Drum Corps International
A Formative Blue Devils experience

A Formative Blue Devils experience

by Drum Corps International

This week, we are devoting some editorial attention to drum corps events and memories that happen and have happened in the Western U.S. Interlude is a section of DCI.org dedicated to periodically telling the longer, more in-depth stories of the drum corps experience. If you have a longer drum corps essay that perhaps metaphorically relates to larger life, this is the place for it (writers seeking an online clip, here's your chance). Send your completed essays, along with a brief bio and even a picture (and your own e-mail address, if you so choose), to content@dci.org with the subject line "Interlude." We look forward to hearing from you! By Robert Charles 'Chuck' Helbush The high school that I attended had a rather advanced music program. This was promoted to all music students in the lower schools, and seemed to be effective. Students aspired to be a member of this, to join the ranks of a respected organization. As I was leaving one of two junior highs that fed this high school, I was told that the marching band had over 100 musicians. Not bad for a school with a total enrollment of 1,300 or so. Add to this that there was a separate freshman band of about 35, and you begin to see the importance. The only way for a freshman to be in the advanced band was by audition. My junior high teacher suggested that I audition. Imagine the fear of knowing this wasn't your place. It was only for upper classmen, and if you auditioned, you dared to invade their space. I was successful however, one of only three freshmen to make the cut. I was on baritone/euphonium and the other two freshmen were two young ladies on flute. This was my introduction to marching band. I had joined a group that had a lengthy list of accomplishments and many trophies scattered about the music rooms and offices. I was in seventh heaven. Three baritones, eight to 10 trombones, three Sousaphones, about 20 trumpets, four to six French horns, about a dozen percussionists, a dozen saxes, and I never bother to count the other woodwinds (or if I did, it was not important to me to remember). Suffice it to know that the woodwinds outnumbered the rest of us. Over 100 instrumentalists, plus a color guard for marching that numbered 30-40, and this young impressionable freshmen was quite amazed. It was not to last, however. It seems I entered the above environment at the very tail end of its popularity. This was not due to any error on the part of the teacher. He was the source of much of the previous accomplishment. The student enrollment in music at the lower schools was shrinking, and not all of the lower classmen musicians involved during my freshmen year chose to continue the following year. The marching member size was reduced to less than 100 the following year, including color guard, and this reduction would continue for the remainder of my high school education. I guess I should have been happy that I had one good year, but I saw it as more of a disappointment at that time. As a sophomore, I was very involved in the music program. I was hopeful that things could return to the way things were the previous year. We were still a very talented group, just lacking the previous numbers. A trumpet player and I had some business at the campus on some evening in the fall. I have long since forgotten the business we had to attend to, but we needed to be there all the same. I bummed a ride from Mr. Trumpet. As we were leaving campus we heard and then saw something in the student parking lot that grabbed the attention of both of us. We first heard the decibels of what had to be an enormous number of brass instruments. We, being brass players ourselves, had to know the source. Our investigation led us toward the music building, where we could look down to the student parking lot. We could now see an arc of horn players in that parking lot that numbered over 50. Imagine our pleasant surprise. There was more brass there than we had the previous year in our marching band. I never thought to question the missing woodwinds. All I cared about was the quality and high volume of sound, which penetrated even though this horn arc was pointed away from us! Mr. Trumpet and I were captivated. We talked, trying to determine who this group was, and neither of us had even a good guess. We looked more specifically at the horns (from a hundred yards away), and realized we were looking at something neither of us had ever seen before. The tubas sat on top of the shoulder. What could that thing be? Here we were on our school campus, feeling somewhat alien, because we had no clue what was before us. We were startled, surprised and anxious when the horn players began walking in our direction. We found that they were headed into the music building (our school home of sorts) from which we were standing not 20 feet away. We found ourselves questioning some of this group to find out who, and what they were. We were told that they were a drum and bugle corps named the Blue Devils. Well, we now had a definition, but that did very little for me. They were based not 15 minutes from our campus, but we had never heard or seen them before. The next 10 minutes greatly changed both of our lives. Mr. Trumpet and I walked into the music room with this horn line to find that the arc was largely formed again inside. I walked