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Drumroll Please

A million-plus viewers will tune tonight to watch costumed young people dance with fake weapons and play bugle—and that’s just the fans already in the know. America, you live in a drum corps world, you just don’t know it yet.

It’s 3 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and a handful of dedicated fans—the slim overlap in the Venn diagram of people who share a passion for drum and bugle corps and who also have the employment flexibility to attend a mid-afternoon screening—have scattered themselves throughout the seats of theater six at the UA Emery Bay Stadium 10 in Emeryville, Ca. The screen lights up with a bombardment of sequins, drums, flags, and flying faux weaponry. Tight shots on smiling, elaborately made-up teens intermix with broad, overhead shots of the human lava lamp of melting, swirling shapes and lines. The response in the theater is loud and enthusiastic. Each intricate maneuver is met with claps and “woos,” and the crowd readily yells out answers to the broadcast announcers’ trivia questions. “Which corps did West Side Story and Wizard of Oz in consecutive years?” The answer, shouted out in concert by two twentysomethings in the fifth row: “Sky Ryders!”

A similar scene is also playing out on more than a hundred silver screens across the country. This is the 26th Drum Corps International World Championships Quarterfinal, which is being held at the Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wi., and simulcasted live in local theaters for $18 per ticket.

I first heard of the big show during a commercial reel before a movie. The screen filled with the darkened silhouette of a figure hurling and spinning a rifle into the air. “How hard do you practice when no one is watching?” boomed the voiceover. Quick cut to a group of twilit teens blowing on…tubas? “For every moment in the spotlight, there are a thousand more that pass unheralded, unrecorded.” Quick fade to an ecstatically chlorinated girl spinning a gigantic, hot-pink flag. “But these are the moments that define a champion.” Fast, furious cuts of a series of marching bands, each one giving it their all. “For the world’s elite drum corps, the moment in the spotlight is now.” This was when I started to clap, my eyes glittering, my jaw dropping open wide.

A live simulcast of “marching music’s major league?” Hosted by Drum Corps International (DCI), the self-described “world leader in producing and sanctioning touring marching music competitions?” Holy yes.

 

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A drum and bugle corps performance is…well, it’s a lot. First of all, there’s the marching side of things, all the drummers and buglers clad in Sergeant Pepper outfits and moving in and out of elaborate, Busby Berkeley formations. Unlike regular marching bands, à la those found high-stepping on the halftime field at homecoming, drum and bugle corps does not include wind instruments (flutes, clarinets, and so on)—and the limited racket produces a uniquely brassy, boomy, bah-DAH! sound. Then there’s the dancing. Leaping through crevasses and valleys created by the patterned marching of the marching corps are the young men and women of the color guard. Historically, the color guard defended a regiment’s colors (flag) during battle, but in its current, vestigial incarnation, the color guard dances and emotes to the music, all while wearing thematically inspired costumes. Imagine the choreography from the “Love is a Battlefield” video, but more Vegas, and even more earnest, then throw in a rapidly rotating mix of props—flags, faux rifles, faux sabers—hurled and twirled with hyper-synchronization. And then wrap it all up and drop it onto the vivid white and green of a football field. For 11 long, aerobic minutes.

The show culminated with the Blue Devils circling around an empty wooden chair draped with a trench coat, hat, and bouquet of red roses.It’s a bewildering combination, the effusive dancing color guard alongside the blankly uniformed marching corps. The sight of them shuffling and weaving together can be difficult to take in, these two incongruous things coexisting, like elephants parading through Manhattan, or bacon strip bandages, or Bridget Nielsen and Flavor Flav: You’re confused at first, wondering if these two elements will find a way to make sense together, but then the magic of a fragile, unlikely union asserts itself, and suddenly, in one glowing, heart-sweetening burst, it all makes perfect sense.

Take, for instance, this year’s patriotic performance by the Blue Stars of La Crosse, Wi. Their show, titled “The Gift of Freedom,” was the first standout in a long day of performances (23 corps performed in all). The piece showcased the four essential American freedoms as outlined by Franklin Delano Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, each of which was addressed with the pained literalness of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet.” Freedom of speech, for example, was represented by the color guard gesturing wildly while standing on prop soapboxes. Then, for freedom to worship, the soapboxes became pulpits; meanwhile the band assembled into a gigantic cross that slowly marched across the field. And so on.

That performance was followed by a few less memorable offerings (including “Postcards from Home” from the Colts of Dubuque, Iowa, and “Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue” from Jacksonville’s Spirit from JSU. But then the Glassmen of Toledo marched onto the field and ripped into “Beethoven, Mastery and Madness,” which featured my favorite moment of the day: Toward the end of the show the music was building to a crescendo, when abruptly the drums and bugles went quiet, leaving the Color Guard to continue dancing in silence for an aching 15 seconds.

