Drum Corps International
Things I've learned from drum corps

Things I've learned from drum corps

by Michael Boo

We heard from Racine Scouts percussion staff member Andrea Birbilis four weeks ago during "Ten Years from Now ... Reactions from Fans." As one season wraps up and we begin to anticipate thinking about the 2006 DCI season, Andrea has some advice in the form of 22 suggestions/statements that all should take to heart. While tripping over the cat on my way to the coffee pot at the unholy hour of 5 a.m., I sometimes wonder what the HECK I was thinking when I decided to become a teacher. Yeah, there's that whole "summers off" thing, but when it's 20 below, several inches of partly cloudy is covering my car, and the end of the driveway is plowed in again, summer seems light years away. I had a conversation with a fellow teacher about my plans for the summer that has just ended. When I told her I would be spending another year traveling with the drum corps (with students from our school in tow), she looked at me as though I was crazy. I can relate to those odious "What I did on my summer vacation essays." During the school year, I constantly prod students to learn something each day from their surroundings. From June through early August, I put this directive into action. Today, I would like to share with you some of the "learning experiences" that I have incurred, courtesy of drum corps. 1) Drum corps is not a summer part-time job if it is more than 100 miles from home and you have to be there every weekend and twice during the week. Consider moving. 2) Teaching summer school and trying to do drum corps at the same time can drive you crazy. 3) Mondays still suck. 4) If you have pets, find a reliable pet sitter/mail getter/house sitter and pay them what ever they ask for. If they will also mow your lawn, pay them more. Coming home to a ticked off cat, a dirty litter box, a sink full of dishes and a mailbox full of "occupant" can take the shine off a successful weekend in a hurry. 5) Buy an atlas. Learn to use it. Road construction happens. 6) Invest in disposable dishes. I used to feel bad about doing this until I realized that if I didn't have dishes to wash, there would be more time for doing things I enjoyed -- like sleeping. 7) If you have even the slightest intention of tackling home improvement projects, FORGET IT! That is what the dead of winter is for. The only home improvement project that I manage to take care of from June through August was getting the trash to the curb on Tuesday nights. Sometimes THAT was a struggle. 8) Get a very large calendar. In fact, get several. Hang them all over your house, and put one in your car. Put all of your appointments on them and NEVER leave home until you confer with the calendar. Do not rely on your memory. You may be too tired to remember anything unless it is written in bold face type and pinned to your clothing. 9) Remember the days of the week by what city and state you are in. For example, it is proper to say, "I'm in Cleveland, so it must be Wednesday." Do NOT try this the other way around. Vehicles break down, drum corps get lost, and you may be detained in a parking lot or truck stop for longer than you planned. 10) Appreciate simple things and minor miracles: Schools that have warm showers, a rehearsal field and a usable kitchen on site, Laundromats that stay open past 10 p.m., ALL of the rest areas on the eastbound side of I-80, directions to places in Canada that are actually correct, diesel fuel stations in Iowa that are open after 11 p.m., George Clinton CDs blaring out of the staff van at 3 a.m., mystery flavored Kool-Aid, and neighbors who visit your housing site to say "Play as late as you want -- we like to hear the music." 11) Get an all-purpose bag with a sturdy strap. It's nice to have one centrally located place to stash extra white gloves, stick tape, mallets, recap sheets, tapes, batteries, sun screen, staff tags, directions to show sites and housing locations, nail clippers, tweezers, bandages, postage stamps, change for tolls, gas cards, credit cards, receipts from places you don't remember, emergency stashes of chocolate, extra keys to the equipment truck and staff van, a manifest of all equipment with serial numbers (God bless the US/Canadian border patrol) and finally, that all important communication device -- the cell phone, with car charger, extra batteries and indoor charging unit. Remember that sorry old game show "Let's Make a Deal," where the emcee would give cash or really neat prizes to people who had a rusty hairpin or a grocery coupon from 1952? I wonder what I could get for a list of 15 soprano bugles, in descending serial number order? By packing this bag properly and adding your towel, it can double as a pillow. 12) Take good care of yourself. This means eating properly. Save the Diet Mountain Dew and the Advil until after you've had a good breakfast of Captain Crunch and at least two cups of coffee. Whoever said that too much caffeine is bad for you obviously never spent a summer with a drum corps. And let's not forget that cold coffee is better than no coffee at all. 13) Realize the importance of the "Because I Can" principle. Sometimes the only way to get past daily frustrations is to just take a deep breath and forge onward. Folks may not understand the way that you do things, but there will be days when the only way to keep on keeping on is to take the bull by the horns -- because you CAN, and often times because you MUST. A corps director friend of mine once told me, "'NO' is not the end of the road, it is merely a speed bump on the highway of getting the job done." Adversity does make us stronger. 14) WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES AROUND. Literal translation: God may protect idiots and small children in the here and now, but ultimately, everyone gets exactly what they dish out. 15) Be consistent. In addition to all the fancy props, amazing drills, beautiful uniforms, and talented instructional staff, we have a moral responsibility to teach the difference between right and wrong. Think about this for a minute. In the course of a drum corps season, corps members see more of staff and management than they see of their immediate family members. Whether the member is 14 or 21, they learn by example, and they learn more from us than we realize. Corps members may not always like the rules, but they can deal with the rules if they are consistently enforced. As a classroom teacher, I stand in front of young people every day who want recognition but don't want to put in the time or do the work. Somewhere along the line, these kids missed the sessions on "finishing what you started" and "personal accountability" that were ingrained in my head from the first corps rehearsal I attended 30-plus years ago. Those words became my mantra through high school, college, and the "real world." Stand up for what you feel is right. People may not always like you, but they may secretly admire you for your convictions. More importantly, years from now when they are older (and hopefully wiser), your corps members will thank you as well. 16) Contribute. Participate. Appreciate. Communicate. Congratulate. We all have to give a little in order to get something in return. Instead of asking "What's in this for ME/my corps," try to imagine how something might apply to the activity as a whole. We're not talking about compromising your principles, but step outside of your box every now and then, and see how the other half lives before passing judgment. If this activity is to survive and flourish, it's time to start paying attention to the WHOLE activity, not just the five or six that make it to the televised broadcasts. The kids who march in spots six through 12 and beyond work just as hard all summer, sometimes under greater pressure to succeed. We need to get away from the mindset that small means less successful. In today's difficult economic times, it's a miracle that any of us make it to the starting line. And while you're at it, make someone's day by letting him or her know how important he or she are to the success of your program. 17) Focus on commonalities rather than differences. When it comes right down to it, all three divisions of junior corps share the same basic necessities -- brass players, percussionists and color guard people between the ages of 12 and 22. Some groups have better horn lines. Some have more advanced visual programs, but ALL of the corps are important to the future of this activity and they need to be encouraged and empowered to succeed at whatever competitive level they choose. I often wonder what happens to the thousands of young people who annually audition for Division I corps and don't make the cut. What happens to all of these potential members? Why not encourage all applicants to march somewhere and follow through on it? And here's another idea: Why not offer to mentor a smaller corps in your area? Offer the services of your staff and management. This can become a "win-win" situation and who knows? BOTH sides may have more in common than they thought. 18) Be patient. Honest to Pete, there are days when just pulling out of the bus lot requires the patience of Job. One particularly memorable experience involved spending nine hours of quality time at a convenience store in Minnesota, trying to find a) someone to repair a bus radiator on a Saturday, and b) alternate transportation to our next show when it became apparent that we weren't going to find anyone to repair a bus radiator on a Saturday. In spite of the fact that it HAD to be over 100 degrees, the corps members had a great time playing Frisbee in the parking lot and cards inside the air-conditioned store. Even the staff made the best of the situation. As the hours passed and options dwindled, our director became more determined than ever to get the corps back on the road. We had a picnic in the parking lot. We cleaned the mini-mart out of popsicles. We ordered pizza for dinner. Eight hours into this nightmare on Drum Corps Street, Mr. Chaffee finally found a bus company that agreed to bring a driver back in after his shift and take us to Hastings, Minn., at midnight. Suddenly life was good. We had a bus. It had air. We were off on another adventure. Moral of THIS story: The corps members handled the situation well because the corps director patiently explored every possible option and refused to give up. 19) Everyone is entitled to an off day. This includes staff, management and support crews. When bad things happen, state your argument and get on with your life. We are very fortunate to have