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Drum and Bugle Corps

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We took a night for a side trip to scenic Stockton…  OK, I can't write that with a straight face.  

We went to Stockton last night to take in a drum and bugle corps competition. Several of the world's top corps were competing as part of a tour that ends in the world championships in Indiana in August.  I competed in one of these groups (cough) thirty years ago, and I've followed the activity ever since.  Both my daughters also competed for several seasons.  

If you haven't seen competitive drum and bugle corps before, the picture in your head is probably wrong.  A competitive drum corps typically fields 100-130 members – about 1/3 brass instruments, 1/3 percussion, and 1/3 color guard (flags, rifles, etc.).  Their competitive performance is about ten minutes long, on a football field, and probably most closely resembles a marching band performance at a football halftime – but at a much higher level.  In fact, most US high school and college bands borrow their style from competitive drum and bugle corps.  However, compared with band shows, competitive drum corps performances are vastly more sophisticated, refined, and exciting – the result of months of rehearsal and practice, usually almost seven days a week, often for more than 8 hours per day.

Members are 21 and younger, and spend the entire summer touring with their corps.  Typical tours cover dozens of shows across almost the entire US.  Corps have large and well-trained teaching staff including music arrangers, choreographers, brass and percussion teachers, marching instructors and technicians to spread the teaching load.

I believe this is one of the most outstanding youth activities going.  Personally, in addition to the teamwork, camaraderie, self-discipline and self-reliance I learned – I also gained a superb understanding and appreciation of life on the road.  Drum corps traveling operations are a spectacle unto themselves.  Each corps travels with busses for the members and staff (of course) equipment trucks, staff vans, and usually a completely-outfitted mobile kitchen capable of feeding three meals per day, on the road, to over 100 people.  A typical day on tour consists of waking early (from your sleeping bag on a school gym floor), eating breakfast from the mobile kitchen, and hitting the practice field for 8-hours or more of rehearsal (punctuated by meals and breaks).  By 5 or 6 in the evening, it's time to dress for the competition, travel to the show venue, warm up, and compete.  Crowds range from a few thousand at small shows to tens of thousands at championships.  The day's competition usually ends at 10 or 11 PM when it's time to load up the busses and trucks and head several hours to the next city for the next night's competition.  Often, sleeping on gym floors is a luxury since many nights are spent on the bus traveling between shows.

When you've been through that experience in your youth – away from home for weeks on end – along with all the inevitable bus breakdowns, equipment problems, travel and logistical issues, sleep deprivation, and so forth – traveling around with just your family in an RV seems like not much of a challenge.  Quite easy, really.

Last night's show featured the Concord Blue Devils (my personal favorites), The Phantom Regiment, The Cadets, The Blue Knights, The Santa Clara Vanguard, The Mandarins, Pacific Crest, Revolution, plus the "feeder" corps for Blue Devils and Santa Clara Vanguard and a "senior" corps called Renegade.  The performances were spectacular and it was fun to see how the activity has evolved over the decades I've been following it.

If you haven't ever seen a drum corps show, go check out one when the tour comes to your area.  If you want to support a worthwhile activity for kids and young adults – I know of none better.

(Posted by Kevin)