“You Can Always Keep Going”: Q&A with Alum John Drake


Courtesy of John Drake

NHHS alum John Drake performs Vox Eversio for the Santa Clara Vanguard in 2019

When John Drake was a student at Newport Harbor, they took six AP classes and were heavily involved in the music program, all while competing in a world-class drumcore. Drake is now an aerospace engineering student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. They spoke with the Beacon’s Anastasia Everding about how they survived high school, their experience playing for the Santa Clara Vanguard (SCV) drumcore and their college journey.

What do you miss the most about high school?

I miss the band the most. If I had to think about it, I was definitely in between a lot of things, and band was my only social life in high school. Certainly, a lot of the activities I did were on my own. The Latin Club was another group I had that I was part of. There’s no real difference between my life now and my life back then, because it was only the social interaction.

How did you manage to juggle so many different classes?

The unfun answer is that it was unmanageable. I wasn’t concerned about grades. My own personal philosophy on school is that a lot of people are way too asphyxiated on grades, and lots of people in that situation would not do something that I did because of the position I was in; I had to constantly be doing videos, and I had to be focused on leaving school early to go to drumcore. And because of that, there were simple logistical things I could not do, because I was also working. I couldn’t do all my homework, so I had to make sure to study and get good-enough grades while not doing all the homework for classes, which is obviously something that traditionally school would be like, “Please do not do that.” But if you’re actually focused on learning and you put that as your first objective, then that’s what matters. 

Making a lot of sacrifices is a large part of it. I didn’t do the very last concert of the year for the band, or walk for graduation, because I had to leave [for drumcore]. I had to weigh those choices and say, “Would I rather walk at graduation, or be a member of SCV?” I had to compile all that and make tough choices.

Did you know you would have to make a lot of sacrifices?

Yes. I’ve generally had hobbies throughout my entire life. I’ve always been obsessed with being insanely busy, so I would always do 30 different activities. It started out with me playing baseball, and I didn’t really like it. I just did it because I thought it was good for me, to be doing a sport. And then I would start going to band, and then I wouldn’t be able to go to a baseball practice. It kind of got to a point where people on the team disliked me because I was barely there. So it was kind of [bad] for me to pursue those things when I was not getting any kind of fulfillment from one of them. And I was taking away from the other one to do it. 

[I came to the conclusion that] I could do band mediocre and baseball mediocre, or I could just do band and be really good at it. And if you can get to that point and make a decision on which one you really want to commit yourself to, then you can be able to sacrifice. 

Did a lot of people judge you for quitting baseball?

Certainly, yes. In baseball, I was made fun of a lot. The coach would tell me that I would [rather] play for the band than give him innings or playtime. And it definitely was fair because I definitely was not good, since I was not putting in the time to be there. But socially it was obviously an issue to be like, “Yeah, I’m not going to commit to this.”

A lot of the things I did were not traditional for [students]. I had to leave school [my senior year] five weeks early so I could rehearse [for SCV]. The common brain function when someone hears that would say, “No, go to school. Go walk at graduation and do that thing that you earned.” So I got a lot of initial backlash there, and that was the hardest part about [making my decision]. [I had to approach] teachers and [ask] them to accommodate me for leaving five weeks early. 

People would always ask me what band was doing for me. And drumcore was definitely . I paid about $4,500 in total for tuition and plane tickets to do SCV, and that was all out of my own pocket from working. And I worked 30 to 40 hours during the school week. When I say that to somebody, [they would say,] “So you worked almost full time, while doing six AP classes in high school, and you didn’t save any of that money [for college]?” This was a weird concept to people. It wasn’t something people around me could see.

Mr. [Joe] Robinson was the biggest proponent [for me to have a] good mentality. He would always say, “Don’t suffer just for the bigger boat.”

What motivated you to do well in your classes?

You should set what you want your priorities to be, and sometimes those won’t line up with what people would expect from you. I definitely feel fulfilled from my high school experience and where it’s put me in this position, but I sacrificed a lot of things to get here that a lot of people would not really think about sacrificing.

How was the transition from high school to college?

Harbor is definitely one of the best schools. I always hear from people in their classes saying, “Oh god, they never told us that we were gonna have freedom in college,” and I’m like, “What?”  Harbor does a great part in AP classes. I think all the teachers who teach these classes are the “learn the stuff on your own” type of teachers. And this is awfully a lot how college is. And on the same part, college is a lot of, “It can’t be explained.” No matter how much I tell you college will be hard, it will still feel hard. I could be like, “Expect this, this, this and this,” and you can process that and think it to yourself. But when you go to college and experience it, it will still be different from anything else you’ve ever experienced. 

I took an honors math class [in my first semester] because I still had a little bit of arrogance in me. I got a 5 on the AP Calculus BC test and thought I would do fine. I ended up passing [the honors math class] by the skin of my teeth. That was the hardest class I’ve probably ever taken. It lowered my GPA in the first semester, so I think if I had failed that class, they would have taken me out of aerospace engineering. 

You’re going to make mistakes; that’s the whole gig. You are going to fail a class in college. That’s one that’s mind boggling for some people. I failed two classes last semester. Classes in college are meant to be hard and made to give you a sense of reality and control over how you manage your own education. 

What was your favorite ensemble that you were part of at Newport Harbor?

Winterline, because it was very close due to it being a lot smaller. Everyone just ends up hanging around their sections. In winterline, you only have two real sections, the battery and pit. It’s also not a class, so there’s no pressure in that way. Winterline had a lot of student influence, and we could always pitch ideas. It was enjoyable.

What did winterline teach you?

