Recently, I was asked why I spent so much time and money in my early young adult life on an experience that had literally nothing to do with my dream career. This question usually takes me by surprise for a number of reasons. For one, having meaningful experiences outside of your intended career path, especially when you are young and without truly adult responsibilities, is always worth it. You gain so much more from experiences which require you to go outside of your comfort zone than you do from staying in your own thought bubble.
I also see my drum corps experience as a large part of the reason for my successes as a bassoonist.
When I am asked this question, it's usually from someone who has not had the experience of performing in front of thousands of people over the course of a two-month tour, all while sleeping on air mattresses and a tour bus. Those of us who are both DCI alumni and pursuing degrees in music easily see the connection between the two; it's not something one can ever fully explain in a one-sentence answer--it took me almost 6 years after marching my last drum corps show to see its affects and be able to articulate it in writing.
I marched two years on the flag line (#flaglinebestline) at the Bluecoats Drum & Bugle Corps based out of Canton, OH. They are a non-profit organization who gives an unmatched experience to ~150 members every summer. When I got my member contract during Thanksgiving Break of my senior year of high school, I was elated. I did not expect to make it--I was from a comparatively small band program, had limited dance training, and I had never done anything remotely close to the audition choreography. But the staff saw something in me that I still struggle to see in myself--talent paired with a hard work ethic--and gave 17-year-old, #1-Bluecoats-Fan Brittany a contract at my first drum corps audition camp ever.
You see, I had wanted to march with the Bluecoats ever since I first saw them in 2007, when I was a mere 13 years old. Their inventiveness and persistent willingness to push the limits of possibility in the marching arts is something that has transcended their entire existence and it is this trademark that drew me to them in the first place. Going to my first audition camp, I was literally meeting my heroes--and then I became one of them. Getting that contract and signing it was my first taste of realizing a dream. That singular experience taught me dreams are absolutely achievable if you want it bad enough, if you work hard enough, and listen to the advice and tough love of your instructors (#thanksDavid). Realizing this first dream made me willing to go chase another one, and it's because of this first dream I'm only 18 months away from being Dr. Brittany Giles.
And that was just in pre-season camps.
Throughout a drum corps season, you're in rehearsal anywhere between 4 and 12 hours of the day, for three months, perfecting an 11-minute show. Averaging 8 hours a day for three months out of the summer, corps across the country allocate roughly 65 hours of rehearsal per minute of their show every summer. It doesn't always work like this in actuality, but for the color guard, almost all of those hours are spent in a block repeating and perfecting each individual beat of the show, receiving feedback from instructors on how to be more in sync with your colleagues. If this doesn't sound exactly like what a classical musician does on a daily basis, I don't know what does. Replicating the intense environment of what it feels to be productive in a practice room is one of the biggest lessons drum corps taught me. To be productive and see physical results of progress, you don't go through what you already excel at in your music; you find the problem sections and you focus on what about that section isn't working, and repeat that section until it feels good. It's said in band rooms all over the country every year to "practice until you can't get it wrong," but because of time constraints, it almost never happens in a public-school setting. Drum corps takes away those time constraints so you can actually live this mindset of "practice until you can't get it wrong," thus making every part of your day about making something better than it was the day before.
Drum corps are also constantly changing aspects of their show throughout tour as they get judges' feedback at performances. The members' reality of this is that one day your show could be one thing, and the next day you'll learn and have to perform a completely new chunk of the show at the same level of everything you've had entire weeks to perfect. In a normal, everyday setting, this idea of getting something completely new and having to perform it at a high level without tons of prep time would be viewed as insane and would cause the normal person extreme amounts of anxiety. This idea, funnily enough, is also enacted within private lessons at university schools of music almost weekly with the prescription of etudes or scales or exercises pertaining to what the student is working on in their musicality at the time.
Because of this, drum corps has taught me how to approach a completely new piece of music or experience in general with my wits about myself. The reason for the changes themselves AND the prescribed exercises are always done to make you better, not to tear you down. This positive mindset towards challenges in your path has not always been a part of me, and I definitely did not learn it in a practice room; it was something I learned while sweating on a turf football field in the middle of July in Texas.
Drum corps also made my heroes human in my perceptions of them. Not in that they couldn't live up to my expectations, but that even the people who I had watched and looked up to for over five years had things they needed to work on and perfect. Even my heroes, who I thought could do no wrong, had days where they couldn't match their performance from the day before for one reason or another. Drum corps also taught me that not being on your A-game 100% of the time is totally ok. You can bring your B-game and still have a good performance under the lights. No one is perfect, and it's ok to lean on those around you to help you get back up--it's those people who become your best friends, and subsequently your bridesmaids later in life. Drum corps taught me that you can even have a bad performance. And as long as you learn from your mistakes and work to not let them happen again, you're allowed to be human. You're allowed to make mistakes and still be the person you idolized as a kid.
So for those of you who are reading this and have never marched in DCI, I hope you can now understand why us alumni continue to go to shows and give back. Why we spent SO much money to sleep on tour buses and air mattresses, just to get some sort of shoelace around our necks. Why we continue to talk about our experiences and tell our drum corps stories as if they happened yesterday. Because to us, these lessons we learned aren’t things that go away. They apply to our careers on a daily basis, so we're reminded of them constantly.
So yeah. I’ll continue to advocate for drum corps and the marching arts, and tell my color guard AND my bassoon students to go march when they feel ready. Because drum corps made me a better bassoonist.