Hard Corps

A tradition of sweat, sunscreen and the endless pursuit of perfection

Summer. For most kids between the ages of 16 and 22, summer is freedom. The monotonous drone of the education system is replaced by splashing and laughter. But each May, about 4,000 young people give up their freedom and disappear from their normal lives to a world of sweat and discipline. And music.

Drum and bugle corps, now generally shortened to “drum corps,” have been traveling the States for over 75 years almost completely under America’s radar. High schools are abandoned for the pool and the mall, and charter buses pull in unnoticed. It’s 4:00 a.m. 150 young people pile out like groggy robots. The bus bays open and every suitcase, air mattress and sleeping bag drags through a door propped open with a trash can. They follow arrows to the gym and within minutes everyone is asleep again. The lights go out.

Four hours later, the buzz of fluorescent lights stirs the sleeping dead. Loud music blares from a sound system in the middle of the gym, and one of them is already standing there, dressed for another long day of rehearsal. Worn shoes, running shorts and a T-shirt that will come off as soon as the sun burns away the clouds. The music softens and he yells.

“Good morning Cadets! It’s 8 o’clock. For breakfast this morning we have pancakes and cereal. Stretch and run starts at 9:00. Brass and drums, you will be over on the back field behind the stadium. Color guard, you’re with Katie. At 9:40 we will move to visual rehearsal. Lunch will be at noon. At 12:30, brass you will be in the stadium for sectionals, drums you will be back on the back field, and color guard you have dance class in the gym, so everyone needs to move their sleeping bags to the sides of the gym before breakfast. We will have two and a half hours of sectionals followed by a ten-minute setup and an hour forty-five ensemble. At 5:00 we will eat, pack and load, and we will head to the show at 6:45. We perform at 8:58. Then we’re driving to Ohio tonight. Let’s have a great day Cadets. Good morning.”

There are a few groans, but everyone starts moving.

.  .  .

A Bit of History

When someone asks me why I’m gone for the whole summer, why I fly up to Philadelphia one weekend each month, or how I met my boyfriend who lives in Louisiana, the interaction usually goes something like this:

Me (reluctantly): “Well, have you ever heard of drum corps?”

Them (surprised): “Oh wow! You play the drums?”

Me (trying to salvage my reputation): “Oh no, no, I – it’s kind of like the professional level of marching band. Only you pay over $3,000 to do it and it’s not affiliated with a school. Each drum corps is its own organization and we tour the country and compete for the whole summer.”

Them (dazed): “Wow, that’s so cool.”

That’s fine, except that now everyone I know has inserted me into mental images straight out of the 2002 ghetto band movie Drumline. And that’s before I have to tell them that I play an instrument called the mellophone, which sounds like something of Dr. Seuss’ imagining. So let’s take a step back.

Drum corps are the descendants of the drum and bugle corps that acted as signaling units before the Civil War. (Fife and drum units like those commonly associated with the Revolutionary War are a more ancient relative.) Drum and bugle corps were made up of three sections: a hornline, a drumline and an honor guard. The hornline consisted only of bell-front brass instruments, no woodwinds. (This means no flutes or oboes, only shiny metal instruments with bells that point forward, like a trumpet.)

As technology progressed, these units became superfluous to the U.S. Military. Veterans and civilians formed small drum and bugle corps for recreation, sponsored by churches and community patrons. These local units marched in parades, performed concerts at community events and competed against each other at small contests. At the peak of participation in the 1960s, there were about 1,000 drum corps nationwide.

.  .  .

It’s nothing like Drumline

In 1972, the more competitive corps banded together to found Drum Corps International (DCI), the non-profit organization which governs the activity today. One by one, many corps lost participation or sponsorship and folded, so members began to travel greater distances to participate in the corps of their choosing. Forty-three drum corps will compete in over 120 competitions (called “shows”) across the country between June 19 and August 10 this year.

Drum corps shows are held on mostly weeknights in high school football stadiums and feature only a few corps (there are often multiple shows each night in different parts of the country). Weekends are a bigger deal. DCI regional competitions are held on the weekends later in the summer and give every corps a chance to compete against each other. Regionals draw crowds of between 9,000 and 12,000 people in venues like the Alamo Dome (San Antonio), Mile High Stadium (Denver) and the Georgia Dome (Atlanta).

