When I was a teeny tiny little girl growing up in Rockford, Illinois, I remember being assigned to “play” the sticks in kindergarten. They looked like orange pieces of wooden rebar. I was heartbroken. The sticks were, well, sticks. Dull. Thunk, thunk, thunk. I wanted to play the triangle. It made a better, prettier, more interesting sound.
I got the sticks again in first, second and third grade at St. Bernadette’s. (What was it about me and the sticks?) I didn’t understand it then. I understand it now. Banging those sticks prepared me for playing the cymbals in the Bridgemen Alumni Drum and Bugle Corps decades later.
I was first exposed to drum corps at about the same time. I was four years old. It was the Fourth of July and the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps was playing its annual show at Boylan High School in Rockford. I was mesmerized. That wall of music coming straight for me thrilled me. My sister cried through the whole thing. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be on the field performing someday.
I took up the clarinet in the fourth grade at Myers Elementary in Grand Blanc, Michigan. I didn’t think much about what I wanted to play. The clarinet was just…available. It had been my aunt’s decades earlier. I eventually picked up my mom’s old tenor saxophone in high school and loved playing in the jazz band at Grand Blanc High. Later, after we moved to Saginaw Township, I marched with the sax but played bassoon in concert band. It never crossed my mind to join the percussion section. Not in a million years. I didn’t understand drummers or their complicated techniques. Their music looks strange. I can’t do fractions very well beyond 1/2, 1/4, 3/4. Percussion demands much better.
I briefly dated a guy from the Saginaires Drum and Bugle Corps — a horn player — when we lived in Saginaw. I was excited about possibly joining until my mother threw cold water on that idea. She allowed my brothers to join their cadet corps and I was, again, heartbroken.
My family eventually moved back to Rockford, without me. I stayed in Michigan because I was in college. I also really didn’t want to leave my adopted home state. My brother Tom joined the Phantom Regiment as a cymbal player. Later, my brother Michael joined as a soprano player. They had a blast. My mom went on tour with them one summer. I was envious.
Fast forward to many, many years later. I lived in New York City. Michael moved to Weehawken, NJ and joined the Bridgemen Alumni Drum and Bugle Corps. He had a great time during his first season playing cymbals and urged me to join the following year. I dismissed the idea. I was too busy.
But when he brought it up again, I thought it would be a great way to spend more time with him and to carry on the family tradition of cymbal playing in drum corps. It also would reunite me with one of my greatest joys: playing music in an ensemble. Michael switched to bass drum this season.
I joined the Bridgemen in November 2015, nervous as ever, as I hadn’t played, let alone read music in many years. It took my brain awhile to adjust to counting the notes again. It took longer to assimilate into the drumline. I had terrible trouble crashing my cymbals at the appropriate time. I had difficulty memorizing the music. I was used to playing a melody, not just randomly crashing two pieces of metal together. There was no music when we had sectionals. Just counting and crashing and somehow having it sync up. It never made sense to me until about April. I’ve never been that great at counting…but counting is job #1 in the percussion section. And when you make a mistake everybody hears it.
Famed drummer, drum instructor, drum corps guru Dennis DeLucia is our section’s instructor. He explained he had taught a percussion class to non-percussionists and he understood where I was coming from. He took time to pull our cymbal section aside one day to work on the finer points of cymbal playing. I learned more in that 20 minutes than I had in all the previous months of practicing.
Playing the cymbals is not all smash and crash, folks. We sizzle, we ring, we crash, we scrape, we chick, we choke. (I’ve got bruises in the strangest places). I’ve joked that I’ve enjoyed “crashing the hell out of the damn things” after a rough week at work. But if you’re playing the cymbals properly, you’re doing just the opposite of that. There’s technique. There’s finesse. It’s something I work on every time I pick them up.
I’ve got the music mostly memorized. I see the sheet music in my mind’s eye as I’m playing and maneuvering. I still mess up. Dennis reminds me “cymbals, you all gotta play together! When one of you crashes when you’re not supposed to, the whole thing sounds bad.” Fellow cymbal player George Hunt calls me “up beat” because that’s sometimes how much I’m off (it’s that darn fractions thing). I’ve been practicing a lot lately, though, to clean that up.
I’ve had a bit of a growing process into the drum corps culture. It’s like a fraternity. It’s like a family. I’ve made some great friends and I feel joy every time I crash my cymbals and help the bigger group make beautiful music. Talk about living in the moment!
This is the Bridgemen’s final season. We wrap a storied 51-year history with a performance on the biggest stage of all: at the DCI World Championships semi-finals on August 13 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Bridgemen organization will continue with other various smaller incarnations, but the drum corps will no longer be after August. It saddens me. I regret I got in on the fun so late. There are other alumni corps in the area. I’ll decide later if I will join. I’m really leaning toward it. As I said, the joy I feel when I play music is unmatched by almost everything. Anyone who plays music understands this.
I never even knew alumni corps existed until last year. I’d have joined so much sooner had I been aware. It’s so fun to be a part of something so much bigger than myself and to know I’m making a contribution. I have to thank the Bridgemen for allowing this drum corps rookie to be a part of their organization. It’s been a real honor…and a whole lot of fun…and an experience I will never, ever forget.
***Final performance is at DCI Semi-finals at Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.