July 1, 2022 – Along the Mill Brook, Waitsfield, Vermont
I am back home on my brookside deck after an eventful first tour of my drum corps season – Southern California. After a couple of days getting caught up at home and a round of golf, it’s time to catch up with you where I left off, DCI Western Connection, San Bernardino, CA. My drum corps tours are more of a lark rather than having any defined objective or purpose. If there was a purpose for the annual summertime sojourns and this blog, it is to capture the essence of this unique and exceptional American youth activity and share it with others. To fully appreciate the enormous effort and coordination of machinery and human power necessary to transport and field a 21st century drum corps, one must go behind the scenes with a trip through the lot. This refers to the adjoining parking areas on campuses and stadiums for the dozens of tour busses and semis that transport the entourage of corps. To fully appreciate the amount of preparation the members go through physically, musically, and most important, mentally for a show, one must aimlessly meander the campus and let your ears and eyes guide you to secluded locations or wide-open areas for color guard, brass, battery, and percussion ensemble warm-ups. This is what I did at the Western Connection show in San Bernardino, CA on Sunday. This was the third and last show of my CA tour before returning home.
One might ask why I went through all the planning and preparations, traveling from Vermont on four airplanes, one train, three shuttle busses, and renting a car for two days, just to hang out in a California parking lot. The answer is that I am obsessed. I truly cannot get enough of the up-close and personal sights and sounds of the armies of members, staff and volunteers that disembark, assemble and transport props, dress, march two by two to warm-up locations, and then at the proper time amass and take the field to bring their shows to the adoring fans in the stands. I am not the only one with this obsession and there seems to be a growing number of fans and supporters who follow their passion around the campus as I do before and often during the shows. I stayed on the grounds until the end and followed the Blue Devils into the stadium with my press pass credential that Russ gave me at the Rose Bowl the night before.
With few exceptions, I do not interview the members. Occasionally, there are moments when they are relaxed and idle and it seems ok ask a question or to take a photo of them in uniform. Being close-up to see the intricate designs and elaborate multi-colors of the uniforms is especially pleasing. When they assemble in any formation there is a steely focus that is not penetrable, except for a few who will make eye contact and smile in thanks for a thumbs up as they pass by two-by-two. Interviewing some of the other onlookers and listeners can be fun and interesting, especially the moms and dads who follow their daughters and sons. One California mom, Rachel has a son who is a snare drummer in the Bluecoats but she was in San Bernardino to watch her son’s girl friend who is a mellophone player for the Blue Devils. It leaves one curious about the cross-corps relationships that develop and the anticipation of the scheduled meetings at the various shows and the limited windows of time to be together.
Columns of marchers of various sections and corps file sinuously along the walkways, canteens in hand, toward a location where they will go through a somewhat ritualistic warm-up regimen. Various drum and horn sections that are engaged in this echo in a cacophony of sounds amid the campus building surrounding the open areas. This is when you see the members faces and hear the voices of the coaches, instructors, and drum majors as they lead them. One cannot help but notice the variety of skin tones and facial features of the kids, especially the corps present here today. My biggest take-away from DCI is that the kids get it. It does not matter the tone of skin, the gender, the social and personal preferences, they all belong. They are all integral to the whole. When I substitute teach, I often lecture the kids on Vermont’s motto: Freedom & Unity. You can be you and I’ll be me, but we are all in this together.
A highlight of my early visit to the lot was meeting the Alisal Community Arts Network (ALCAN) marching band. This is a young ensemble of marchers from Salinas California, a community of primarily native Americans. This is precisely why I came here to California, to meet fine examples of organizations that support youth music education, diversity, and inclusion. Their one and only trailer was sufficient to haul the myriad of musical instruments of all kinds in addition to brass and percussion. These kids were performing in exhibition, many for the first time in a stadium venue and in front of such a large crowd. I had the privilege of meeting Joshua the director and a couple of kids who had just completed their program and were cooling off in the shade of the trailer. When ask, one young marcher said with a broad toothy grin, “It was scary at first, but marching helped. It felt good when everyone was clapping at the end.” They all enjoyed pizza oven-baked on premise afterward. The caterer/chef reserved me a slice. Peace Bro!
