This is an introductory article to the drum corps experience aimed at those new fans who discovered DCI this week as a result of the ESPN2 broadcast. I've heard any number of otherwise capable and articulate adults reduced to babbling idiots when they try to define drum corps. "It's, ahh, well ... it's sort of like ... marching band ... but, ummm, only way better ..." Some call it marching band on steroids; others compare it to professional marching band; one director even refers to it as a cross between a Broadway musical and a marching band show. It's true, drum corps does very much resemble marching band; there are, of course, certain key differences. But before we talk about what drum corps isn't, let's talk about what it is. Modern junior drum and bugle corps ("drum corps" for short) are independent youth organizations made up of up to 135 14- to 22-year-olds who spend the summer rehearsing and performing an 11-minute show in which they play a variety of horns or percussion instruments, or spin flags, rifles, sabres, and other implements, all while marching around a football field. Now for those key differences. There are no woodwinds (clarinets, flutes, etc.) in drum corps, and a few of the brass instruments are constructed slightly differently from those you'd see on a local football field on a Friday night in the fall. The intensity level is much higher in drum corps, and the difficulty level of the shows is much higher. Then, too, there's the commitment: Drum corps members spend three to four weeks in everyday rehearsals and eight weeks on tour, doing nothing but drum corps, day in and day out. They even pay for this privilege! More on that later. Members generally have to pass an often-rigorous and selective audition process to be admitted to membership to a specific corps. And finally -- and importantly -- drum corps are, with a few exceptions, not affiliated with a school or university. Small, medium or large Drum corps are split up into three different competitive divisions, which allow corps to select a touring schedule that works best with the corps' financial and structural resources and educational philosophy. The divisions are divided based on the number of members the corps marches. Division III corps are the smallest, with 30 to 70 members; Division II corps have 80 to 135 members, and Division I corps have up to 135 members. Corps with membership sizes between 70 and 80 have the choice as to whether to be Division II or III, and Div. II corps that wish to compete in Division I must go through a special process to move up. Ages tend to vary accordingly within divisions; the youngest Division III members often haven't reached their 10th birthday, while few Division I corps will march a 14- or 15-year-old. DCI rules state that members must be 21 or younger on June 1 in order to be eligible to march; those that have passed this age limit are said to have "aged out." Each division is judged on a different scale of achievement or "sheet," with Division I shows generally being the most difficult. Lower-division corps are sometimes organized as development or cadet corps for their Division I sister groups, so that a member who begins in a developmental group at age 8 can spend their entire marching career with a single organization, aging out in the upper-level group. Other lower-level corps are organized on a purely regional, part-time basis, so that these groups rehearse at a local site two or three times a week and do shows only on the weekend. This is a good option for kids who can't commit to a summer away from work, summer school, etc., and allows a corps the hassle of spending eight weeks away from their home base. It bears noting, though, that the experience of marching drum corps is equally valuable regardless of the division or touring schedule of the group. Or, in other words, it's not where you march, it's that you march. The elements of drum corps Drum corps members come in three forms: brass, percussion and color guard. Within the brass line, there are five different instruments: The trumpet (soprano voice), the mellophone (alto voice), the baritone (tenor/baritone voice), the euphonium (baritone voice), and the contrabass (bass voice). The deeper the voice, the larger the instrument, so that the trumpet weighs in at about five or six pounds, versus the contra, which can run as heavy as 50 or 60 pounds (it's often compared to carrying a Buick on one shoulder). The percussion section consists of two subsections, the back battery (commonly known as a "drum line") and the front ensemble or pit percussion. The back battery is made up of the snare drums; tenor drums, also known as quads, made up of four to six small pitched drums; and bass drums, which are pitched and, accordingly, come in several sizes. Just about anything is game in the front ensemble, but generally the instrumentation includes all the keyboard percussion -- marimba and xylophone, which have wood or synthetic bars, and vibraphone and bells, which have metal bars -- along with the timpani, concert snare drum, concert bass drum, concert toms, chimes, temple blocks, gongs, a variety of cymbals, any ethnic drums, and any number of small instruments such as triangle, tambourine, whip crack -- and the list goes on and on. The front ensemble is staged off the main field, just off the front sideline in a designated box, and the players don't march. The color guard enhances the visual presentation on the field by spinning flags, rifles and sabres. This tradition goes back to the wartime roots of drum and bugle corps, when a rifleman would literally guard the colors during battle. Modern color guard rifles and sabers are constructed especially for the process of spinning on the field, rather than for dismembering people! Color guards also engage in dance, body work, and all manner of theatrics to help illustrate the music. In addition to the brass, percussion and color guard, one to three drum majors direct the corps on the field and help direct day-to-day logistics and communications between the members and the staff. On the road again The process of embarking on a season with a drum and bugle corps begins in November, when most corps hold their first audition camps over the Thanksgiving weekend. By then the corps' design staff -- the heads of each section, or caption, of