The jarring interlude, as the simulcast announces explained, was intended as an homage to the great composer’s struggles with deafness.

The crowd favorite, though, in Emery Bay’s theater six was “The Godfather, Part Blue,” which the Blue Devils of Concord, Ca., performed toward the end of the evening. Concord, the Blue Devils HQ, is about a half-hour away from the Emeryville theater, and the crowd was riddled with Devil friends, family, and alumni. Billed as “A Drum Corps Show You Can’t Refuse,” the show included a traditionally outfitted marching corps, which at one point formed itself into the detailed outline of a gun. Meanwhile the color guard wore one-armed jackets paired with raspberry or plum velveteen leggings and waved flags emblazoned with severed horse heads, which they swapped for flags emblazoned with fish skeletons, which they swapped for giant raspberry and plum-colored flags. The show culminated with the Blue Devils circling around an empty wooden chair draped with a trench coat, hat, and bouquet of red roses.

Clearly the show was heavy with significance, but a lot of it was lost on the general viewer. Fish bones? Trench coats? The Devils’ website offers this feverish explanation of the program: “The staggering magnitude of The Godfather embraces a romantic, passionate journey of family and fortune. With a zealous commitment to communication, the Blue Devils’ exploration of this multifaceted musical and visual saga will unite intellect and emotion. The eclectic collage parallels the Corleone family itself with a range of classical and jazz, soundtrack and symphonic, rhythmic and silent. Motion meets omerta, cadence meets caporegime; never underestimate the element of surprise.”

The show left me feeling somewhat mystified—I’ve seen the Blue Devils perform before, and this wasn’t their best routine. But the rest of the simulcast crowd, decked out in “Blue Smoke” tees and BD hats, clapped and cheered for the unity of intellect and emotion.

Quarterfinal performances weren’t the only thing on offer that day. There’s quite a bit of downtime between each show, what with 135 kids having to march on and off the field with steady, measured paces. The simulcasters deftly filled the gaps with old footage of key performances from the past 30 years, including a somewhat discordant shot of Chad Sexton, the drummer of the rapcore band 311, who reportedly got his start in drum corps. The theater audience greeted each snippet with a warm cheer of recognition.

There were also a number of awkward field-side interviews, conducted by a pretty former color guardian. At one point she buttonholed a Hispanic-looking kid from the Allentown, Pa., Crossmen regiment, and asked him to translate the Spanish vocals segment he’d performed (the show was a crowd-pleasing “tuning up and down the radio dial”-themed routine called “Changing Lanes: Evolution of Changing Through a Journey”). When the kid gamely explained what he had said [something-something-not-at-all-memorable-something], the off-screen commentator blustered: “Aw, I was hoping it was ‘free tacos’!”

A comment like that would have earned the famous San Francisco Hiss from a typical Bay Area crowd, but this hard-corps audience remained quiet, their focus already on to the next round of scores.

 

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Unlike a high school marching band, the drum and bugle corps is a highly competitive sport with no direct school affiliations. A D.C.I competition is judged using a combination of points awarded in three different categories: musical performance, visual performance, and something called “general effect,” which basically refers to the overall entertainment value of the show.

The entertainment aspect of drum and bugle corps is a somewhat modern addition to the sport. Before D.C.I formed in 1972, drum corps were sponsored by groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, influences left over from the World War I roots of drum corps, which got its start from returning veterans who would gather to run drills and compete. The Boy Scouts also contributed to the cause: The Madison Scouts of Madison, Wi., for example, got its start in 1938 as a band of actual Scouts. Over the years, the sport evolved from its military background into today’s theatrical hybrid.

According to DCI, each year 8,000 contenders, ages 14 to 22 from around the world, try out for a spot on a corps in one of the sport’s three divisions. Once they make the team, they’re in for a lot of long, hard toil. Routines take six months of rehearsals to prepare, culminating at the beginning of summer, when they launch into a solid month of eight- to 16-hour training days. It’s hot, sweaty, work—a four-valve contrabass bugle (related to the tuba) can weigh 25 pounds—and drill attire tends to be appropriately summer-weight, with lots of shirtless young men and girls in short shorts and bikini tops. By the time the end-of-summer championships roll around, the D.C.I kids are deeply, eerily tanned.

Drill attire tends to be appropriately summer-weight, with lots of shirtless young men and girls in short shorts and bikini tops. By the time the end-of-summer championships roll around, the D.C.I kids are deeply, eerily tanned.And then for two solid months the kids hit the road, enjoying what D.C.I executive director Dan Acheson described (in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal) as “a Spartan lifestyle”: food from a truck staffed by parent volunteers, sleeping on gymnasium floors. Yet even with the penny-pinched room and board, the money being poured into these operations is huge. Annual budgets for the top-notch corps range from $500,000 to $2,000,000, and it’s all financed with hustle: fundraisers (Bingo!), sponsorships (Vic Firth Mallets, Remo drums, Zildjian cymbals), and the kids themselves, who pay annual dues of up to $2,000.