The intensity of the summer crescendos to the DCI World Championships which will be held August 8 to 10 in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this year. All corps are judged in Quarterfinals, fewer make it into Semifinals, and only the top 12 compete in Finals for the right to call themselves World Champion. In August, 2012, DCI.org reported an attendance figure of 36,494 for the three days of championship competition in Indianapolis, which does not include the thousands of corps and staff members who entered the stadium after their performances with wristbands or staff/VIP credentials.

The sections that make up each corps remain similar to their military ancestors. Each modern hornline is made up of trumpets, mellophones, baritones and tubas, while woodwinds are still entirely excluded from the activity. The mellophone is the alto voice, similar to that of a French horn, but with a wide bell that points forward.

The drumline now includes the battery (the snare drums, tenor drums and bass drums that march on the field) and the front ensemble (usually called the “pit,” which is stationed in front of the front sideline and consists of a wide range of percussion instruments such as xylophones, cymbals and concert bass drums).

The military honor guard has evolved into a color guard that consists of young men and women skilled in dance who spin and toss rifles, sabers and flags on 8-foot poles. The corps is led and conducted by one or more drum majors.

.  .  .

In the parking lot, an 18-wheeler has been plugged into power and water sources outside the school. Tables and tents stand next to it with enough pancakes to feed about 300 normal college students. Moms and dads briskly enter and exit the doors on the side of the big mobile kitchen, removing empty pans and producing more steaming portions. Cadets methodically eat their breakfast on the curb by the food truck. Their slightly swollen eyes gradually adjust to a day very much like yesterday, but in a different parking lot. Trash bags fill up with Styrofoam dishes and plastic utensils, and the kids are gone.

.  .  .

Everyone on tour has a job that contributes to the good of the whole. That’s how you take 150 young adults, forty staff members and twenty volunteers on the road in four buses, two semis, three RVs and a couple vans – the momentum never stops.

Bill Speakman marched in a local drum corps in his youth and started helping with the Cadets in 1989. He says he’s done just about everything there is to do on the road as a volunteer, but now usually finds himself working on the food truck. “We get up an hour before the corps does, start breakfast, cook breakfast, clean up breakfast. Prep lunch, cook lunch, serve lunch, clean up lunch. Prep dinner, cook dinner, serve dinner, clean up, pack up the truck and go to the show. Prep snack, cook snack, serve snack, pack up the truck again, drive to the next site. The members usually sleep in the gym somewhere and we just go to the truck and start prepping breakfast.”

A day in the life of a volunteer can be as grueling for a middle-aged adult as a day on the field for a 20-year-old member, but year after year they come back to pitch in for a week or two at a time. “It’s just rewarding to know that we have something to do with the experience the kids have every summer,” Bill said.

.  .  .

The equipment truck isn’t parked far away from the food truck, and within minutes every instrument and flag is unloaded and carried to the field.

Each section lines up their instruments on the front sideline. Trumpets together, mellophones together, and so on, each placed neatly on its own maroon towel. The bell of each instrument perfectly touches those on either side, the horns impeccably parallel. The smell of sunscreen rises with the dew. Backpacks and water coolers clutter the front sideline between the beautiful stacks of silver.

Stretch and run starts the day. The Cadets gather around the drum major to loosen hamstrings and hip flexors. Hopefully no one will pull anything today, but Jarrett the physical trainer is already busy wrapping and taping sore ankles and knees. Joe Roche takes over all too soon. A Cadet of the 80s, Joe now works as a recruitment officer for the U.S. Army, and he heads up the Cadets’ physical training program. He embodies a bulldog in both build and bark.

Joe says his approach to the Cadets’ conditioning program is two-fold. “It not only has to do with fitness but also developing a real aggressive, team-oriented personality for the drum corps,” he said. “The bottom line is that the whole group is suffering together. That’s something I learned in the Army. When a group is suffering together they tend to pull together.”

