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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Corps competency
Drums and bugles make more than music
Along with the hard work comes a lot of fun.
Credit:Katherine Esposito

And, in the end, they were just a bunch of very tired, but very exhilarated and very proud kids. I say "kids" loosely, viewing them from a perspective of 25 years distant. Some, barely teenagers, don't yet own a razor. Some are college graduates and drive a personal car. But, for a few magical months last summer, all were on the same team, forsaking (for the most part) any conflicts of personality or maturity in order to pursue a higher goal. They achieved their goal - getting to the semifinals in the 2006 World Drum Corps International Championship competition at Camp Randall Stadium - but along the way they also took a giant step toward success in later life.

They learned many important things, like being punctual. ("You were supposed to be here 10 minutes ago. That'll be 20 pushups.")

Like keeping your dress clothes neat and clean. ("That black T-shirt has lint on it. You can't wear it.")

Like paying attention and remembering duties. (For these infractions, pushups are not ordered; corps members just drop and do them automatically. My son Ansel is beginning to sport an enviable physique.)

I was a complete novice to the world of drum corps when Ansel joined Capital Sound last January. I was a mom with a kid who liked to play the trumpet and had found no positive outlet for his energy. School was a struggle and he was facing a summer either on the videogame couch or driving me crazy if I barred him from it.

Cap Sound, as people call it, is a small corps that once was linked to the Madison Scouts. (Linked no more, Cap Sound struggled and survived to compete this year at Camp Randall. That's the story that made the six o'clock news.)

As time passed, I learned that drum corps - a mix of brassy show music, Broadway choreography and high-level athletic endurance, derived from daily rehearsals up to eight hours long - pays big dividends for the people who participate. In this, Cap Sound is not unique. All drum corps are demanding. I'll venture to say it's exactly what some kids need.

For the most part, public schools today are levelers, seeking to build esteem in students merely by telling them they deserve it. On occasion, highly motivated kids actually earn it. But most of the time, goals are set low and made manageable, so the vast majority of students - decent, average kids with decent, average abilities - meet them without really trying. It's the "everybody's a winner" mentality, that teaches kids through soothing words instead of setting firm limits and posing more difficult challenges. In my mind, all it fosters is sloth and cynicism.

The big losers are the kids themselves. Never faced with high expectations, either at school or at home, many discover the truth only when they're on their own.

Mike Cline, a 38-year-old father of three who moved his family to Madison from California last year, saw firsthand the value of the drum corps ethic. For four years in the late 1980s, he played baritone with the Santa Clara Vanguard, a big corps that camped at East High School for this month's championships. While in college, he saw his diligence pay off in terms of good grades; his classmates, meanwhile, weren't nearly so motivated.

"I noticed that a lot of people weren't accustomed to taking very pointed criticism," Cline says. But he, instead of shrugging off the advice of teachers, would take their suggestions, and saw his grades improve.

"Drum corps is all about taking criticism and internalizing it to make a better product," he continues. "Because ultimately, it's a competitive activity. You're getting a score, an actual concrete score of your performance, which is rare in real life."

Capital Sound is a small corps in Division III, which allows groups up to 70 marchers in size and accepts members as young as 14 or the occasional 13-year-old.

The Madison Scouts are in Division I, which allows up to 135 members. (There's a mid-size division, too, called, appropriately, Division II.)

The practices are long, typically three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, and, if there's no show that night, three hours at night. By May, marchers know the entire routine - music and choreography - but then tweak it daily to better their scores for championship week in August. (Members who are seriously out of shape will find it difficult to keep up.)

Traveling is done in Greyhound-style buses accompanied by semis carrying equipment, a kitchen and a second corps of instructional staff and adult volunteers. Marchers perform a show, change clothes, eat a snack, get on the bus and sleep while being driven to their next stop, usually a local school. Typically, they arrive before dawn, crash for a few more hours, then rise to eat and start rehearsing.

Expectations are high, and for the most part, members meet them. The time commitment is considerable. Rehearsals start in late fall and are full weekends, once a month. In May, corps members must move to the corps' hometown. During the summer, Division I corps like the Madison Scouts require fulltime attendance while smaller corps like Capital Sound allow a few days off for rest, work and family time.

Drum corps is not just about percussion and brass. The color guard is an integral part as well, composed of students with talents in cheerleading, dance and show choirs.

There are differences between Capital Sound and the Madison Scouts. Capital Sound does not require auditions or previous color guard or music experience. It's a perfect training ground for young teens who may someday aim for the bigger corps, or for college band musicians new to the drum corps world. The Madison Scouts (one of two all-male groups nationally) and other larger corps set a minimum age of 17 and hold auditions each fall, which are extremely competitive. (The maximum age for all divisions is 21.)

Putting a show on the road takes equipment, buses, trucks, food, uniforms, instruments, gas, experienced instructors and hundreds of volunteers. The big corps have budgets of up to $2 million and are run like businesses, with a board and many paid staff. Member tuition is about $2,000 and includes virtually all meals, uniforms and instruments. As a smaller corps with fewer buses, trucks and paid staff, Capital Sound's expenses are lower but still considerable. Tuition is $850.

Fortunately for drum corps addicts, along with the hard work comes a lot of fun. In late July, Cap Sound was in the middle of a 10-day performance tour. They'd just finished a show in the Ohio heat, eaten a camp dinner and hopped on the bus for a five-hour trek to their next competition. It was 10 p.m.; Ansel was calling me on a friend's cell phone. "Hi Mom! Guess what?" In the background, 30 young voices were singing bawdy songs at a fever pitch. He raised his voice to a yell. "Guess what? We just beat Citations!" - a corps from Burlington, Mass.

They beat them again, at Camp Randall on Aug. 8 and Aug. 10. Of course, Cap Sound was itself outscored by seven higher-ranking corps in its own division, impressive groups that earned everyone's admiration. But even those finishing far behind deserved respect, for there's no drum corps show anywhere that isn't built on the backs of sweat, toil and not a little angst. For a kid to learn these lessons at the tender age of 15 is a sweet accomplishment indeed.

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