It taught me percussion, because I’m not a percussionist. I got to learn how different instrument groups worked. I learned basic drum writing, basic show-writing skills, prop design. I don’t feel like winterline was focused on learning. It was more focused on being social and fun. I learned a lot of social skills. I was a pretty introverted person the first couple years of high school, and I was definitely able to get out of my shell and talk to people.

What did SCV teach you?

It teaches you that whatever breaking point you have in your body is completely arbitrary, and you can always keep going. I learned how to keep my cool in front of a bunch of people. I learned how to manage a social media account and how not to leak things. I learned a lot of math in football fields. Honestly, I could talk for a very long time about how much I’ve learned from SCV. It’s been a part of my life since sophomore year [of high school,] and it’s an insanely influential part of who I am. The things I’ve learned within SCV have shaped who I am and have been an integral part of my personality. 

I used to be very arrogant; ask anyone from my 9th and 10th-grade class. [Those were years] that I was the section leader in marching band. I was really full of myself, and I thought I could do anything with minimal effort. And then I went to [the Santa Clara Vanguard] cadets in 2017, and I was one of the youngest members in the hornline. That season punched me back really hard. That was probably the toughest summer I’ve ever had in my entire life. I lost like 50 pounds from stress and working out. I feel like that was a big reality check. And I kind of went through it again looking from the Cadet Vanguard Corps to the A Vanguard Corps as a way to shape myself to the best I can absolutely be.

[In SCV,] we say, “Excellence is a choice.” I always think about that. In any given instance of an activity, I can either do it mediocre or excellent. And it’s all completely up to me. 

I remember you bringing up the fact that SCV members read a couple books. Did they teach you anything?

They actually did. In 2018, they wanted to change the entire vibe of SCV, so they had us read a book called The Energy Bus. It wasn’t as influential as the other book I read, The Hard Hat: 21 Great Ways to be a Great Teammate. The Hard Hat was a pseudo biography that turns into insight about teamwork. John Gordon is a motivational speaker and writer. He was a lacrosse player for Cornell. He was killed in a lacrosse match by getting hit by a ball in his chest and died before he got to the hospital. It goes into his life and things like his upbringing.

In chapter seven [of The Hard Hat], it says 21 things that he did that are fundamental to being a good teammate. And a lot of them changed how I perceive things. One of them was “sweat harder.” Literally no matter what he was doing, he was sweating. Sweating is a side effect of mental and physical effort, so if you’re simply working harder, then you sweat more. That was something that made total sense to me. You can watch SCV rehearse; I’m a very sweaty member. After a full show, I can squeegee my body from sweat. 

My very first season of drum corps was Impulse, and I was 15 at this time. We had a rehearsal one day, and we were all walking back [from a performance,] and I was like, “Man, my feet hurt,” and then the guy behind me said, “John, everyone’s feet hurt, shut up.” And ever since then, complaining has been knocked out of my system. I don’t complain anymore. 

Do you still play tuba, or music in general?

[In December,] SCV announced that 2021 was not going to happen. 2022 is still most likely on track, especially with current estimates for vaccine development. DrumCorps International is still going to do something for 2021, but it’s only a final showcase. I plan to march for 2022. 

[Other than tuba,] I play the trumpet too. It’s a nice skill to have, and I definitely won’t get tired of it. I can always get better. I can pull it up, hopefully when there’s not very many people around. Mostly, people that live in my apartment building are students, and they’re not here because of COVID, so I can just play some long tones or practice in general. I arrange music in my free time. It’s definitely a skill that I enjoy and still exercise whenever I have the opportunity to.

How is life going for you at the moment?

One thing is that I’m an out-of-state student. I live in Illinois, and my life is now in illinois. I’m not an out-of-state student that’s like, “Oh, [school] is online, so I’m back in California.” I don’t own any things that are in California; I’m completely moved out here. I work two jobs and I pay all my rent and expenses by myself, and I don’t get any money from my parents or extended family. 

I chose the absolute worst time to, for one, become an adult and move out during quarantine, and two, become a STEM major graduating a year early, because now I’m going to graduate next year in May, unless I decide to defer for a semester or two. And this is normally the period where STEM majors participate in internships.

The main track for schools like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, that are very focused on getting people employed, is that you have your first year and you learn your fundamentals in engineering. Then second, you learn more fundamentals, and then you apply for basic internships and you can get some basic experience or you can do research and be a research assistant. And then your junior year, you learn more fundamentals and learn some more in internships. And then your senior year, it’s all very specialized engineering stuff, and you are applying for full-time jobs or graduate school. 

It’s expected of me next semester to show up to career fairs and apply for jobs. Currently, my resume is that I work at a Mexican restaurant and I have a degree. I don’t have any workforce experience. 

This is definitely completely uncharted waters for the world and my university. I believe I’m the only person with a three-year graduation track in aerospace engineering, so it’s an insanely unique circumstance. Also, I left high school five weeks early to go perform in a world-class championship, so I’m kind of used to really weird circumstances. I’m only half worried. I feel like a lot of people would be a lot more stressed in my kind of situation right now. But I’m still kind of stressed, not gonna lie.

What’s helping you not feel as stressed as you think you could be?

I try to allocate a lot of free time, which means that I don’t do as well in school. My GPA is like a 3.0. I’m in a weird situation in a lot of my classes where I take the bell curve of all the students. You have that tertiary insanely good area, and you have that bottom of the curve group where [counselors] say, “Please drop out or transfer into the liberal arts and sciences college instead of aerospace engineering.” I’m kind of in the top of the bottom corner. But I’m also the youngest person in all these classes. It’s a really weird situation, so I’m not doing terribly well, but I try to allocate time to hang out with my friends and watch movies with my boyfriend.