People in general in the drum corps activity are very approachable and friendly. It is easy to make new friends. There is something very bonding about the entire shebang. The privilege that I have had to get to know so many board members and supporters from the Boston Crusaders and Carolina Crown through friendships that I have made here in the east, is equaled by the privilege that I have had these past few days in California. DCI=Love, Family, and Friends on both coasts. I love all the corps and the thousands of souls who are behind supporting and in front leading them. I have as much love and respect for the emerging corps such as Pacific Crest as I do the venerable world champions such as the Blue Devils. This night, I would follow the Blue Devils horn line through their entire warm-up protocol to witness the high level of preparation that it takes to be the best. It is a rare occasion for this Vermonter to experience this all time great corps up close and personal.
One needs to be patient for the sound part of the experience. This night the members went through a series of marching drills in thirteen rows of seven across, along a 50-foot span of the vacant parking lot. These were not your usual left/right, left/right marching steps. These drills were intricate steps with body movements not possible for this layman to describe. The metronome is heavily employed as the steps are precise. Marching today requires extreme control of body movements. The demand of the choreography today is as much or more as the demand of the musical book on the marchers. Members learn to separate the upper body to be quiet and able to perform the horns or drums, from the lower body for marching/running sideways, backward, and forward, moving from dot to dot. This is very much like skiing. These exercises in the lot are critical to limbering up and training to reinforce the muscle memory. And, doing it in unison, together. Huddles, shouts, slogans, giggles are signs of relieving tension and bonding throughout the ritual. Frequent drinks from the ever-present canteen punctuate the regimen.
Meanwhile in the open grassy field, several corps who are about to go on are completing their ensemble warm-ups as the Blue Devils grab their horns to assemble in their popular circle out in the open air. The sunset was slowly increasing the color saturation, silhouetting the members in the golden California sky. I was struck by the ease and calm manner of the head brass instructor as he coached the corps through the warm-up routine. What struck me was the connectedness between he and the members. You could tell that it was two-way with all 80 of them. This coach-of-horns was masterful in his ability to make those connections completely around the circle. The members were absolutely focused and responsive to his soft-spoken words and his masterful hands has he led them. Clarity, poignancy, power, and precision followed with every step in the process. Tantalized fans invaded the circle to be at the epicenter of the sound, while I slowly circumscribed the circle, moving slowly past the tubas, mellophones, trumpets, baritones, and euphoniums, each phase offering a different sound quality. This is what one can get addicted to. Ear candy at a high level. Snippets of the show music are included along with the usual chord progressions and dynamic etudes. All led to a climactic conclusion as the crowd in the center dispersed and the corps met in the final huddle before proceeding to assemble with the other sections and take the field. I headed to the gate to watch Santa Clara Vanguard through the bars at the right end zone. While there, I was able to film the entire entourage file past me while in retreat before the Blue Devils took the field for the final show of the night. This was a precious moment. My own personal parade where I could feel the electricity and vibe from the members as they passed.
I exercised my press pass privilege to enter the field with the Blue Devils and took my place on the 30-yard line row 25 along with the masses for another amazing Blue Devils performance. After that it was time to zip back to the hotel on the California freeways. The driving experience has not been my favorite part. My, how California has grown in the past 50 years. I must say, if you are going to drive the freeway in California, the Tesla is a good choice. It is quick and road-wise in many ways. Being that I am over 3,000 miles away, it was a bit of a challenge planning my travel to California and back. The airlines are busy, and there is so much more traffic on the roads these days. One missed flight on the back end due to heavy traffic and delays was really not much of a problem except for my ride home from the airport in Burlington. All my family was at work during my later arrival so I leaned on a couple of friends and had a nice hike in the Green Mountains directly upon my return with the Peak-a-week group. For my next tour show, I am headed to Manning Field, Lynn MA on July 3 in the piston engine Volvo, the Silver Bullet. I will finally see the Boston Crusaders, along with the Cadets, Jersey Surf and more. After that, I settle in for a long month of July along the Mill Brook and only YouTube to wet my drum corps appetite before NightBEAT. I’ll keep you posted.