Exquisite Corps

Drums Along the Rockies is more than a convention of band nerds. It's a way of life.

What happens when a bunch of bona fide band geeks go on vacation? For members of Drum Corps International, the answer often involves a lot of cramming into confined spaces, public airing of bodily functions, plenty of communal nudity and a whole lot of marching around in funny hats.

Each summer, DCI members trade normal life for a couple of months together at band camp. Unlike the sexually adventurous flautist in American Pie, who looked for unusual tricks to play with her instrument, corps players spend their time in pursuit of the perfect performance: Rather than merely traipsing up and down the field in block formation to military standards, show bands use impressionistic maneuvers set to primarily contemporary music. That is not as easy as it may seem.

Those who have twirled flags until their wrists were too sore and bruised to move, blown blood vessels in their faces from hitting and holding high notes on a trumpet, or gotten heinous foot cramps from repeatedly rolling their feet from heel to ball for hours on end will understand that marching band is a passion that borders on obsession, and that individuals infected with the bug are legion.

Johnny, blow your horn: A trumpet-tooting member of the Blue Knights marching band.
Johnny, blow your horn: A trumpet-tooting member of the Blue Knights marching band.


7 p.m. Saturday, August 3
$12-$30, 1-800-495-SHOW
Invesco Field at Mile High

"When it gets into your blood, you just can't shake it," says John Whitman, a former corps member who plans his summer vacations around DCI events, subscribes to DCI Today magazine and tapes PBS's annual broadcasts of DCI's World Championships. "It's like opium or something."

DCI comprises three divisions of marching bands around the country. Larger, flashier bands with more money and prestige are lumped into Division I. (Corps must earn the right to be in Division I by placing among the top 25 groups in the World Championships.) There are nineteen Division I groups, including Denver's own Blue Knights. The Knights host Drums Along the Rockies, an annual showdown of the corps in DCI's Southwestern Division; this year's competition marches into Invesco Field on August 3.

For DCI devotees, summer stretches out as a long series of band-related events: There are approximately 150 of them, spanning all three divisions (the bulk of events happen in July) and the entire United States. These performances and competitions all lead up to the Big Event, the World Championships, which take place in Madison, Wisconsin, during the first week in August. The various corps labor all summer, honing their programs to perfection..

The corps are judged on three major criteria: general effect, visual presentation and music. Judges walk the field, dictating their notes into tape recorders while the bands perform. It's not enough for all of the horn players to hit their marks and not miss any notes. The color guard must also be perfectly precise, and the players in the pit (the musicians on the sidelines playing marimba, timpani and various other percussion instruments) must use dramatic, almost theatrical movements as they play. A dropped flag or a bored-looking xylophonist can cost a corps just as many points as a couple of sour notes from a trumpet player. All of these details work toward the same goal of earning as many points as possible.

The process leading up to championships is long and laborious, starting with monthly practice camps in November that also serve as auditions. Mark Arnold, founder and executive director of the Blue Knights, explains that he and his fellow directors look for players who are not only fine musicians, but who also have the desire and dedication to weather the rigorous physical requirements of DCI competition. "They come in and have to play their instruments for us; they go through a dance class, physical training, and marching and maneuvering," he says. "We rate them on their physical abilities as well as their attitude."

Drum Corps is a young person's game. Musicians, who can join when they are as young as fifteen, are forced to retire at 22. Once a young player receives membership in January, he or she must continue to attend the weekend camps through May. Rehearsals begin in June and run ten hours a day, seven days a week. A practice day for the Blue Knights begins with an hour or so of calisthenics and running, then theater and dance rehearsal blocks, as well as section rehearsals, visual blocks and full-band run-throughs. Should the day include a performance -- such as the Knights' recent lunchtime "stand and blow" concert in LoDo -- the youngsters have roughly 45 minutes to get out of their sweaty uniforms, eat lunch and hop a bus back to StorageTek (the group's rehearsal space) for another several hours of practice, practice, practice. When the Knights are on the road, they travel all night on the bus, sleep on the floor (usually of a school gym), and rehearse all day until their performance that night. Then they start all over again.

Why in the world would teenagers want to put themselves through such a grueling process, especially when their peers are going on camping trips, splashing around at Water World or earning extra money at the Gap? Alex Merwin, a sixteen-year-old rookie who attends Littleton's Chatfield High School, says that he was drawn to drum corps because "everything is perfect -- you strive for perfection. It's just at a higher level than my high school band, so it seemed like a good venue for me to increase my musical abilities.

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