It’s an impressive commitment, especially considering that none of it is for credit; the D.C.I organization isn’t affiliated with high schools or colleges. Maybe drum corps looks great on a college résumé? But that doesn’t explain the many ferociously dedicated performers who have already made it into college (participants “age out” at 22) and still flip a rifle. Maybe there’s a whole bunch of Spartan frenching going on in those buses? Maybe it paves the way for lucrative careers in drumming and dancing, or just the next round of So You Think You Can Dance? Or maybe they’re just good kids who love the clean fun of hard work in heavy, hot costumes during the high heat of the summer. I still don’t quite get it. But Japan gets it, and so does Europe: Both have enthusiastically hosted individual regiment tours in recent years.

Yet even with an international fan base, there are still quite a few people in the States who have never even heard of drum corps. The only reason I was in the know was because my friend (and former high school marching band saxophone player), Tom Mott, has been going to D.C.I shows with his family since the 1970s. In 2003, he called to tell me, with run-not-walk urgency, about the upcoming weekend’s Performance West Championships, which were being held my area. He described the proceedings as “impossible to describe.” I was more than willing to go: Drumline had just hit theaters, and it had set free within me a shaking, teen-style thrill of percussion. I even managed to talk two friends into making the haul with me out to Diablo Valley (community) College in Pleasant Hill, an hour’s drive up and in from San Francisco.

When we arrived, we had some trouble finding the football field, but after wandering around the campus (it is a very flat and very taupe place), we caught the sound of distant drumming, and we followed it the quarter-mile to the ticket booth. Unfortunately, we made the amateur’s mistake of getting seats up front, thinking we’d gotten lucky with the lower ticket price. When it comes to drum and bugle corps, the plum seats are in back and up high, the best place to get a macro view of the intricate maneuvering.

Terrible seats aside, everything I remember about that day was gold. The heart-crushing young girl with braces who dropped her saber after a complicated toss and then spent the rest of the show smiling hugely through the tears, her braces sparkling. The slightly overweight teenaged boy who soared in his costume, his makeup, the drama of his dance—in the very rightness of finding his place in life. The uvula-knocking fire of the brass and bang of the drum corps. The moths fluttering around the big field lights as the sun went down. The cushioning comfort of my commemorative drum corps bleacher cushion. The fact that it was warm enough not to need a sweater. Everything. “Isn’t this amazing?” I asked my friends. One nodded happily, her eyes just as wide and misty as mine, but the other turned to me, and her eyes were dry. “I’ve been ready to leave for the past two hours,” she told us in a zombie voice.

Five hours of drumming and dancing and bugling is, it turns out, not for everyone. And yet, according to the proud simulcast announcers, more than 20,000 people nationwide purchased tickets to watch the quarterfinals in their local theaters. Meanwhile, ESPN2 is predicting over a million viewers for tonight’s airing of the D.C.I finals.

Deep into the fifth hour of the simulcast, The Cavaliers took the field, the last corps to perform for the night. Their show was called “Building the Machine,” and the drum and brass wore traditional marching costumes of bright green and black, along with feathered Three Musketeer-style hats. The color guard was outfitted in Borg-inspired blue-and-silver robot costumes with headsets, and they spun beautiful, shining flags of bronze, gold, and metallic avocado green. Together they put on a boggling choreographic display of swirling S-curves and circles within circles, and completely wowed with eye-freaking tricks like taking a square of tight, tidy marching lines and contracting and expanding it like a giant accordion—a giant accordion squeezed by troupes of dancing Borg. At one point, a group of Borg dancers sat down on the field in a tight cluster and then lifted, one by one, a series of stiffened, supine bugle and drum players over their heads and passed them hand to hand like a giant sea anemone. It was a powerhouse of a show, a non-stop dazzler that didn’t let up once for 11 minutes.

The simulcast lasted just long enough to deliver the final scores: The Cavaliers took it, but the Blue Devils were a very close second. Then the lights came up to a smattering of applause, but the Devils-heavy crowd was subdued by its team’s second-place finish. Slowly the dazed audience filtered out of the theater. It was 8:30 p.m. and almost completely dark outside; we’d been sitting inside for more than five hours. Most of the crowd headed out to the parking lot, but a small group lingered in the lobby, a group of teens and young adults standing with an older man—a teacher? Drum corps alum?—who was going around the circle, introducing people: There was someone from The Cavaliers of the 1980s, and a guy and a girl who had just aged out of the Blue Devils. And then the man pushed a young girl forward and explained that she was a Blue Devils hopeful planning on trying out for the team this year. She smiled bashfully, and together they gave her a knowing, friendly groan, as if to say, “this girl doesn’t know what she’s in for.”