Tonight in West Chester University's Farrell Stadium, local residents will become reacquainted with one of the loudest, most raucous forms of musical athleticism America has to offer: drum corps.
If you have a youngster at home who may be interested in learning a band instrument, this is a quick, easy and highly entertaining way to introduce him to the best and the brightest young musicians who play brass and drums. Expect to be blown away. Drum corps is a combination of music, dance and athleticism: it's one of the most rigorous cardio-vascular workouts you will ever see. Watching them perform will change the way you feel about marching bands.
Tonight's drum corps gig in West Chester is a prelude to the Drum Corp International's Eastern finals, scheduled for tomorrow and Saturday evenings in J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown, Pa., where seedings for the finals next weekend in Indianapolis will take place. It's a good time to see some of the top drum corps in the nation because they are close to peak performance and seeing a world class drum corps performing at peak performance inspires awe.
The schedule will include Carolina Crown, the Cadets and the Phantom Regiment, winners of the DCI finals two years ago. Missing from the program tonight will be the current leader in the DCI standings, the Blue Devils. Likewise, my own favorite corps, the Bluecoats, will not be performing.
My two oldest children were both in the Bluecoats. Five years ago, when my former colleague, John Kelly, was searching for a suitable subject to get into the documentary film-making business, I suggested to him we go to see the Music In Motion show during the first week in August. It was a quintessential American story, and the subject had never been succcessfully explored in a documentary film. He wanted to know what made it so special; why anyone would care about a movie about marching bands.
Come with me, I told him. YOU decide if it's a film or not. Each corp features 135 members, half of them playing loud brass instruments, the other half playing percussive instruments or running pell mell over the football field accentuating the music with an assortment of props: including spinning flags and rifles. It's got three integral parts: one part orchestral band music, one part broadway show, one part athletic sprint. All three parts are combined in a 10 to 11- minute performance that is visually engrossing.
Beyond that, I told him, the culture of drum corps was an untold story. The performers range in age from 16 to 21, they are in the prime of life. Their commitment to the corps is something that lasts long beyond the end of the season, usually it's a lifetime connection they make.
They begin planning and practicing their show in December in monthly, week-end long meetings. Once colleges let out in mid-May, they meet daily and live with one another, honing and perfecting their show. They pay for the privilege of being in the corps, because they are eating three square meals a day and because they are traveling all across the country in buses.
When a drum corps decamps, it always is staying at a local high school. Corps members sleep in sleeping bags on the gymnasium floor and use the high school's lockeroom and shower facilities. Their daily regimen usually includes 6 to 8 hours of practice, then a performance, then a long bus drive to the site of their next performance. Then a repetition of the previous day's events. Over and over and over, all summer long. They are lean and tanned come mid-summer. By August, they are bronzed gods and goddesses.
After that one show, John Kelly was convinced the subject would make for a good film. He plunked down a significant amount of his retirement savings betting others would think so too. The film was released in 2008, just a few months before he passed away. It's called "Throw It Down"; it follows the Bluecoats during their 2006 season. You could see a trailer for the film and visit it's website by clicking onto this link: http://www.throwitdownthemovie.com/
If you go, go early and try to find a drum or horn line that is practicing near Farrell Stadium. Because the starting times are staggered, the corps who will be performing will be scattered all around the stadium. Getting up close and personal is a great way to feel the power of their horn playing or their drumming.
It's an experience you have to experience to really understand it. Your 11 year old will think it's about the coolest thing in the world.
He may be right.