Drum Corps – Why You Don’t Get It


This is me trying to explain Drum Corps to someone who doesn’t know it …

The conversation usually beings: “So, there’s this band thing I do.  Marching Band.”  While inside I am already getting the creepy feeling that they won’t get it.
“You mean like parades?” They ask.
My stomach clinches with the memories of my parade hatred.  “No, it’s more like half time shows, but like more intense,”  I reply.
“Is it college bands then?”
Knowing there is no simple way to answer that, “no, it’s more like community based groups, or at least it used to, now it’s bigger.”
Then it comes … “Oh, what do you play?”
Already groaning knowing that the end of this road is going to suck.  “I don’t I just spectate, and judge high schools during the fall.”
“Oh,” they respond.  “Did you play?”
“A long time ago.”  In my head I am already regretting the next question.  I know what it will be, it is the logical place to go.  But it is exactly why these conversations are so hard.  It’s going to lead to the one word that in it’s goofy images & way to spot-on visualization of Mitch that will almost kill the whole complexity of what started this whole conversation …
They ask: “what did you play?”
I don’t want to answer that.

There’s a fair good number of you Bear Feeders that have joined up recently, some of them are raising an eyebrow or two when I make mention of Drum Corps here and there.  The best thing to do is spend a little time explaining it to you so you can ‘get it’.  The problem is … unless you ‘get it’, you won’t get it.  It’s not something that I am trying to make us sound so different or snobby, but for nearly 30 years I’ve been trying to explain it to people who don’t get it, and … I just can’t.  I’ll give it a try, and but no promises, alright?

Drum Corp is, like in that conversation above, closest to a ‘half-time’ show in a football game.  I also describe it as if you were watching a ballet or dance group, but the people dancing are actually creating the music too.  Groups are on a football field and over 13 minutes perform a program using mostly brass instruments, field percussion, and a color guard (mostly dance performers using flags & other equipment).  The program is an organic blend of music & visual that are so intertwined that either by itself is at times unrecognizable.

Part of the reason Drum Corps is so hard to explain is that it isn’t ever the same thing for very long.  Drum Corps (which is actually short for Drum & Bugle Corps) has it’s historical beginnings around the Civil War and came into prominence in the early 1900s.  At the time, community organizations were looking for activities for the kids during summer, and though slapping drum sticks and bugles in their hands were a good way to keep them busy.  We are talking VFWs, Boy Scout Troups, Churches, etc.  Back then, the drums are only what could be carried, and the bugles had no valves leaving to only a small list of music to be played.  So, the activity grew on the backs of precision, uniformity, and more than anything … competition.  In the 60s & 70s, a break began to reward creativity.  The bugles still in the were in their original key of G (which is the musical register an instrument is designed to sustain at; most brass instruments are in the key of B-Flat), but now valves were added, and music because more diverse.  Now the programs were built off of who be more exciting … and who could play louder.  By the early 80s, the competition changed from what was a deduction system for making mistakes (also called a ‘tick’ system, as a judge would literally put a ‘tick’ on a score sheet for every mistake seen), to what is considered a ‘build-up’ system.  Instead of getting penalized for making mistakes, you get rewarded for trying something and succeeding.  By the late 80s, Drum Corp stomped on the gas pedal, and the only way you could be successful was to try to be innovative, creative, and push the activity forward.  Now the thirteen minute programs develop deep, complex stories, all while having kids move with the artistry of dancers while playing music of greater and greater complexity.  Gone are the days of John Phillip Sousa and easy tonal marches – one of this year’s favorites is playing Frank Zappa.  To be a top group, you need massive staging that is mobile during a performance, full electronic set-up to amplify all the right sections, and a show program that makes a Broadway production look bland & uninteresting.

