Exquisite Corps

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

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. Thatis 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.

"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.

"You don't think you can push yourself that hard," Merwin adds, "but then you do, and you're at a whole new level that you never thought you could be."

"It teaches you how to be responsible at a young age," says marimba player Rosie Dugan. "I was fifteen when I joined. Suddenly I was on my own and had to take care of my own laundry, take care of my own food, find my way to rehearsals. There's nobody waiting for you; they don't baby you." Because she turns 22 this year, Dugan "ages out" when the season ends on August 12 and, in addition to getting a "real life," she plans to attend Metro State College in the fall to study music education and composition. She hopes to eventually teach at a smaller corps.

Indeed, when drum-corps members are released into the world -- kicked out of the nest, so to speak -- it's rarely the last time they are involved with DCI. In addition to grooming their own children to be future band lovers, many musicians, like Dugan, return to instruct incoming generations of musicians and color guard members.

The drum-corps phenomenon reaches back to just after World War I, when veterans formed marching bands as an expression of patriotism. What started out as small enclaves of American Legion and VFW extensions tooting on valveless bugles and near-primitive snares morphed into bona fide musical groups that began to sprout across the country. Marching bands soon started taking on a competitive edge. Drum Corps International was founded in late 1971, when it became clear that some sort of organizing entity was necessary in the drum-corps culture.

Since then, DCI has grown to include more than seventy groups, including some from the Netherlands, Japan, Sweden and Taiwan. There are currently more than 125 drum-corps-related e-mail lists on Yahoo! alone, including "Shirtless Boys of DCI," through which visitors exchange clean pictures of the bare-chested boys at rehearsals. A young filmmaker named David Malver recently took top honors at the NYU First Run Film Festival with his short documentary Hard Corps, which follows a drummer about to age out through his final year with the cadets.

As the Division I corps have established themselves, many have developed distinct personalities and performing trademarks. For example, the Blue Devils, out of Concord, California, have established themselves as a jazz band; Rockford, Illinois's Phantom Regiment builds its annual program on themes from classical music; Milwaukee's Pioneer is traditionally Irish (down to the shamrocks on its bass drums); and the Troopers, from Wyoming, fittingly go with a Western theme. The Blue Knights are known for their loyalty to twentieth-century classical composers.

Some bands are such consummate show people that they inspire rabid loyalty (or hatred) from spectators and fans. The Santa Clara Vanguard, probably the most popular of the Division I corps, wowed audiences a few years ago with a performance of Phantom of the Opera, going so far as to make the "Phantom" disappear from the field. Reigning World Champs the Cavaliers are an all-male corps known not only for having one of the most innovative and breathtaking drum lines in the world, but also for the perpetual motion of their program. Most groups, over the course of an eleven-minute performance, have a few moments in which at least one part of the band is standing still. The Cavaliers never stop moving.

The Vanguard and the Cavaliers will be the Blue Knights' stiffest competition at this year's Drums Along the Rockies. Each corps has an annual program built around a central theme. The Vanguard's 2002 program is called "Sound, Shape and Color"; it features music by Aaron Copland and incorporates geometric designs set to a "musically related palette of colors." The Cavaliers are performing "Frameworks," set to an original score by Cavaliers staff. As these two groups are currently ranked third and first, respectively, with the Blue Knights in fourteenth place, the Denver corps' program, "Fear and Trembling," had better be airtight.

Competition is fierce, and the crowds don't like ties between groups. A few years back, two bands tied for first place, and the hue and cry from the stands was deafening. It almost seemed as though the fans took it harder than the kids.  

In the end, that's who it's really about.

"When else do you get to go to the Bahamas on a cruise with a band? Stay on a bus all summer with a band?" Dugan asks. She smiles, flushed and sweaty after the Blue Knights' performance downtown. "I'm proud to be a band geek," she giggles, then trots off to take off her hot, black uniform and get ready for more rehearsal in the sweltering summer heat.

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