Company Front – Issue 3
Drum Corps: Through Triumph and Regret
In doing research and interviews for my book, Not for the Fain of Heart: My Journey to Manhood in the Santa Clara Vanguard, I made a surprising discovery about the lives of drum corps alumni and the drum corps experience. My research focused mostly on my years in the Santa Clara Vanguard drumline but encompassed interviews with individuals in other sections and from other Corps and eras. What was most striking about these interviews was the passion each member had for their experience, good and bad. My marching career, like many, was filled with prominent ups and downs. I was lucky enough to end my marching career on a high note and leave with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and awe.
There were others I found, who did not have the pleasure of leaving drum corps on a high note and harbored powerful feelings. The psychological effects of the drum corps experience on its participants undoubtedly defines a great portion of each member’s self-image in an enduring and profound manner. This reality became the most common thread among the individuals I interviewed and illuminated the meaningful ways in which the drum corps activity endures in the hearts of its competitors. As you will see, the feelings are intense whether the experience was good or bad.
I conducted several interviews with people for whom drum corps had shaped their entire lives in a positive manner. These enjoyable interviews were pleasurable and individuals were forthcoming of how drum corps created their confidence and gave them their zeal for music, hard work, and accomplishment. “Without drum corps, I don’t know who I would be today,” was the theme of these interviews and each person spoke reverently of what their drum corps career did for them and their lives. For many of these people, thoughts of their drum corps days left them melancholy and provided such an enduring sense of pride that not a day goes by when they don’t think of their time in drum corps and draw upon that period for strength. These were the people that I identified with as I sat writing my book in my office, a room that is a working shrine to the Santa Clara Vanguard.
There were others though, that for various reasons left without the glory many experience. These interviews were tense, passionate, and I found myself playing the role of a therapist dealing with shame and trauma. Of these members, some had particularly difficult seasons for one reason or another and some were dismissed before their time.
Julie, a veteran member of a top corps, was cut in June of her age-out season in spite of her best efforts to fix enduring problems with her skill level. After this event, Julie disappeared for over eight years. After resurfacing, she maintained a certain air of anonymity, opening herself only to people she trusted. I spoke with her about what had occurred and she expressed feelings so intense it became obvious that being cut from the corps was the greatest disappointment of her life. In the years since the incident she experienced shame, helplessness, guilt, and even nightmares about the event surrounding her dismissal. Julie was plagued by misgivings, low self-esteem, and regret.
Other members I interviewed who were let go early expressed similar grief and psychological turmoil over their memories. One woman I interviewed had such a terrible experience she wouldn’t allow her toddler to wear the colors of the Corps in which she had marched, an extreme example of the very real effects of psychological turmoil.
One interviewee who had struggled in his first and only year with the corps, and who left before his age out year said, “The corps was the greatest thing I ever did. I left early because I was burned out from my first year. Now I look back and see how stupid I was to leave. I did something great, very poorly. It’s too late to go back, and I think of that every day. I count the ways I could have been a better member. That shame lives in me.”
These interviews were so intriguing that I began to search out people I knew who had left drum corps in undesirable ways. Each of these interviews shared anger, regret, trauma and a wish to be given the opportunity to do drum corps again. One veteran who was asked not to return to his corps told me, “I just wish there were some way I could go back and do everything differently. It hurts so bad. I know I could do it, but I feel so helpless because going back is impossible and I will always be the one asked not to come back.”
Much has been written about the positive aspects of drum corps, but what has been so myopically glossed over has been the story of struggle associated with drum corps. Every drum corps alumnus knows that the great times are born of the hard times. Every single member experiences remarkable frustration at some point in their drum corps career. Because the drum corps experience is so intense, if these frustrations are not resolved when a member leaves their corps, feelings of regret, shame, and self-doubt can be carried on for years after a member has left drum corps.
Drum corps occurs during the most formative time in adolescence. It is this time that begins to define our adult lives. A traumatic experience during this growth period, or one of great personal triumph, defines an individual’s self-concept and sets the stage for the rest of a person’s adult life. Drum corps also pushes people to the very limit of their physical and psychological capabilities, therein revealing every characteristic of one’s personality. It is how a person handles these trials that dictate their success or ultimate self-perceived failure as a drum corps member.
These experiences are what make drum corps as momentous an activity as it is for the people who participate. In my research I came to the conclusion that drum corps is terribly underrated as an elite sport and art form. Those who have been a part of drum corps are affected by their experience for the rest of their lives. Some who were traumatized never get over their shame; others who were successful live with an enduring sense of pride that even if they accomplished nothing else in their lives, they still marched drum corps and could die satisfied. Either way, the experience of drum corps is influential, deeply meaningful, and has a remarkable effect on the development of a person’s self-concept. I can say without hesitation that my experience in Vanguard shaped me into the man I am today. Without this defining experience I would not have the determination, intestinal fortitude, or work ethic I possess.
In closing, I would be remiss to not urge those teaching in the drum corps activity to be keenly aware of the pressure experienced by the members under their supervision. The members are under enormous pressure to succeed and every individual has a different tolerance level for stress. Where one member may thrive on a boot camp approach to rehearsal, another may become alienated and lose their will to succeed. Each person who has been through the activity knows that it has its casualties. As we teach, counsel, work with, and mentor corps or high performance bands, we must remember the casualties we knew when we marched and ensure that we enrich the lives of our students. While teaching our respective groups, we must keep in mind the perspective that the struggling student of today may become the Gail Royer of tomorrow.
Company Front is a regular series of articles and essays, written by a group of young authors that have published books related to the marching arts. You’ll find all of the issues of Company Front by clicking here.
Jeremey "Spike" Van Wert is the author of Not for the Faint of Heart: My journey into manhood in the Santa Clara Vanguard and will be approaching his contributions to Company Front from the perspective of the psychological experience of growth in drum corps and its lasting influence on the lives of its competitors. He is currently a graduate student, studying Marriage and Family Therapy. The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author, who may be reached by writing to jvanwert [at] drumcorpsplanet [dot] com?subject=Regarding%20your%20Company%20Front%20column%20on%20DCP