Drum Corps International: The Athletes Who Bridge Art and Sport

Kasey WahlCorrespondent IJune 9, 2009

As a longtime sports fan, I have always regarded "the game" almost as an art form. The technique, the hours of intense practice, honing the skills required to perform at a maximum: These are characteristics shared between athletes and artists.

Yet it seems too often that both fans and performers alike cannot draw the connections between their crafts and realize the true beauty of what they do, and why they appreciate the game or the art in the way they can.

The stereotype plays out where the "band" is ridiculed by the football team. The quarterback is never in the band room, and the painter is never in the weight room, but the musician...the musician, I have found, has become the bridge between what we consider "art" and "sport," making them one and the same.

A little-known activity with a surprisingly large and active fanbase, Drum Corps International is a competitive marching arena in which 22 world-class marching ensembles square off in over 100 events during the summer spread over 40 states.

The goal of each corps, comprised of brass instruments, percussion, and color guard, is perfectionโ€”not out of neurotic habit, but out of a necessity to be great, much like the drive of an NFL team to become Super Bowl champs.

Each corps puts on a 10-13 minute "show," which is generally a display of musicianship and body movement judged by a cast of eight specialists who critique and score a specific caption, such as music, color guard, visual, or general effect.

Much like many X-Games events or Olympic figure skating, Drum Corps International is an event in which each performance is judged one after another, the highest score at the end of the performances being the winner.

But the beauty of the activity is not so much in the system in which is it executed, but in the process by which champions become champions through the power of music and performance.

In 2005, DCI teamed up with ESPN to put on a two-hour special showcasing the 2005 summer music games World Championships at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA. In the broadcast, ESPN highlighted the physical conditioning it takes to be a contender in the marching activity.

Dr. Jeff Edwards, the chair of Physical Education and Athletic Training at Indiana State University, measured the metabolic rate of a marching member of the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps from Rosemont, IL to determine the extent of physical strain marching corps puts on the body. His results were astounding.

Dr. Edwards noted that even before the corps began their routineโ€”even before he had put his drums onโ€”the percussionist's heart rate had jumped to 180 beats per minute, which he compared to what happens to an athlete when the gun goes off.

The sympathetic area of the nervous system triggers what Dr. Edwards compares to an "adrenaline rush."

I loosely translate it as the power of performance.

But the astounding findings didn't end at the beginning. Edwards concluded that beyond the initial heart rate spike, during the performance, the percussionist's metabolic rate was 13 times that of his normal resting heart rate, to which he remarked, "The oxygen consumption is about where it would be in the middle of a marathon for a well-trained runner.

"If you looked at the heart rate, however, you would think you were looking at someone running a 400 or 800-meter dash. He's working very hard out there."

Heralded as "Marching Music's Major League," DCI is truly a unique activity-sport in which the artistic concepts of sports jump to the forefront of the activity. In fact, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young described DCI as "the ultimate team activity" after attending the 2007 DCI Stanford show with his family.

He mused that an activity where championships are won by every single member of a 150-person ensemble performing their exact assignment at their best is truly a unique and commendable experience.

Truly, an activity where the Steve Youngs of the world can find a point of relation to musicians and artists, and vice versa, is a unique and valuable experience.

If you are interested in checking out what Drum Corps is all about, the competitive season begins on June 19 with shows in Chambersburg, PA and Rockford, IL. For tickets and general information, visit their official web site at dci.org.


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