the drum corps -- has been hard at work creating next year's show, deciding on a theme and music for that theme, and choosing on an instructional program to fit the requirements of that year's program. Audition camps, even for those who don't get chosen for membership, are an educational experience. The selection process is finished for most corps by early in the new year, and the corps spends the rest of its winter and spring camps learning music and refining the program. Most corps begin learning drill by the last few spring camps, and by the time the corps move in around Memorial Day weekend, the process of putting together the show is in full swing. A corps spends late May and early June rehearsing eight to 12 hours a day, training at a corps' home base. This period is generally referred to as "everydays," "move-ins" or "spring training," and during these three to four weeks, the members review and refine the exercises and basics they will utilize throughout the summer tour, and finish learning the field show. The corps may also learn additional tunes for parades or standstill performances such as encores. This time also gives the members a chance to get to know each other better. By mid-June, the members load up the equipment truck, hop on the bus and embark on the eight-week summer tour. "Tour" is the competition phase of the season, in which most corps are in a new city every day or so, and play shows almost every night. In a typical show day schedule, the corps will wake up around 8, rehearse for a few hours, shower and pack up, play a show, and then drive all night to the next rehearsal or show site. On days the corps doesn't play a show, the group rehearses all day, logging as many as eight or 10 hours on the field. Corps also schedule performances, including parades and standstill (non-marching) shows, other than DCI-sponsored competitions. Most groups also give several educational clinics each summer. The corps will also occasionally schedule free time in which members can do their laundry, shop for toiletries and other essentials, or just hang out. Members usually get at least half their sleep on the bus during the nightly drives; the rest comes in "floor time" on the gym floor at the next housing site. Members shower in locker rooms and eat meals prepared by volunteer cooks in the corps' cook truck, a semitrailer outfitted to resemble an industrial-size kitchen. Tour is the longest phase of the summer, lasting until DCI Championships at the end of the season. The corps travels in a large convoy that usually includes several coach buses, two semis (the equipment truck and the kitchen trailer), a box truck that hauls the souvenir trailer, and a smaller van for running daily errands. Most groups log at least 12,000 miles in the course of tour. Getting a corps down the road is expensive; many of the Div. I groups have budgets that range from $500,000 up to $2 million. While members do pay anywhere from $650 to $2,000 in membership dues and camp fees, this generally covers less than 10 percent of the cost per member of keeping the corps afloat. Souvenir sales and paid performances add a bit to the bankrolls, but most corps rely on fundraising efforts and private donations to close the gap. Since members not only pay dues but also lose the ability to work during the summer months, keeping member costs low is of genuine concern to drum corps directors. The circus is coming to town! In addition to a hefty checkbook, it also takes the proverbial cast of thousands to keep a corps going. Aside from the 135 members, most corps have two to four administrative staff, eight or nine drivers, four to eight other volunteers, and anywhere from 15 to 30 instructional staff. By the end of the season and the push to Championships, many corps end up with in excess of 180 people on tour. The administrative staff, which includes the corps director, tour director, and their assistants on the road and in the home office, coordinates day-to-day operations of the corps, including dealing with finances, arranging housing, managing the cook truck and driving staff, and running daily errands such as airport pickups, grocery shopping and hospital trips. Volunteers are an essential part of a corps' daily operations. They not only perform a number of essential functions on tour, from driving all night and cooking 150 people four meals a day to maintaining corps vehicles, fitting and repairing uniforms, and caring for medical needs, but also provide a caring shoulder and open arms to members who are away from home and their parents for months at a time. And you pay to do this?
Drum corps is not solely an activity of learning to march and play. Members get to travel across the country, are exposed to a many different people who come from different backgrounds and have different habits, tastes and personalities. Drum corps veterans learn a great deal about teamwork and dealing with different types of people. They're also expected to be responsible for themselves to a large degree, so they have to learn time management and money management. And of course, working hard on a football field in all kinds of weather for several hours a day teaches a many lessons having to do with discipline, perseverance, working towards a goal, etc. It's these lessons that members take with them long after they can no longer march. Ask 135 drum corps members why they love drum corps, and you'll probably get 135 different answers. Many will talk about their friends in the corps, the rewards of hard work, or the getting to escape from "real life." For most people, though, the real thrill comes from putting on the uniform and performing every night for a screaming crowd of hundreds or thousands. The opportunity to perform is the reward for all the hard work during the day, and just getting to march a show can make up for all manner of evils that go on during the rehearsal day. The entire drum corps experience is a massively rewarding one, and the shared bonds of having survived a summer tends to bind any two people in the activity together in a way that is hard for onlookers to understand. It's an activity that inspires passion -- some would say obsession -- in its followers and fans, and brings people back to it over and over again. Hopefully you, too, will visit us here in drum corps-land again soon.