Fog Horns in a Cornfield?

June 12, 2023

I am sitting in the shade of a sugar maple tree on the campus of Castleton State University in Vermont. Repetitive riffs resound off the buildings from the various sections of horns spread out in nooks under the mature trees. Trumpets, mellophones, baritones, euphoniums, and tubas work on different parts of the musical book that depict Captain Ahab’s obsession and the Pequod’s fateful journey – the story of Moby Dick. One hundred sixty-five kids from across the country have come to my humble little state to prepare for White Whale, the 2023 production of the Boston Crusaders Drum and Bugle Corps (BAC), a world-class junior corps with Drum Corps International (DCI). DCI is the major league of march arts, and BAC is a 2022 DCI Silver Medalist of this highly competitive youth music education experience.

I am already getting a distinctly nautical feel. I was situated closest to the baritones and euphoniums. Did you know euphoniums can mimic a fog horn’s sound quite well? As I lazed in the shade, I felt like I was at the wharf as the low brass sounded their foreboding alarm in the distance as they completed the sectional rehearsal. It is another clarion call reminiscent of SOS, which used a conch shell to that effect in 2018. These past two hours only offer an early snippet of what will come for the next several weeks as I begin my 2023 tour of fourteen DCI events, eleven shows of which will have the Boston Crusaders in performance. This evening, I will sit in on the ensemble rehearsal for the first time this year. This Saturday, I will return when they perform a free show for the community. It will surely be a fantastic musical and visual experience for the local Vermonters and the BAC groupies that will fill the stands. This corps knows how to bring a story to life on the field. 

Brass Caption Head, Gino Cipriani fashioning their minds and building their skills in the lot. 

Today’s mission was to deliver some Seriously Sharp Cheddar Cheese from Cabot Creamery Cooperative, one of my favorite local brands with offices in Waitsfield, Vermont, and member farmers across the region. The cheese will contribute to the snack after the ensemble and before the lights out tonight. Castleton is in the Champlain Valley of Vermont and home to some excellent dairy farms. The corn is just beginning to show its green lines in the finely manicured brown soil surrounding the town—the green hills of Vermont roll on and on beyond. Sound waves from the random horn licks fan out across the pastoral landscape. The sea of corn across the heartland will be head-high by the time we all reach Indianapolis in August.

Brass on the move, on and off the met.

Silence indicates that the block has changed. All the horns are now on the stadium field, with the front ensemble arrayed across the front sideline. The battery and color guard are on each side of the stadium in the open areas. It is five o’clock. I have changed my position to a location on the far side of the stadium to hear the instructions from the instructors led by the intrepid Gino Cipriani, the Assistant Director and Brass Caption Head. I have become a rehearsal junkie, especially one led by Captain Cipriani in the scaffold crow’s nest above the stands. His crew on the field, led by his mates, the drum majors, give him 100% attention during these long hours of forging the complex production. His mild manner and soft-spoken voice over the mic offer encouraging, positive, and complimentary comments with the instructions. Gino’s dry wit endears him with the members with phrases like, “We’re all in the same boat.” “Har har.” the members reply. 

Captain Cipriani.

Gino Cipriani has been selected for the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame for 2023 for these very reasons. These 165 are just a slice of the thousands of students that Gino has inspired over his drum corps career spanning three decades. Gino’s contribution to the past successes of the Blue Devils and The Cadets preceded his coming on board with the BAC in 2017, the year I ran away with the drum corps. 

Suddenly, the tubas begin The Wellerman, a traditional sea shanty that refers to the Weller Brothers whose ships provisioned the whaling vessels out at sea. My ears were left wanting a few more bars of that piece. What followed was a decidedly complicated spirited version of the Swallowtail Jig by the high brass, then the entire brass ensemble. These are the days that matter as the 80-member horn line continues to forge a singular voice on the move together. A cool breeze provides comfort as Gino coaxes and elicits the finer nuances of the arrangements. The metronome is the constant companion as the tempo is demanding and challenging to achieve in unison by so many horns spread across the field. His final words in this part of the book are, “It is what it is. We’ll chip away at it. Let’s move on.”

Members of the diverse BAC battery
heading to the stadium. 

The horns are now doing 136 to 140 in the book—next, 140 to 156, 156 to 160, and so on. We are nearing the waterfront. Frequent drinks from the ubiquitous canteens punctuate the takes. The instructions are 160 to 167, everybody in, on the move, on and off the with the met. “167,” the members reply in unison. This is the final take before dinner. That powerful all-brass-in sound is intoxicating. It was 6:00 pm, and the members disassembled. Happy chatter among them connotes a feeling of positive accomplishment from the long day’s effort. They seem also to feel the anticipation of coming together in one hour for a complete ensemble rehearsal under the mostly cloudy skies of Castleton—an otherwise sleepy little town in Vermont. 

The fifty-member number one color guard in the world.

Time for me to take a nice walk around town in this fair Vermont late spring day. Castleton is an older town, as most Vermont villages are. It is the site of Vermont’s first college, founded in 1787. Oh, how the founders would have been astonished by what happened on this spring day 236 years later in their pasture. After a pleasant round-the-town journey of about 45 minutes, I heard the first salvo of drums and horns from across town and turned toward the stadium. They were preparing for a complete ensemble with everyone on the field at 7:00 pm, and I would be in the stands for that. 

I always check in with Gino to be sure that it is ok for me to park myself in the otherwise empty stands. My cell phone remained in my pocket, so I’m sorry I have limited art to accompany this post. To my great fortune, this night, BAC will be doing a complete run-through of the program following the progressive approach running through the book a few pages at a time. To some, this may seem redundant. That is because it is. Take after take results in noticeable improvements each time at this early stage. By the end of the summer, the finest nuances will be fleshed out far beyond this layman’s ability to discern. I was clearly in for a treat that so many BAC fans and drum corps fans, in general, would envy. I’m thinking of all the other corps with someone like me, a drum corps junkie drinking in the early visual and audio bliss this mid-June night.

The BAC Pit.

When they reached the complex sea shanty pieces, miraculously, the Jig jived, causing Gino to remark, “Thank you, I can now sleep tonight.” Once again, I witnessed the magic that can happen when everyone strives together, students and master. As the corps completed the instructional portion of the ensemble rehearsal, Gino announced it was time for a run-through of the complete show without the metronome for the first time. The members cheered, grabbed a drink, and set up for the opener. What followed was mind-blowing. I rose from the stands, hair seemingly on fire, as my entire body rushed with electricity that seemed to levitate me in the stands. I turned and nodded to Gino. This early in the season, my words still need to be exercised better to explain my full impression, so I will end this with Gino’s apropos words. Once again well-timed following the final chord progressions and drumbeats, he said, “This is going to be a fun summer!” The members cheered and once again resumed their joyful, optimistic post-rehearsal chatter. They would come together in sections under the lights for a post-rehearsal pep talk, forging that strong bond necessary to accomplish a world-class drum corps. These are the days that matter.

Nothing is better than Cabot Cheddar.

Dazed and numb from my season-fresh first overstimulation by BAC, I waved goodbye to the team and staggered to the Silver Bullet, my trusty Volvo. I reflected on the experience on the way home and realized I did not hear the fog horns. That could be just a few low-brass kids fooling around earlier that afternoon. We’ll see. I will return on Saturday to see White Whale at the first public showing on Community Night. I will also tie alongside eleven more times this summer once they set sail, as a 21st-century Wellerman bringing the metaphorical sugar and tea and rum (cheese). 

Peace out for now. 

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