Band Jocks

This year we’re participating in an American summer tradition: The Drive Across The Country. Our route this year takes us from San Diego, California to Austin, Texas. Via Minneapolis.

Illogical and inefficient–true,  but it gives us the chance to see the kids and granddaughter, family, some friends and a fair bit of the country.

Along the way we stopped to see my sister, Barb, in Adel, Iowa, where I grew up.

The visit included some quintessential Iowa summer experiences, such as watching the fireflies (lightning bugs in the local vernacular) dance, flirt and skim above the front lawn and the farm field across the road as the June twilight glowed in the western sky; driving home at 10 PM with that same twilight still alive on the horizon; and visiting a farmer’s market on a steamy hot and humid afternoon. It lacked only baling some hay, walking beans or a lazy afternoon at the swimming pool to recreate a summer of my youth.

However, one experience on this visit that was not at all like my summer youth was a trip to watch a drum corps competition. I’d never heard of it before, nor had my sister. We saw a short promotional segment on the evening news the night before and decided it would be fun to go and experience what they promised to be the “pagentry and drama” of a drum corps competition.

The event was held at Valley High School Stadium, quite an impressive high school football field anywhere outside of Texas, where the high school stadiums shame all but the very largest football factory university facilities.

My schoolmates’ son, Brian King, played the very first football game in the Valley High stadium while playing JV football. In his later years, he went on to win a state high school football championship playing in the same stadium. But Brian, like many kids, took equal pride in his musical accomplishments, helping Valley to win the first Grammy Award ever presented to a high school. Brian was both a sports jock and a music jock, a rare, but not unknown crossover in schools of Valley’s size.

My high school, orders of magnitude smaller than Valley, had the same kind of crossover with nearly every kid who was involved in any extracurricular activity. Just about anybody who was in sports was also in debate, theater, band and chorus. If we hadn’t all participated in multiple activities, there wouldn’t have been any activities, there simply weren’t enough kids otherwise. In our high school, with my graduating class of 72, single-activity-jocks were very rare, whether it be sports jocks or band jocks.

Of course, sports jocks had something to aspire to. They, like Brian King, could go on to play college sports. The very, very best could of course aspire to professional sports. For the pros, there was a system to select and develop the athletes, from the farm systems all the way to the major leagues.

Band jocks, on the other hand, didn’t have much to aspire to. They could make it to college band, but that was about it. A handful of kids from the most advanced, elite, specialist prep schools might one day land a job on a symphony, but that was just not a realistic possibility for a kid from a small high school.

That’s the way it had been when I was a kid, and there was nothing I’d ever seen or experienced that led me to believe things were any different now–until I attended a drum corps competition.

Drum corps are the major leagues for band jocks. It even has a farm system, where kids can hone skills and be selected to advance to the higher levels of competition.

Like the professional sports leagues, kids come from all over the world to participate.

Like top athletes, the kids must exhibit dedication, very hard work and extreme discipline to make it to the top teams and win championships.

Like college sports, eligibility is limited–kids age out when they turn 21. The majority of participants are 18-20.

Like top tier sports programs, only a small percentage of the kids who try out qualify for the leading programs.

Like premier athletes, kids must sacrifice social lives to single-mindedly pursue their dream of being a member of a champion corps.

But despite the similarities, Drum Corps is not well known outside the small cadre of participants, their families, loyal followers and former corps members.

At the performance we were fortunate to have a corps member parent sit next to us while her daughter’s corps performed, so we gained some insight into the world of drum corps. The mother’s experience is a representative microcosm of the work and dedication required in this world. She volunteered for one week so she could see her daughter perform, in this, her daughter’s last year of eligibility.

The mother worked in the kitchen, a specially outfitted 40 foot / 12.2 meter semi trailer from six AM to around 11 PM. Her only break was about an hour while her daughter’s corps performed. Like the kids, she slept in a bunk on a bus every night moving from venue to venue, unless they arrived early enough to move from the bus to a blow-up air mattress on a gym floor in the middle of the night. A good night was one with a few hours of “floor time” sleep.

While the mother cooked in the trailer, the kids spent their days rehearsing and performing. The kids reported at 7AM for breakfast, then began rehearsals until late afternoon when they stopped to prepare for that night’s competition. They finished competition around nine, grabbed a quick snack, and then packed the trucks and busses before departing for the next city. The road season begins in early June and culminates in the World Championships the second weekend in August, with only one or two days off in between.

The road to the championship begins the previous November, when kids audition for a corps. Although the corps are based in cities, such as Madison, Wisconsin, the corps members come from all over the nation and the world. If they qualify for a corps, they begin individual rehearsals where they reside, sending in tapes of their performances to their directors so their progress can be measured. In March, corps members begin flying into the corps cities for weekend “camps” where the members begin to perform together. In May, they begin to rehearse the choreography and around the beginning of June, make their first full performance.

During all that time, iron discipline and complete dedication are expected and required. If any member of the corps is late the entire corps runs laps. No alcohol or drug use is allowed or tolerated. Members perform despite painful injuries. Members are initiated by fellow corps members, and membership entails lifetime vows of loyalty and fidelity to the corps. These requirements are rigid and unyielding. And thousands of kids who work long and hard to qualify for these requirements are turned away every year. The few who qualify pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of performing that season.

The show we witnessed was on June 25th, and was early enough in the season it was deemed still “dirty,” meaning the lines were not always ideal and the timing was not always precise. For this reason, some aspects of the performances were not yet included in the judging. Starting on July 4, the judging becomes very intense and the race is on to perfect the performances before the World Championship competition.

The corps performing the night we attended included three top finishers in last year’s world championships: the Madison Scouts (my favorite), who finished 12th last August; the Blue Stars, runner up in last year’s championship; and the Phantom Regiment, who won the World Championship by a scant .025 points, 98.125 to the Blue Stars’ 98.100.

The Valley High School Stadium stands were filled with parents, loyal followers, groupies, termed-out members and my sister and I. We may have been the only Drum Corps Virgins in the entire audience. By the end of the show we considered ourselves grizzled veterans, with favorite corps to follow and sharp eyes for the tiniest flaws in performance execution.

The volunteer mother’s corps, the Phantom Regiment, won the competition that night.

While they were on the field we asked the mother where her daughter was in the line.

“I have no idea,” she replied. “In high school I could pick her out because of her distinctive style, but at this level of competition they are so exact in their movements it is impossible to identify an individual.”

She said it with pride, but with a wistful mist in her eyes.

“I’d never seen her perform in the corps before this week.” She paused, and then added, “This is her last year. She’ll age-out in August.”

After August, after the World Championship for band jocks, her daughter will be gone, but there will be thousands of kids lined up to qualify to take her place rehearsing and performing 18 hours a day, sleeping on bus bunks and gym floors, catching meals when they can, and giving up their entire summers to pursue the pinnacle she had achieved: World Champion.


You can learn more about Drum Corps International here:

There are more than 100 competitions on 50 days in 41 states this year, so chances are you can attend an event and see for yourself what these kids can do. The schedule is here:

Here’s a short video clip from one of the corps that will give you an idea of what it’s all about:


One thought on “Band Jocks

  1. Adam hackney

    Just came across this one. When you have the time go rent Drumline. Decent movie and follows in this vein. Saw it and was surprised at the run “assuming” for college bands.