The Cadets run a warm-up mile or two around the field, and Joe barks at anyone who gets ahead or behind . If there are bleachers, he uses those next. Otherwise, he has plenty of football drills to challenge our endurance. “I like to have fun with it,” Joe said. “I think when the corps knows they’re doing some really crazy stuff like running ten laps around the track in Michigan [that’s 2.5 miles] and then doing 25 sets of bleachers they think, ‘Hey, we can do that.’” He says the Cadets can draw on this foundation of strength training to mentally push through incredibly difficult portions of the drill.

Today the grass is long – the worst. At least the stadium has turf. Ensemble will be easy after a whole day of marching in jungle grass.

.  .  .

Best of the Best

Of the 58 corps still in operation, very few consistently place in the top echelon, and they are tenacious competitors. The consistent top-five rivals are:

  • The Blue Devils, from Concord, California, hold 13 World Championship titles – more than any other corps. They are bad ass and they know it and are famous for their jazz style.
  • The Cavaliers, from Rosemont, Illinois have won seven championships. Also called the Green Machine, they are known more for their visually captivating drill than a particular musical style. The Cavies are one of only two remaining all-male corps in DCI.
  • The Phantom Regiment, from Rockford, Illinois has only claimed two championships, but has been a classic drum corps favorite and a tough corps to beat for decades. They are known for their classical music and their rich low brass sound.
  • The Santa Clara Vanguard, from Santa Clara, California, is an old-school favorite. Despite changing times, they are one of only two corps still marching a cymbal line on the field; it’s the little traditions that get loyal fans excited.
  • The Cadets, now based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, hold ten world championship titles, second only to the Blue Devils. They are the second-oldest drum corps still in existence, and their classic maroon and gold uniform has hardly changed since the corps was founded in 1934. They are known for their tradition, innovation, fast marching tempos and challenging music. The Cadets pride themselves in being the hardest working corps in DCI.

.  .  .

The corps is breathing hard and sweat already drips down their foreheads. Everyone runs to the sideline for one last drink of water and some quick sunscreen before rehearsal starts. Or not.

“We’re starting at letter H in the closer! Come on horns!” The marching staff isn’t in the mood to waste time with fleshly necessities. But I didn’t put sunscreen on my left arm yet. Gloves on, hats on, dot books on. Thirty second later, the final straggler trots onto the field with his 40-pound tuba.

.  .  .

Music in Motion

Each drum corps works on the same 11- to 13-minute show for the entire summer. Each show has a theme with three or four pieces of music. The first piece is called the opener; the last is the closer. Corps must get the musical and visual aspects of their shows perfect by August in order to have a shot at a championship. Their programs are varying degrees of challenging depending on the complexity and difficulty of the music and drill.

Life as a Cadet gets extremely repetitive but never dull because of the incredible demand of the drill. “Drill” refers to the formations the corps makes as they march around on the football field. Its difficulty depends on how large the steps are from one set (picture) to the next and how fast the tempo of the music is (how fast you have to move your feet).

In this category of performance, the Cadets are known for taking on more than anyone else. Tempos are faster, step size is larger and each show has about 210 sets that range from 4 to 16 counts each. So basically, every few beats each Cadet changes direction and step size perfectly together so that the drill moves as one continuous phrase. The judges are looking for “clean” drill that flows seamlessly; we don’t want one shape, to a blur, to another shape.

At the end of every Cadet show since the 80s, the tempo goes from fast to insane – about 210 beats per minute. That means Cadets take about three and a half steps per second; think of it as finessed sprinting. That, combined with the loudest, fastest music in the show makes for a pretty phenomenal ending when it’s executed well on finals night. Unfortunately, musicians like to breathe when they play their instruments, hence the army PT program.

.  .  .

Drill rehearsal is where the Cadets get clean. The visual staff chooses one or two sections of the show to work on for three hours each morning. The corps stands in one set while the staff perfects the shape. Each person has to be perfectly on their “dot” – their coordinate on the field. (A single dot would read something like, “12 ½ steps off the front sideline, 3 ¼ steps inside the 45 yard line on side two.”) This means that in addition to the music and direction changes, Cadets can recite about 220 coordinates down to the eighth of a step from the yard line.

The staff adjusts each member until the form is smooth or straight; then they spray paint each member’s dot on the field so that they have a reference point for perfection.

