Drum Corps: A Community of Crazy People

by Ryan Adamsons

First of all, what is drum corps?

Ryan Adamsons: My stock answer is “marching band for crazy people,” and at the end of the day that’s actually pretty close.  Really it refers to performing arts groups that are part of Drum Corps International, which organizes competitions across the US and Canada including the world championships each year in Indianapolis.  What makes those groups different from a high school or college marching band is debated endlessly, but the fundamental thing is that each group is made up of performers who are 21 years old or younger and play brass, percussion, or color guard.  The “crazy people” part is that the top groups go on tour from roughly Memorial Day until the second Saturday in August, rehearsing or performing all day every day and driving or attempting to sleep on buses or gym floors at night.  During that time the groups are doing what any marching band is trying to do but the hours put in, the level of competition and excellence involved, and the pure endurance of working 24-7 for 3 months make it a unique experience to say the least.  Those shared experiences are what make drum corps a fairly close-knit community; once you’ve done it, you instantly have something in common with everyone who has ever marched that you can’t fully explain to someone who hasn’t.

How has the drum crops community shaped your life?

RA: First and foremost drum corps has taught me a ton of life lessons and I still learn something fundamental and new every year.  The biggest lessons were simply what it means to work hard, how to be honest with myself, and how to work effectively as part of a larger group.  As a musician and teacher, it has been invaluable as an opportunity to develop and hone my brass pedagogy.  Beyond that, I met my wife through drum corps and I live in Chicago, in part because I loved the city every time I came through on tour, so it’s been pivotal even in unintended ways.

What kinds of opportunities has drum corps given you?

RA: Well the obvious opportunities were as a performer to get to perform in front of thousands of people on a regular basis and as an educator to work with top level students and colleagues.  The rest of the opportunities are less obvious but arguably more important and that comes from the fact that it is such a close knit community full of an elite peer group.  Maybe the best example is my current professional life.  I work for Denis Wick as a Brass Studio Advisor because I have a broad base knowledge about brass accessories from the perspective of not only a performer in multiple styles, but an educator, a composer/arranger, and I even have a working knowledge of design and manufacturing.  Outside of Denis Wick, I teach the jazz program at a local high school with a friend who I met my rookie year marching with the Bluecoats.  I also run the Mentorship Program and am the Conference Production Coordinator for the Jazz Education Network along with being the Jazz Stage Manager for the Midwest Clinic.  All of those things use drastically different skill sets and are a part of different communities themselves, but I got, and more importantly made, the most of those opportunities because of my drum corps experiences and connections.

Do you have any advice for students who are interested in doing drum corps?

RA: Go to an audition camp, plain and simple.  It doesn’t matter what group (although I currently teach the Phantom Regiment, so here’s a shameless plug for them) but if you go to an audition camp you will get an idea of the experience that you can’t get anywhere else.  Most groups have their auditions in November and December and those dates can all be found online, so if you don’t have a group in mind then just go on dci.org and see what groups are closest to you.  Some people go and get hooked, like myself, and others will find out it is not for them at all which is totally fine, but the only way to do drum corps is through full engagement.  As far as brass advice for students, do the easy things well, and make pleasing sounds in time with your feet.  Lots of people show up to auditions expecting to impress with flashy technique, but as a staff member I am way more interested in if you make good sounds, if you play with good time, if that time relates to your visual responsibilities, and if you do that consistently.  Also volunteer to take out the trash, we always remember who helped take out the trash.

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