cover_story (2006-29)

It’s coming on dusk, and the Sevier County High School football field oozes a golden haze. In the distance, there’s the rumble of a drum—dark, billowing, the kind that registers in your gut like an accidentally ingested thundercloud. In the air, the faint aroma of nachos mingles with fresh-cut grass and humidity.

Local meteorologist Matt Hinkin’s voice crackles over the loudspeaker, parting the sea of anticipatory chatter: “Welcome to the 31st annual Drums Across America, presented by Drum Corps International!” Drum corps, he explains, are 135-member drum and bugle corps whose members are between the ages of 14 and 22. They spend the summer traveling from competition to competition, enduring grueling 12-hour practices by day and sleeping on the bus or high-school gym floors by night, in preparation for the weeklong world championships in August.

The crowd cheers, and cheers even louder when they spot the main event congregating on the far side of the field. The first corps participating in tonight’s exhibition hails from Nashville—Music City Legend, it calls itself. From here its musicians look like metrosexual Civil War soldiers, clutching drums the size of small ponies and shiny silver horns. They begin marching across the field in rows of two and four, finally arranging themselves before the bleachers in perfectly symmetrical formations.

A serious-looking drum major climbs into the bleachers and lifts his baton in the direction of his instrument-wielding congregation. They assume “ready” position: drumsticks raised, mouthpieces to lips. For a moment, everything is treacherously still.

Then, as if in slow motion, the baton falls, unleashing a heady wave of sound. Mellophones, baritones, flugelhorns… it’s hard to tell where one instrument begins and another ends. The horn players’ cheeks puff outward in synch; their white-gloved fingers flutter in time. Positioned up front is what they refer to in bandspeak as the “battery,” an organized tangle of drums and xylophones, cymbals and gongs, timpani and marimbas, vibraphones and chimes. The percussionists, half-hidden behind their piles of assorted instruments, race from one to the next with manic bravado. During some of tonight’s performances, yet another tier of entertainment is present as well: the color guard, a brigade of sequined young men and women spinning flags and twirling rifles. 

It’s no wonder some describe drum corps as a cross between a Broadway musical and a marching-band show. This evening’s performances range from regimented, with traditional music and militaristic movement, to experimental, featuring complicated contemporary jazz or modern dance. Others refer to it as “extreme marching band,” a kind of music-infused athletic event.

Just ask Lauren Lingerfelt, a member of Jacksonville, Ala.’s Spirit. The petite 17-year-old is sitting on the sidelines for tonight’s competition because she pulled her groin during practice; she plays the contra bass, which is essentially a tuba configured so that it can be carried over the shoulder with the bell facing forward, and says “such injuries are more common that you think.”

The two contra-bass players sitting on either side of her, also suffering from various injuries, nod in agreement. But 18-year-old Alan Schmeidl adds that ultimately, all the pain, sweat and apprehension (including a grueling three-month audition process) pay off. “You’ve just got to go into it with a good mindset,” he explains. “Anyone can do it.”

Discipline, routine, sacrifice, dowdy outfits: Such things couldn’t possibly sound appealing to teenagers, who are by definition equal parts lazy and rebellious. What’s so rock’n’roll about sheet music? Who wants to behave themselves during high-school football games? Why be a “band geek” when you could be smoking cigarettes and making out behind the stadium?

Brooke Smith, the 17-year-old first-chair saxophonist in the Halls High School marching band, says she and her friends have learned to take the term “band-geek” as a compliment: “We have too much fun to worry about it.”

Now, as a rising senior, she’s looking forward to majoring in Music Education when she heads off to college next year. “I love it so much, the experience marching band has given me, that I hope to give other people that experience,” Smith says. “You learn so much. There’s the pride of doing something well, and patience, and social skills—you learn to work well with others. It teaches you leadership, too.”

This week marks the start of Halls’ band camp, which involves practicing from dawn to dusk for two weeks straight—a tall order for teens who might otherwise be hanging out at the pool or lazing in front of the tube. But Smith says she can’t wait. “Sometimes it does get hard, but after the first year you’re so excited about it that it doesn’t matter,” she says.

Tiffany Kimbro, band director of Halls Middle School, also helps lead the high school’s annual band camp. She says she enjoys watching students’ progression from beginning musicians to accomplished devotees. “It’s neat to see them get hooked on band,” she explains. Most kids, she says, get started in band as sixth-graders “because their friends are doing it, but the ones who stick with it are usually there to stay.”

Kimbro adds that the benefits of joining band extend into the classroom and beyond. For her Master’s thesis, she conducted a study comparing the academic achievements of band students versus non-band students. “The results were amazing,” she says. “Not only did band students have significantly higher GPAs, but they were also taking significantly harder classes.” She notes that band also helps students establish themselves socially—“The band kids stick together, and for a student who’s shy, that means a lot”—and increases global awareness: “Music is part of every culture in world. It’s something very basically human that students can get involved in.”

Gary Wilkes, president-elect of the Tennessee Music Education Association, says marching band’s list of social and educational benefits goes on and on: camaraderie, teamwork, athleticism…. But less obviously, participation may also function as a PR tool, raising awareness of the importance of music education in schools. “Marching band is probably one of the most visible aspects of what music education does—it’s just one arm of a very large, complex animal,” he explains. “It’s what the public sees. These bands are often playing for very large and vast audiences.” 

Which is another reason why marching bands, students and directors alike, are so dedicated to, if not obsessed with, rehearsing. Mistakes don’t stay hidden within the confines of the classroom; they’re broadcast to the public, to audiences that often include parents, peers and even, in the case of band competitions, judges.

And the teenage demographic, as former band-geek Dorian Deluca points out, isn’t always the easiest to get motivated: “You’ve got maybe a couple adults and a couple student leaders trying to organize this ragtag group of disinterested, disenfranchised teenagers.”

Sometimes, Deluca notes, even students who don’t fit in that category, who really enjoy marching band, have to act like they don’t in order to be considered “cool.” “Marching band was always the pinnacle of geekdom,” he recalls. “When I was in school, the band geeks were the least popular kids in school. Even if you loved it, you kind of had to keep it to yourself.”

In a Revenge of the Nerds -style twist, however, plenty of said “geeks” go on to apply the skills they learned in band to other musical realms—including rock’n’roll. Deluca, for instance, who played a variety of horn instruments throughout school, eventually channeled his musical aptitude into the guitar. Today, he performs frequently with both glam-rock outfit Matgo Primo and instrumental group Tommy Bateman and the Thunder Thieves.

If you took a survey of local bands, it’s more than likely that such a trend would surface—even in the least expected places. Pop-punk quartet Small Town Rivals, for instance, owes three of its four musicians’ talents to their marching-band experiences at South-Doyle High School. Guitarist Cody Veals, a former snare-drum player, says, “We were all taught very well. We know music theory, dynamics, tempo—it all clicks, and it makes playing music together a lot easier.”

But even more important, Veals says, are the non-musical skills they acquired. “The biggest thing is the mentality and the attitude. The marching band might practice five days a week, and after school, and then we’d have a football game Friday night and a band competition on Saturday. It takes discipline, and that’s one thing that helps us as a band today. We all have strong discipline levels.”

Of course, nowhere is such discipline as obvious as it is with the drum corps, whose membership is comprised of the most elite of elite student musicians. But if you look closely, beyond their stiff postures and near-flawless musicianship, the signs are there: the smile following a particularly brilliant horn solo, the nod of approval from one snare drummer to another, the closed eyes of a xylophone player who’s lost in her favorite song. Band geekdom isn’t just what they do. It’s who they are.