Once the dots are sprayed, the corps reps each set enough to burn in muscle memory. This process can be tedious, as we literally sweat the small stuff. Each individual has a simple motivation every day: Figure it out, and don’t get called out from the box because you’re having yourself on the field. Once one set is clean, we clean the next, until a whole chunk looks a lot better than it did at the show the night before.

.  .  .

Just Do It.

Most corps members first encounter drum corps in high school marching band, but few who are intrigued ever make it to an audition camp in November. “My band director showed us videos,” said Sean Furilla, a Cadet alumnus and the trumpets’ current instructor. “You see the Cadets on TV and it’s like they’re rocks stars. I thought, ‘I could never do that.’”

But for some reason a few of us are crazy enough to try out anyway. Cadets find out the hard way that the human body can do a lot more than the mind thinks when there is no other option. When they audition, few rookies ever expect to be able to run backwards at a huge stride with straight legs and a solid upper body while playing sixteenth notes faster than they can text on their Blackberry. But eventually, laboriously, they become rock stars too.

.  .  .

After a quick stack of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup too hot to be appealing in the middle of Texas week, the Cadets hornline waits in a perfect arc for the brass staff. Every music rehearsal begins with a standstill warm-up. Allison Pryor is this year’s mellophone soloist, and as the first of the mellophones, she stands in the exact center of the arc. When she brings her horn up, a wave of silver goes out from both sides, perfectly timed, all muscle memory. We probably couldn’t mess the ripple up if we tried. The person next to you puts their instrument up and your mouthpiece touches your lips before you thought about it. Spectators are impressed before they hear a note.

Gino Cipriani, the brass caption head for the Cadets since 2005, leads the hornline through a routine progression of warm-up exercises. Swollen, tired lips relax into another day of abuse. Gino was a trumpet soloist for the Blue Devils in the 80s, but has since been converted to the land of maroon jackets and straight legs. His kind smile and fun personality don’t deter from the fear and awe every brass player has for him – perhaps in part because he looks as much like a member of the mafia as his name suggests – and he can pick out which of 22 trumpets played the tiniest twinge too loud from the press box 50 yards away.

“The best part is standing in front of the hornline and getting to hear that ability,” Gino told me. “You guys are really highly trained individuals. When you have a really great performance, I get a joy out of that.”

We drink, lube up (the accepted term for reapplying sunscreen), and take the field for sectionals.

With Gino in the box, rehearsal is now entirely focused on the music. But get in the drill form because the visual staff is probably watching. We march and play and crack a note and reset and do it again. Cadets can’t play their music the first time they put it with the drill. Most of the summer is spent learning how to compensate for the physical demand enough to produce a sound, eventually a good sound.

Each section has its own staff member to make corrections on the field, and their expectations increase daily as performance level rises. “With drum corps, the challenge is that you have to try to find a new way to say the same thing every day,” said Sean Furilla. “It challenges me to be a better teacher.”

Sean is 33 and fit. He is intense and meticulous with his trumpet section, but never needlessly harsh. “I can’t be how I am over the summer with middle school kids,” he said. “The energy levels Gino uses, sixth or seventh graders can’t handle that. It’s almost like I’m in shackles during the year.”

Gino, too, is spoiled by his hornline’s work ethic. “When I do clinics I tell them that what I teach is not reality,” he said. “Most kids that come to the Cadets are there for a certain goal. There’s nobody there to make you pay $3,000 and to make you want to rehearse that hard, so you get a totally different desire and ability level in a drum corps than with any other group.”

.  .  .


There is something I’ve waited far too long to say: Good drum corps is LOUD. That’s what makes it fun to do and entertaining to watch. When 72 skilled brass musicians hold out a chord as loud as they can for ten seconds, chills ripple down even a judge’s spine. And with ten snares, four quads and five bass drums behind them drumming as loud as they can, the crowd is on their feet before they decide to stand up. The energy the corps puts into each performance returns to them in the excitement they generate in the audience. Performer and spectator feed off of each other until the crowd bounds to their feet in boisterous ovation at the end.

.  .  .

