Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why Sluggo loves Drum Corps

Ever since I can remember, I've always been involved with band and/or music. My dad was a high school band director back in the late 60s at Eastern High School in Glassboro, NJ, then in the early 70s, became assistant band director at Handley HS in Winchester, VA, then became Band director at Daniel Morgan Middle School, in Winchester.

I can remember running around the band room at Handley, and going on a few band trips with the band, as well when he was the director at Daniel Morgan. I can remember going with him on the trips to solo and ensemble festival, as well as the Festivals in the spring for the Virginia Honor Band.

His teaching was very unique as he made everyone earn certain criteria through-out the year. He never worried about marching aspect since he taught middle school. His theory was kids needed to learn how to play first, let the high school worry about marching. It was a shame that the director didn't follow this practice at the city high school.

Luckily for me, in a sense, dad retired from teaching in the mid 80s. Since he taught in the city, and we lived in the county, this meant that I would be transferring to the county schools, and to their music programs. This was actually better for me since both the middle school I would be going to, and finally the high school music programs rivaled my dads, in teaching not just marching, but the musicality of music.

By the time i became a freshman, I was a descent trombone player. Sure, I could have been better by practicing more, and trying to learn the darn circle of fifths that I could never figure out, but I loved playing. Not just playing, but performing too!

I was excited my freshman year if high school that I was 2nd chair, beating out many upper clansman. I could either think this was because I was good, or they weren't as good as I thought, but either way, I was in the James Wood Marching Band!

The JW Band was one of the top, if not the top, band in the entire state of Virginia (at the time). Here I was, 2nd chair out of 8 Trombones (or at least I think it was that many, been so long!)

My first taste of drum corps was in August of 1987. We are at Band Camp in Hedgesville, WV, learning our show for the fall competitions. During breaks and meals, we would all be watching videos of the previous years Drum Corps International Finals, so I was watching 1986 Finals and was amazed at how awesome these corps were performing. If I remember, there was one corps that changed their uniforms through a tunnel, it was amazing.

I wouldn't see my first live drum corps until August 1990. It was Drum Corps East Championships in Allentown, PA at J. Birney Crum stadium. WOW is all I could think of during the first few corps. However, some of my other friends were telling me that the night is going to get better, and it did! We saw the Troopers, Magic of Orlando, Freelancers, Boston Crusaders, Dutch Boy, Crossmen, Madison Scouts, Phantom Regiment, Blue Devils, and Cadets of Bergen County.

Pretty much everyone was rooting for the Cadets, but my favorite for this show was the Blue Devils! I just got goose bumps during their show as they performed the rock selection Tommy. Even though the Cadets won by .30 of a point, I knew that I wanted to somehow be a part of drum corps.

I went home that night amazed at what I saw. I saw classical, Broadway, and Rock all on the field! Never would I think that just a year later, I would (or could possibly think) I'd be one of those people marching on that field entertaining a sold out crowd!

In October, while riding back from a high school band competition, I talked with a friend who graduated from my high school the year before, and who marched with The Cavaliers, about the drum corps activity. He told me how much fun he had during his short two years marching, and thought that I should make the effort and audition in November.

I went with him to the Camp, and with over 100 people for 64 positions, it was going to be a competitive audition. Some of the "holes" would be filled by returning members, the other holes, would be filled by "new guys". I don't know how many other people were there that weekend auditioning for the drum line, guard, pit and the horn line, but boy was the gym floor crowded!

During that November camp, the newly appointed Drum Major, Rob Wis, came to me and said that I looked like Sluggo, from the cartoon "Nancy and Sluggo". The nickname stuck and everyone called me by this new name the rest of the weekend. As soon as my friend learned of my nickname, he said that I was a shoe in for the corps. I was also lucky enough to take a horn home that weekend and practice. This helped considerably because I'm a Trombone player and really didn't know how to key for the notes on a valve bugle. Luckily, the instructors assured me that as long as I was willing to learn, practice hard, I might get a spot for the next year.

During my audition, one of the instructors, who was the previous years drum major, helped me out with the fingering for the horn. This helped me out tremendously, but I had a LONG road ahead of me. At the time, there are three camps designed for auditions. November, December, and if needed, January. I did take a horn home when I got the chance and practiced hard the next few months.

I had a LOT to learn. Even though I was in one of the best high school marching bands in the state of Virginia, I still had plenty to learn. I wasn't prepared for the strict marching style and fast tempo's that drum corps is known for. My muscles ached from marching on your heels, toes from goal line to goal line, then going from the backs of the heels to the tips of your toes in counts that were broken down.

Learning this technique would give the effect similar to watching people on a moving sidewalk. It would look like you were gliding. We would practice for hours and hours, perfecting our walk/marching technique. Of course, we still had a long road to go since finals was over 2 1/2 months.

One of the reasons to perfect this marching technique was to help with the transitions of the designs we made on the field. We would work on how many steps, what size steps, and the direction the steps we would take marching from set to set. Each individual had their own 'dot' co-ordinance to learn. It was only around 80-90 sets, however today there are around 200 sets to learn. All of this for a 10 minute show. We would practice the different moves over and over until it became second nature to march nearly flawless (or close to it).

During the summer, we would have contests against other corps' and would be judged. Depending on what the judges would feel, or the actions of the crowds from the formations we made, or the music we made, we may have to change sets and re-learn new ones.

With all the practicing and running around we did, we averaged 21-24 miles a day. This wasn't limited to just us, many of the other corps went through the same things. On an average day, we would wake around 7am, have breakfast and shower, and before 8 be ready to stretch and exercise. Around 9am, we would stretch, jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, and run approximately 1-2 miles. Between 10 and 11a, we would often work on our marching with our posture, holding the horn up and/or down, marching back and forth on the field. If you know about marching band, then you know about 8 to 5. This is 8 steps per 5 yards. We would then do 6 to 5, 4 to 5, and sometimes for kicks, try 3 and 2 to 5 yards. (that was hard, but towards the end of the summer, we got better at this)

Lunch and/or rest was generally between 12 and 1p, and then we would start on drill work for about 2hours. From 3-5p, we would start working on music with warm-up, opening our throats to blow air, and then what ever music needed to be learned, or re-learned, and last 30 minutes was a quick warm-down.

Five pm is dinner, then the rest of the night would generally be the full ensemble together. Before the end of the night (or lights out) we would do 2-3 complete run-through's of the show.  If there was a contest on a particular night, then the day would be slightly different.

It has been roughly 18years since I've marched, and I'm writing this from my memory. Back in 2003, I got laid off from work and was able to volunteer on the administrative staff. I helped out mostly driving one of the support vehicles, driving between show sites, or practice sites, as well as help the corps on and off the field.

It's very possible that if you see a show in early June, it's going to be very different at the end of July or by the time the Finals rolls around in Mid-August. There's always the possibility that the drill didn't fit the music, the music didn't sound right, so there is constantly rewrites in both music and drill.

You do see a lot of the country while on tour, well, mostly high school gyms and football fields. Corps generally travel in a caravan. For the Cavaliers, they have four charter style buses, two semi trucks, a souvenir truck, and a support car. Of course, there are some problems that arise while on tour, a flat tire, a truck that won't start, a bus whose breaks don't work, or even a fire break out from one of the generators.

Despite the long days, long rides, and low times of being away from family, the experience of it all has been by far the best I have ever experienced in my life. The long time friends I made from marching, and the people I've met on-line through drum corps over the years is second to none.

I'll finish by saying the two years I marched with The Cavaliers have been the best two years of my life so far. I often wish I could devote more time to the corps, but my full-time flying job calls.