My curiosity about drum corps brought me to Riverside Community College, the site of the Western Corps Connection on June 22. I arrived at the stadium for my first drum corps experience, and I had no idea what I was in for.
I came into the night thinking it would be pretty cool to see a drum corps show, but it was a Friday night and I was tired. So I listlessly left work to drive to the show, but when I arrived, “pretty cool” was a gross understatement!
My editor and I rode out to Riverside that afternoon (the traffic took almost two hours!) and found our way to the stadium for the show. By the time we got to Riverside, I thought that I’d be content to sit in the stands, relax, and listen to some music. But somehow, despite my friends’ best efforts to explain the drum corps phenomenon, I didn’t get the memo that a DCI show was much more than just a bunch of high school halftime shows strung together.
We maneuvered our way between fences from the parking garage to the stadium and emerged into the entrance plaza. I was floored. Trailers and booths for each corps lined the walkway, hawking merchandise to passersby. It was like a marching band carnival, and despite my six years of marching band experience, I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Before I go any further though, a little bit about my background. I’ve been playing the trumpet for 10 years and participated in marching band for six years. I will be a junior in college and have had the opportunity to be a member of two outstanding marching band programs.
My high school band numbered 250+, largely due to the band’s outstanding leadership and community support, but also to the band’s commitment to fun. Likewise, in my two years as a member of USC’s Spirit of Troy, I have found a college program with immense pride and devotion to excellence. Both bands tout musicianship and showmanship over competition, which breeds an enjoyable low-stress atmosphere. So, walking into a marching band competition was not exactly familiar territory.
I was impressed by the enormous following at my first ever marching band competition. I had no idea that thousands of people would know that drum corps existed, let alone show up to a show. But they did. And they were into it.
The stands were entirely full, and a constant flow of hundreds of fans drifted lazily through the souvenir area. And we hadn’t even made it to where the groups practice.
We circled the stadium to meet up with two of my editor’s friends in the parking lot to roam the warm-up area. We wandered the parking lot to watch the drum and horn lines warm up and stopped to watch the Santa Clara Vanguard practice.
The Vanguard’s warm-up seemed excessive—I would prefer to catch a quick nap before such a grueling show—but who am I to question the methods and results of such a storied corps? The horn line comes together before the show to run through marching drills—and I don’t mean that in the figurative sense. Squads of four or five take turns “running” back and forth in step and in line. And that’s before they even start warming up their chops.
We watched the Vanguard’s intense preparations for close to an hour, but made our way back to the stadium to catch the final three performances of the day, starting with the Mandarins.
When the Mandarins took the field, I kept my cool, not knowing what to expect. I had spent the better part of the evening soaking in the drum corps atmosphere and watching groups prepare for the performance, but when we made our way down to the field to watch, I could feel the excited anticipation of the crowd awaiting a spectacle.
The orange-laden musicians lined up with the proud solemnity and reverence for the art. But what happened next was like nothing I ever would have expected. The entire group hit the first note with a devilish ferocity that sent chills down my spine, and I was engulfed by the Mandarins’ intense performance.
From that first note, the show drew me in, and the next 45 minutes and final three groups brought some of the most powerful musicianship that I have ever experienced. The Mandarins strutted off the field, heads held high, to be followed by the Blue Devils, and finally the Vanguard.
I leaned against the fence just 20 feet from the field, hoping nobody in the crowd would notice my slowly-widening, dopish grin. Standing next to a seasoned rep from Yamaha and a former drum major, I didn’t want to come off as wet behind the ears, but the all-brass sound legitimately made me giddy. You simply can’t understand the power of drum corps until you feel the full force of the Blue Devils’ horn line. Not to mention the forcefulness of their drum line.
When the show ended we made our way out of the stadium, the moving melody of “America the Beautiful” waning with the distance. As we walked into the parking garage, my editor asked me how I liked the show, but no words came to my mind that could do it justice. I now knew what it meant to be a part of the drum corps world, and all I could do was nod my head and grin …