The rehearsal day concludes with a full ensemble rehearsal in which brass, drums and guard piece the show together. It’s fast-paced, productive, and exhausting, and often ends with an arduous run-through of the entire program. On a show day, ensemble ends with barely enough time to eat, pack and load up for the show. Everyone showers and meticulously polishes their instruments. Female Cadets plaster their wet hair into braded buns fragrant with palm-fulls of gel. (Only the colorguard girls get to look like girls in uniform.)

Within an hour and a half, the Cadets sit clean in their bus seats, packed luggage fills the bays, the loaded food and equipment trucks rumble and the school lies vacant.

.  .  .

After a ride just long enough to fall into unsatisfying slumber, the Cadets exit the buses in half uniform ready to warm up for the show. We’re in “Cadet-mode” now – a class act no other corps attempts to imitate. The hornline stands motionless in a long line of twos, their eyes locked forward. Pressed cream pants with a trademark maroon pinstripe down the side fit each member with a tight white shirt under the suspenders. Each member holds his neatly-folded maroon uniform jacket and shako on his right forearm. Three white-gloved fingers grasp the exact center of each shako’s bill.

The line moves forward.

After a relaxing 3-minute stretch and some marching exercises in a parking lot, the hornline arcs it up in front of Gino. Two warm-up exercises and a hymn-song ballad with plenty of goose bumps for the growing crowd of spectators.

“Excellent, excellent job,” Gino says. “Jackets on.” It’s a good night. We take a few minutes to relax, suit up and fall back in. Now we look like the Cadets.

The hornline always finishes the show warm-up with “Rocky Point” – a quick, loud arrangement of a piece that made the Cadets famous when the corps won its first championship in 1983. As soon as the horns ripple down, we line up in twos again and walk silently toward the stadium.

.  .  .

The rich sound of Phantom Regiment’s hornline echoes from inside the stadium as The Cadets hornline halts at the gate. The drumline and colorguard arrive from different directions, everyone looking straight forward.

“Relax,” the drum major instructs the corps. The Cadets break and exchange hugs and anxious smiles.  The phrase “Have a good show!” reverberates around the group until George Hopkins, director of the Cadets since 1982, whistles and the members instinctively gather around him. George is 53, and his amber hair and two-day scruff slightly resembles a Bernstein Bear. If anything, George is always truthful with his drum corps, and he gives a realistic but encouraging talk before the show that habitually ends with, “Here we go.”

Each member grasps the left shoulder of another with his right hand and they close their eyes. The longest-marching member in the corps hums the first pitch of the corps song and a hymn rises from the group more meaningful to each member than any other song they will ever sing. The words to “Oh Holy Name” have been sung and passed down through the corps unchanged since 1934.

The harmony of the “Amen” hangs in the quiet summer air. Phantom is leaving the field, and The Cadets put on their shakos.

.  .  .

A tight block of maroon steps in time onto the short grass and down the 50-yardline. The drum major calls the corps to a halt, and each Cadet walks directly to their opening set. The announcer recites a familiar script:

“On the field, from Allentown, Pennsylvania, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome The Cadets.”


“Go Nick!” someone’s obnoxious friend yells above the chattering crowd. Instruments come up with the drum major’s right hand.

No one ever really remembers much about a specific show unless something goes horribly wrong. Nerves, adrenaline and intense focus turn 11 and a half minutes of exertion into a blurred memory under the lights. The audience applauds, and sweat-soaked Cadets suck in air through their noses, their lips clenched in a calm facade.

.  .  .

The very last show of the season is like any other, with a bit more adrenaline, a lot more emotion and a huge audience. After the final scores are announced and uniforms and instruments turned in, the corps scatters across the country and around the world, never to reunite in the same group again. At 22, many are too old to return the next year; others will take on internships and summer school. Each year a new corps forms, old faces mixed with new.

“Now that I’m on the outside looking in, I would have to say that this drum corps means the world to me,” said recent drumline age-out Sean Moran. “It represents everything that I ever was, and the reason that I will be whatever I am in the future. It holds the very values that I have learned that will sculpt me for the rest of my life.”

“The family aspect is what keeps drawing me back to drum corps, but it’s difficult to describe that to someone else,” said Sean Furilla. “Drum corps is like the Matrix. You can’t really describe it; you have to experience it.”


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