school will help him centralize his thoughts. It’s not time to go away yet.
The weather stresses him out. It’s not consistent enough for Co. In fact, anything not consistent stresses him out. But nobody can handle stress better than band kids.
He feels a little nostalgic about band ending, but he knows the day is coming. He can’t put it off forever. When it comes he’ll reflect, but right now he has no regrets.
“I’ve been in this band for six years now,” Co said. “It’s obviously going to be upsetting to leave, I’m leaving this home, this family, such a big part of my life. But I think it’s a natural process, and I’m leaving on a great note. I’ve done all I could for the band.”
He only has two days to perfect what he knows could be his final routine.
Co stands in front of his band and leads them in the singing of the alma mater. It’s hours away from kickoff against Michigan, but he can’t keep the tears out of his eyes. The tears never fully go away throughout the afternoon and into the evening, as the Hoosiers take the ranked Wolverines into overtime.
After the game, he looks around him as the crowd empties out of Memorial Stadium for the final time in 2015. He’s soaking in every detail, every sight he sees, because he said he knows it will be the last time. He hugs a director who offers words of encouragement while waiting to walk off the field. It’s dark except for the stadium lights, and suddenly everything is quiet.
“I’m going to miss it,” he says.
Two weeks later, everything was different. After a win against Purdue, IU was going bowling. Not only did the win extend the football team’s season, it extended the band’s season. IU will take on Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 26 at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
Co cracked a huge smile and said he hopes he gets to fly with the band. He’s watched six years of losing football and is finally being rewarded. He will have one more game in that uniform. One more challenge. He has 17 days to perfect what he knows will be his final performance.
A previous version of this story stated that Co took his place in front of the cheerleaders before marching down the field.