over to take a closer look at the large-bore instruments (I still did not know what they were). I was only a few feet behind what I later learned to be the lead baritones when one of them looked back at me and immediately began to laugh as he proclaimed, "This guy looks like he is right out of the Troopers!" (I was wearing a cowboy-style hat that day). I ignored the comment because I didn't know what he was talking about. Since I had just learned about drum corps, I certainly had no idea of who the Troopers were. Some of the sopranos, however, had not heard him clearly, and did not understand the comment to be in humor. A couple of them came to me moments later and asked me if I was from the Troopers. My response was "What's a Trooper?" By the end of this very short visit with some discussion, Mr. Trumpet and I were both asked to come to the following week's rehearsal and audition. We both talked with our families, and were given permission. My mother had some reservations, as she had never heard of a drum corps, and thought I might be getting involved in something akin to a motorcycle group. Oh, the woes of drum corps. Well, the auditions were a success. We were introduced to new instruments -- the old piston rotor bugles. Mr. Trumpet was now also Mr. Lead Soprano, and I was now one of the lead baritones. Over the next couple of weeks, my new cohorts shared with me some back editions of Drum Corps World (you can imagine I had never heard of this before either). And sure enough, they shared with me the caricatures drawn of the various corps members. I very well could have been the model for the caricature used to represent the Troopers -- I fit it, with my hat (and its emblem), glasses, the length of my hair. All I needed was the cavalry jacket. But this was not the corps I had joined. Over the next few months I learned of the progress this corps had made in years past. They had only been playing bugles for a few years. They had been a drum and bell corps just a handful of years before. There was some pride in their announcing that they were an associate member of DCI. They had placed in the top 25 the previous summer. I still had little to no idea of what DCI was, but I did understand the term "world championships." This sounded so much larger than anything I could have been involved in with a high school marching band. This was the beginning of a remarkable four years of my teen life. I still have a large number of friends that I would never have had otherwise. I see most of them at least once a year at drum corps shows. Nothing can shake the history that we had together. My corps, the Blue Devils, proceeded to make DCI finals my first year, finishing ninth in 1974 in Ithaca, N.Y. Since we performed early during finals, I got to sit off to the side to witness performances of the Muchachos and others that were truly remarkable. If only my fellow high school musicians could have seen that. Anybody who has a recording of Muchachos' DCI performance from 1974, do so just to listen to the crowd response. The goosebumps run up my spine to this day. Oh, the wonderful impact this had on a 16-year-old. Oh, I almost forgot. I was given a nickname early that first year. The Blue Devils called me "Trooper," in honor of that DCW caricature. I wore that name with pride as the Troopers finished fourth that year (an enviable position to those of us in ninth). I continued to march in 1975 (we got third), and when we won it all in 1976 and 1977. I felt a little sad for having missed out on the best of high school marching band. I participated all four years, but I was there during the decline. But I arrived on the Blue Devils' scene at the most opportune moment. We were on the rise, and we would rise fast. Looking back on it now, there is no way that high school band, even if it had been at the pinnacle of success, could have compared with the drum corps experience. I say this without wishing any negative thoughts toward my music teacher, as he was exceptional with what he did and was also a DCI judge. He knew that two of his students were in the Blue Devils that first year, but he never said a word to either of us. Imagine my surprise to be marching in competition somewhere and recognizing the field horn judge. I had the pleasure of being around the likes of Jim Ott, Wayne Downey, Jerry Seawright and Mike Moxley. All are now members of the DCI Hall of Fame. Dave Gibbs (also a DCI Hall of Fame member and current director of the Blue Devils) was just a soprano player back then, and look what he has accomplished since then. Mr. Trumpet was a gifted musician named Randy Beardsley who now teaches music in northern California. Thanks to him, I was able to participate in the corps before I could drive. And the music teacher was one very special Roger Olsen. What a positive impact he had on me, although I don't think I ever told him that. It would be nice if he read this little note now. I guess I had it relatively easy. All of the above just fell into my lap, and it was all pretty much in my own back yard. Those of you who must travel or relocate to join a corps are much bolder than I ever was, although if I had known about the activity, I may very well have persued it much as you do. Thank you drum corps and Blue Devils. You have given me a lifetime of wonderful memories. Nobody should miss out on such an opportunity.

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