Drum Corps: The Young Elite
This photo series and accompanying article was originally produced for and published by Imagista.
The heat of the summer can seem stifling to most who would rather be relaxing on a beach or in the air conditioning. However, throughout the country you might be surprised to stumble upon a few hundred young people marching on a football field and playing music in the dead of summer. These bands of kids are not ordinary marching bands, though–they’re drum and bugle corps, a niche activity that thrives each summer. Thousands of teens and young adults leave the comfort of their homes for the season to participate in one of the many groups affiliated with Drum Corps International.
The activity of drum corps dates back to the early 20th century, but it was not until 1972 that Drum Corps International (DCI) was founded to provide an organization for the many groups that needed better funding and more creative freedom to break away from their military roots. DCI now sponsors hundreds of events all around the country each year, in which around 50 corps compete culminating with the World Championships event in early August.
While their friends spend summers staying up late and sleeping in, these corps members embark on summer-long tours of the country. After a competitive audition process, students travel from their homes around the world to train for the summer. The groups meet as a whole in mid-May where they rehearse all day every day, perfecting the 10-13 minute show that they will perform daily for the rest of the summer once tour starts. Their days alternate between 12+ hour rehearsals and show days where they head to one of many football stadiums to compete with other groups doing the exact same thing.
These groups live out of buses and sleep on air mattresses on the floors of high school gyms. They take volunteer-cooked meals in parking lots. They spend all of their days outside and end the season with quite atypical tan lines.
Imagista spoke with three current members of the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps from Rockford, IL. We heard from head conductor and three year veteran David Warren, Canada-hailing third-year color guard member Alexandra Lafond-Brouard, and five-year vet and Euphonium section leader Jared Raymer about the experience they have had over the years participating in the marching arts.
Imagista: How would you describe drum corps to someone that has never heard of it before?
Jared Raymer: It’s probably easiest to say it is professional marching band. We work at a higher level because there is a lot more time put into the activity. This allows us to go further with the length and design of our shows. As far as the experience, it is kind of like being on tour with a dance company or a Broadway show.
Alexandra Lafond-Brouard: It is really intense, it takes a lot of your time, and it takes a lot of commitment. It isn’t only for three months; you have to work a lot in the off-season to get mentally and physically prepared.
Imagista: What made you interested in it in the first place?
ALB: I remember being 10-years-old in my music class in elementary school and they showed a video of a drum corps. I don’t know which one, but I thought it was really interesting. I was so young and in Quebec we don’t have marching band, so it was something I had never seen before. Then I started spinning a flag and for 2 years I was just teaching myself before I joined Les Stentors in Quebec in 2007.
DW: My high school band director was the first person that introduced it to me and I thought he was the coolest person in the world, so of course I wanted to check it out. Then I saw the Phantom Regiment’s show in 2010 and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen in my entire life.
Imagista: Who has been most influential in your marching and music career?
ALB: For me it has changed over the years. At first it was my very first color guard instructor who taught me how to spin. She was my role model and she marched with Boston Crusaders and I thought it was so cool that she was in a World Class corps. I started to want to march with Phantom when I was fourteen and there was a lady from Quebec who had been the color guard captain here and I wanted to be just like her. Even now, when I see her at shows in Quebec I am still fan-girling over her.
DW: Probably Phantom’s current Brass Caption Head, Christian Carichner. He has always been there to push me when I need it and always has made me go to limits I didn’t think I could go to.
JR: I’d say Dwight Emmert, the visual caption head at Phantom Regiment from 2005-2013, has really helped me earn how far I can really push myself. My first high school band director also taught me how to push myself musically as well.
Imagista: What do you love most about drum corps?
ALB: I would say the family it provides. Being with the same people constantly for three months can be tough, but I love meeting and building relationships with everyone. Even though I know I may never see them again, our bond is so strong because we lived the same thing every day and struggled through the same things. In real life you never get to do that. My friends at school and I get through exams together, and get through class together, but it isn’t nearly as hard as drum corps.
DW: Yeah, definitely the people we get to be with every single day. And not just the members, but also the volunteers, the staff, all the fans. They are the best people you’ll ever be with in the world.
JR: What I love most is that it is a way for young people to truly be considered professionals and be so good at something that they are considered to be the highest level. Even professionals in the music world still look at these organizations as elite. I think it is a really cool experience for youth to be considered the top tier of an activity.
Imagista: What do you do to prepare for a show?
JR: We start training in the middle of May where we rehearse for four weeks, sun up to sun down, getting the show on the field, the music memorized and learning how to move together as one. From there we go on tour where we rehearse all day and pack up and travel to the show site.
Once we get there the mental preparedness kicks in. The mentality of getting ready to perform is a unique experience. You have to make sure nothing you do affects anyone else in a negative way and get ready to show the audience what this group is capable of.
DW: I approach every single rep like it is a performance. Every minute of every day has to be geared toward the performance. Before the show I just like some down time to myself. Warm up is where I get to think about what we are going to do. As conductor, I don’t do as much as the other members do–it’s a lot of standing around. I actually use them as a source of inspiration. Listening to them play helps me focus.
ALB: Right before a show I need to be by myself. We always go around and say, “Good show” to each other, but I only need to say that to two people and then I am in my bubble. I stretch my calves and that’s it, I need to be by myself. A lot of people aren’t like that and they yell and act crazy, but I can’t do that. I’m really focused.
Imagista: What goes through your mind when performing?
ALB: Its always different, I guess I count a lot. I need to think the same things I think about in rehearsal to make the show exactly like the rehearsal. I need to be in the moment and know where my spot is, where my flag is supposed to be at that second and not get distracted by other things, like the amount of people in the audience or if I see someone mess up.
JR: My first year I had more of a survivalist mentality trying to make sure I had all of the technicalities right, but eventually as I matured as a performer It was easier to have the technique part down so I could focus more on embracing each moment and embodying the different characters that the music requires me to take on.
DW: Since my job is timing, my mind is always geared towards how things are lining up and the energy level. Do I need to push the energy level? Do I need to push the tempo here? Should I pull back the tempo here? I don’t think about anything else, it’s just the show the whole time.
Imagista: What are you most proud of to date in your DCI career?
ALB: Marching here. Making it as a Phantomette. I still sometimes can’t believe that I made it. When I was younger it was such a big dream for me to march with Phantom Regiment coming from such a little drum corps. No one ever told me that I couldn’t do it, but I’ve always doubted myself, so doing three years here is such a big deal to me.
JR: I was really proud of getting through the entire rookie season as a 17-year-old and playing the corps song (Elsa’s Processional to the Cathedral by Richard Wagner) on the field and putting my horn down at the end of the show just to look into the audience and see that everyone was crying. I was part of something that moved these people that I didn’t know so much that I brought them to tears.
DW: I am always proud at the end of each season about how we can look back and see how much we’ve grown. Each season is different, so I am just so proud at the end of each summer to see how 150 of us came together to accomplish a common goal.