Drum Corps is generally a college-aged student performance as the age limit to march in 22 (there is an ‘all-aged’ level of Drum Corps for the old farts to keep playing, but the top groups are at the ‘junior’ level with the 22 year age-out).  Since nearly all the groups are unaffiliated with any school, you can get performers from around the country and the world.  Many of the performers are also in high school, and depending on the competition level of the corps they can have different levels of talent maturity.  Ultimately, this activity has always been about education, so it exists to give a means for student to learn to play and move at advanced levels.  That being said, the drum corps experience is quite brutal.  Rehearsals go on year-round, but kids ‘move-in’ in late May and rehearse or perform every day for 12-16 hours each day until mid-August.  Most of the time, you sleep on a gym floor, practice all day, pack-up, perform at a contest, then ride a bus overnight to the next location where (if you get in early) your reward is to sleep on a gym floor and do it all over again.

If you think you are getting it now, you really aren’t.  I don’t care if you find my description informative or not; I can’t even begin to say that I think I captured what it is.  And if you know drum corp you are probably saying that yourself.  I marched for five years, taught for another two, and if I had seven years to try to explain it to you, I don’t think I could.

The closest I can come is this … About 10 years ago, Drum Corp made it onto ESPN.  To help show that these kids were as athletic as anyone, they strapped a heart monitor on a drummer to measure his work rate during a run through.  To anyone watching, it wasn’t a surprise to see that the very fit young fellow was topping up to 180 bpm, almost three times a good resting heart rate.  Other telecasts did that same thing, but something happened different this time.  As they were strapping him up, he was standing on the sideline and watched the corp do a run.  While standing there, his heart rate jumped to nearly the same rate as when he was moving.  But he was just standing there … watching the corp perform … and nothing else.

That’s the part I can’t explain.  For those of us that get it, it get’s us.  A great drum corp performance will make me gush with emotions I can’t explain.  Its not just enjoying, or laughing and crying, or seen what I don’t think was possible.  I have laughed until I was rolling on the ground (Velvet Knights 1992) & I have cried from the mortality of life (Blue Knights 2015); and I have heard a corps begin a section with the line ‘impossible you say?’ and then play a nearly impossible section so well I still listen to it over and over (Carolina Crown 2013).  I’ve had more goose bumps than there are geese in the world.  Sometimes it hits you in moments of thrills, sometime it sucks you and tears you apart.

And to be honest … it’s not something it grew on me.  I can purposefully point to two drill sets, 32 counts, on a hot night in 1987; when … Garfield started in a company front, moved forward and slowly allowed the form to scatter, they hit the mid point, paused, raised their horns to the box, then continued, and slowly, slowly, that front reformed, and that last guy came running in and I hoped upon hope he would make it, and when did … my mind was blown.  I may have liked the activity before that moment, but that moment sent me down a path that later led me to practice, to march, to perform, to teach, to judge … to be a part of the marching activity for 32 years.

So I tried, I tried hard to explain it. That’s part of why I like going to shows, I get to hang with people who get it.  There is that moment when you realize you toured with someone, been to the same crappy show sites, rehearsed in the weather that became legendary, or maybe even shared a bus when yours was broken down.  We bond and share and love each other because we love (and usually hate) the same things.  And if you are one of those, then you get it.

But if you don’t get it, that’s okay.  More people don’t get it than do.  Maybe now either you know why I get it … or why I struggle to explain it.  And that’s good enough for me.

and that’s it …

… nothing more …



The blog is over quit reading it.

Nothing else to see here.


Oh yeah, you probably wanted to know what I played.  Well, it was the Contra.

What you never heard of the contra?  Well, that’s what I played.  Nothing else to explain.




nothing else to explain

Okay … okay … it was the tuba, I played the tuba … are you happy now?



2 thoughts on “Drum Corps – Why You Don’t Get It

  1. Marji

    You are so right. Most just don’t get it. Most of the time I don’t even bother to try to explain it. You’re descriptions took me back to my time, to my introduction to the activity (I was hooked from my first exposure to the activity…. On TV, early 80s). I really miss hanging out with Corps people.

  2. April Cantu

    Oh but I do. As a parent I do. Amber played the contra (not on the field lol), along with other instruments. I never could understand why it wasn’t more interesting to more people. Her school want big enough to travel to very many competitions, though. She absolutely loved it.

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