a staff that routinely goes the extra mile without being asked. BUT, we aren't perfect, and bad stuff happens when people are tired, hungry, or a little of both. If you aren't all in the game together, it's bound to be a long season. If YOU were the reason for a screwup, stand up and be counted. Sometimes it doesn't take much to upset the schedule. Remember: HEAT plus LONG DRIVE plus NOT ENOUGH SLEEP equals SHORT FUSE. And remember that when it's over, it's really over and done with. 20) Keep in regular contact with family and friends. My family has long since given up trying to explain why I haven't attended a family reunion since the mid 1970s. I don't understand why they can't have their little gatherings in JANUARY when I have fewer schedule conflicts. My young nieces and nephew are convinced that Aunt Andrea lives on a big bus, and my brother secretly wonders when/if I will ever get a "real" life. Think about it. Drum corps people see nothing wrong with traveling from one end of the country to the other on a bus, sleeping in school gyms and eating in parking lots. When my students ask me what I do during the summer, how can I explain to them about the times that I sat out on the back of the equipment truck with friends until 3 in the morning, swatting bugs and drinking JOLT cola? How can I explain what it's like to perform in front of thousands of people each year? How can I explain the feeling of utter bliss when you FINALLY get a part right that has been troubling you for days? Who understands you better than the person you sit next to/live with all summer long? Drum corps doesn't care what your socioeconomic background is. We all eat off the same Styrofoam plates and sleep on the same gym floor. It doesn't matter if your wardrobe is less than "cutting edge." I have one particular friend who prides himself on dressing out of his corps' lost and found barrel. Band, choir, and sororities were all great fun, but the people I know I can always count on are my drum corps friends. Face it, when your life falls apart, there's always someone who will hop in the car and come to your rescue (or at least let you rant for 45 minutes on the phone). Who else would know a friend, who knows a friend, whose cousin's brother-in-law is a superintendent, and can house your corps at the last minute? I'm convinced that God gave us cell phones so that we can share the love with family and friends at all hours of the night and day, especially between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. 22) Learn the two most important words in the drum corps unabridged dictionary: "THANK YOU." We couldn't do what we do without the kindness of friends, neighbors, parents and complete strangers. If you really want to freak people out in a good way, take some time this year to say "THANK YOU" to someone who made drum corps a reality for you. In a few months, the odyssey will begin again, and then before I know it, I'll be struggling to adapt to yet another school year. For now, I am once again enjoying the creature comforts of home -- eating off actual dinner plates and sleeping in a bed. Summer brings an anticipation of milestones achieved. I will watch my students mature into young adults, ready to face the trials and tribulations of adulthood. We will eat a mountain of taco salad and drink a river of Kool-Aid. Who knows? This might even be the year to complete "Drum Corps' Guide to Famous American Truck Stops." As I walked past the school library, I stopped briefly to listen to the librarian read "The Places You'll Go," by Dr. Seuss. As the reading continued, I closed my eyes. I could almost smell the diesel fumes. I could feel sweat running down my sunburned back. I heard the music, the laughter, and all of the bad tour jokes. In my mind's eye, I could see the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, the rolling hills of the Carolinas, the palm tress of Florida. I saw all of the wonderful places that drum corps has taken me. And in the deep recesses of my brain, I could hear "On the starting line -- from Racine, Wisconsin -- THE RACINE SCOUTS!" It made me homesick. Yes, the places you'll go, the people you'll meet. I can hardly wait for next season. Fanfare archives Michael Boo has been involved with drum and bugle corps since 1975, when he marched his first of three seasons with the Cavaliers.

He has a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in music theory and composition.
   
He has written about the drum corps activity for over a quarter century for publications such as Drum Corps World, and presently is involved in a variety of projects for Drum Corps International, including souvenir program books, CD liner notes, DCI Update and Web articles, and other endeavors. Michael currently writes music for a variety of idioms, is a church handbell and vocal choir director, an assistant director of a community band, and a licensed Realtor in the state of Indiana. His other writing projects are for numerous publications, and he has published an honors-winning book on the history of figure skating. His hobbies include TaeKwonDo and hiking the Indiana Dunes. But more than anything, Michael is proud to love drum corps and to be a part of the activity in some small way, chronicling various facets of each season for the enjoyment of others.