A Tale of Two Corps

It was 9 a.m. in Ravenswood, West Virginia. The weather was comfortably warm, certainly more tolerable than that of the previous five weeks. Sporadic clouds overhead. Only fifty percent humidity.


Near me was Ravenswood High School’s football stadium, proudly projecting its red devil mascot to the Mormon and Presbyterian churches across the street. Directly ahead of me were fifteen high school and college students arranged in two rows: the front five stood behind marimbas and the back eight stood behind two synthesizers, a xylophone, a glockenspiel, and four vibraphones. On the ends were two auxiliary percussion players with all sorts of miscellaneous percussion instruments. The male students were shirtless, the female students wore sports bras. They were all tan and slathered with sunscreen.

Presently, we were in the middle of a four-hour rehearsal.

“Let’s move on to Bridges,” I said, feeling unusually awake and authoritative this morning. My drumsticks were splintering from constantly clicking tempo during warmups. “What are some things to watch out for?”

“Matching mallet heights,” Jake responded. He was one of the marimba players.

“Low wrists,” Jil, vibraphone.

“Play together,” Ryan, marimba.

“Look and listen in,” Olivia, marimba.

“Edges versus centers,” Mira, vibraphone.

“Body shift versus push-pull,” Tina, marimba.*

I continued. “Yep, all good answers. Let’s do this!” And then I turned on the metronome. Tina tapped off, and they all began playing.

At this point of the summer, I didn’t need to fully concentrate on their warmups; they had been playing these exercises for months and they generally knew how to fix their own technique issues. As I, shirtless and feeling a bit of a sunburn, sipped from my water bottle, an old Crown Victoria pulled up and a man rolled the window down.

The man was on the heavy side like most of Ravenswood. Balding. Advanced in age. Slightly reminiscent of Larry David.

“Where are y’all from?” He didn’t sound like Larry David. Or, if Larry David had an Appalachian accent, maybe they’d sound similar.

I smiled and replied, “We’re from Seattle. We’re a drum and bugle corps called the Seattle Cascades.”

“What’s that?”

“Basically we’re a professional marching band without all the wimpy instruments,” I joked, knowing full well I was bashing my years of playing saxophone.

“Well,” the man said with a sigh, “y’all sound great. My wife and I have heard you and we’re just amazed.” I smiled again as he asked, “Do you have any performances for the public?”

“Yes, we just competed in Charleston last night. We’ll be in Allentown on Friday, and we have world championships in Indianapolis on the eleventh.”

The man thought for a moment. “Hm. I’ll talk with my wife. Maybe we’ll head there for the weekend.” And with that, I thanked him and recommended that he browse Drum Corps International’s website. He then drove away.

* My other front ensemble members: Matt, marimba; Mel and Cassandra, vibraphones; Alex, xylophone; Kira, glockenspiel; Will and Eli, synthesizers; Tyler and Adam, auxiliary percussion.

Part I. Drum Corps

Those dedicated – and dare I say, crazy – enough to teach or march in drum corps face unique challenges. They rehearse twelve hours every day of the week, sleep on gym floors, and compete against other drum corps across the United States all summer. They battle thunderstorms, high humidity, and mental and physical fatigue.

It’s a strange subculture of the music world, but it makes people better musicians and better people. Performers without exception develop stronger senses of teamwork, humility, and dedication; they become better at problem solving; they gain greater confidence in their bodies, their musicality, and their ability to interact with others.

My responsibilities as the Cascades’ front ensemble instructor boiled down to enhancing these professional skills through music and technique. Because front ensemble members in all corps do not move around the field during performances, their music is particularly demanding, requiring all sorts of detailed technical skills. I hardly have the patience to describe it all here (and it would be boring to read anyway), so I have included below a video by Vic Firth, one of Cascades’ percussion sponsors, to illustrate such skills.

Part II. How Children Succeed

I read many books on my Kindle while on drum corps summer tour. Aside from watching movies, there wasn’t much more to do on extended bus rides from city to city, state to state.

One of the more recent books was How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. He compiles many studies on child and teenage development into a narrative of, well, how children succeed or fail as they age. Tough essentially looks at the institutions and ideas in place in childhood and how that affects people later in life.

The study Tough analyzes that I found most intriguing involved rats. (I hope I remember it correctly.) Newborn rats that were nurtured and licked by their mothers when they were nervous performed more confidently in later tests than newborns ignored by their mothers. The baby rats, once older, were placed in an unfamiliar wooden circle with food in the center. The non-nurtured rats spent a lot of time pressed up against the border and took much longer to reach the center of the circle than did the nurtured rats. Once the non-nurtured rats found the food, they spent an average of thirty seconds eating and returned to the border, while the nurtured rats spent an average of two minutes eating.

The results were consistent even when the scientists placed newborn rats with non-biological mothers. As long as they were nurtured by a mother figure, rats were more confident later in life.

Humans have been proven, in other long-term tests, to produce similar results. Because my front ensemble members are in high school or college, they have already gone through most of their personality development. But what How Children Succeed has made me believe more strongly than ever before is that personality and the capacity for skill building are malleable. In fact, my front ensemble were far more mature, more humble, and more willing to problem solve compared to the beginning of tour two months before.

My front ensemble (minus Cassandra) and me after one of the final shows of the season. (Photo credit: Josh Clements)

Part III. Peace Corps

I’ve noticed there comes a point when – after working with any group of young people off and on for a year – a shift happens. It’s a transition from one mentality to another. In the case of teaching the Cascades front ensemble, it was a change from consistent supervision on my part to members’ self-awareness, self-critique, and self-confidence that what they were doing was correct. Ideally, I shouldn’t have had to point out individual musical or technical issues at all.

What I’m trying to illustrate with this post is that I’m more comfortable than ever in youth skill development. I will have the responsibility throughout my Peace Corps service to foster in my Moroccan youth community a culture of self-awareness, self-improvement, and self-confidence. It undoubtedly will take time; if my time with the Cascades is any indication, a year could pass before the shift. What will be a barrier, however, is my unfamiliarity with the language and culture.

I hope to put aside my own wants to respond to youth needs in my future community, to develop sustainable skill development programs that will last long after I return to the United States, to be a positive role model, and, especially, to involve parents and the community in the development of their children. Most of all I look forward to the challenge of the next twenty-seven months.