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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Blue Devils Are In It To Win It (Again)


Through a Glass Darkly

The music starts. Dozens of enormous eight-foot tall mirrors are set up in an arc formation across the field. The show starts and the guards, whom are vividly dressed in bright and abstract uniforms, run in and dance along the arc of the mirrors. As they pass along the edges, the horn line emerges from the shadows, and for a brief moment the dancing guards and horn line appear to reflect their movements off of one another in an astonishing mirror-image display.

Snapping into proper formation, the guard marches across the field, and begins their opening number. In unison, the guard and musical performers begin to collide, intertwining the musical and visual aspects of the show with astonishing precision. The members scatter themselves across the field, until returning to arc formation at the close of the show, continuously reflecting and refracting the chords and visual display. The array of brass instruments: baritones, euphoniums, and trumpets play in perfect symphony. It’s quite a site to see.

The sound is not pleasant. Unique, complex, and perfectly played, but definitely not crowd pleasing to say the least.

It’s the fourteenth of August and The Blue Devils have reached the last leg of their tour. The Colts stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, is filled to the brink with fifteen thousand parents, fans, alumni, and critics, eager to find out if The Blue Devils will win their fourteenth Drum Corps International world championship. After touring across the country all summer long, and winning first place after each show, The Blue Devils have reached their endpoint, the final show that will determine if they will keep their sought-after top spot. The air is burning with excitement, fear, and anxiety. There is so much pressure for The Blue Devils to win once again. Critics however, are eager to bring them down, hoping that the judges will notice much of the crowds distaste towards the unique cacophony of sounds that their 2010 performance reflects onto the stands.

They say it’s too unusual. They say it will never win, it’s too ahead of it’s time. They don’t know how to take it.

“Through a Glass Darkly” the title of The Blue Devils 2010 competition show, is ahead of it’s time.

Ralph Nader, currently in his third year with The Blue Devils, describes the visual intensity of the 2010 performance, “this years program is just mind blowing. Period. It has to grow onto you. You cant just watch it one time, and be like oh I think I like it because it’s different and I can’t understand it. Its just like the album City of Glass by Stan Kenton (The album in which the performance is based off of). The City of Glass is something that a lot of people didn’t like. When I first listened to it I thought it was hard to listen too, but I just love making the audience feel that uncomfortable. It’s like they’re in a movie theater, and something crazy is about to happen. Its tense, they don’t know how to react; I love that, every other drum corp you go too go out there, you play loud and they cheer. We do that too, but we also make you want to get up and leave sometimes. So we’ve got the whole package.”

With the group’s use of mirrors and avant-garde choreography, the show is produced in a way that an audience member would be able to see a constant performance going on no matter where they were placed in the stands. As the performers turn towards the mirrors, playing directly at them, the music is reflected out towards the stands, and throughout the course of the show the members themselves, and the image and sound that they reflect into the mirrors appears to become interchangeable. One can no longer separate themselves from their reflections, distorting the reality of the situation.

The audience reaction is obviously mixed. Avid cheering, confused looks, hesitant applause. No one really knows what to think, but what’s apparent is that The Blue Devils have done something that has never been done previously with other drum corps, as in a sense, they have invented a show so innovative that with every performance another dimension is added. No matter how many times one watches the show it will still appear fresh. Unlike other corps, such as their rivals, The Cavaliers, the Blue Devils do not prosper off of the satisfaction of knowing that they are a ‘crowd favorite”, instead they aim to be different, and put on a show so unique one has to watch it multiple times to even begin to comprehend the complexity of the visual and auditory display.

“Breathe, Just Breathe”

February 13, 2010. The group is early on in their rehearsal process, something that will continue on one weekend each month until April, where practice will be come mandatory every single weekend, and immediately after school resides the performers move up to Concord, where The Blue Devils are placed.

Practice, practice, practice. Every weekend no matter if one lives in Kentucky, Canada, or even Japan.

As I approach the high school in Concord in which practice is held, I am greeted by Christine Gow, a nineteen-year-old UCI sophomore who plays the euphonium. As I join her, I am immersed into her world, a world few know of, and even fewer understand; the world of competitive drum corp.

I enter the auditorium, and the cacophony of intersecting sounds coming from every which way is absolutely mind-blowing. It’s so loud you can barely even think. Everyone is trying to get in as much practice as possible during the very last minutes of their forty-five minute lunch break. I wonder if some students even used their allotted time to relax at all. With The Blue Devils everything resides on perfection, everything. This soon becomes apparent as their instruction begins.

“Try not to sit in any one’s spit” Kevin, the warm up instructor remarks. They laugh, but in all honesty, there is a sense of truth to the remark.

“Hopefully the fire alarm doesn’t go off like last time”. It’s unbelievable to think that it wouldn’t.

The musicians, lined up along the walls of the room, resemble what one would think of when they see a track or football teem. Tan, physically fit, the guys are all incredibly strong and powerful looking, while the women, in their short shorts and tank tops exude strength. This group of fifteen to twenty-two year olds fit the mold of all-star athletes.

“Okay, now think about all the things that you’ve done visually, and all the things that you have learned as you breathe. Now start to think about the music we’ve been working on.”

Calm and suspended, the performers practice their yoga breathing, first holding their breaths for ten seconds before releasing. Then increasing to fifteen. Then twenty. Everyone coughs profusely after, obviously exhausted. The hot California sun has been wearing down on them for two days now, two days that they had spent in constant motion. Practicing, marching, practicing, marching. There was no foreseeable end in sight.

With bright red faces, the musicians move on to full body stretches, exhaling as the body gets longer.

“Take in so much air that your upper body needs to rise in order to get room for that air, then slowly start to rise up.”

The stretches look perfectly choreographed. Even the “rookies” look as if they have been doing this same warm up for ages.

Next they move onto power breathing, “Not the way that you want to play your instrument, but the way that you want to prep for it.”

Absolutely everything depends on their ability to breathe effectively and simultaneously. So much energy is focused on breathing and being Zen, as in this state one can drown out the colliding noises, allowing them to focus on their instrument and their task alone.

“Okay guys, just for kicks lets do Yankee doodle, and make sure you see that there is a purpose for every breath”

The performers take a silly song and get use out of it. There is seriousness in their rendition, as even Yankee doodle has to be perfect.

Whatever Note Wants to Speak, Speak”

Mouthpieces are now out. With stunning clarity, the performers hit the highest of notes with their mouthpieces alone.

David Gibs, the Executive Director steps into place.

“Mosey back to your horns. You sound great, it’s gonna be a good Sunday to be a Blue Devil.”

Christine holds up her instrument, something she has been playing for years now, the euphonium. The horn, so shiny and long, appears to be one-third the size of her 5 foot 6 stature.

They collectively lift their instruments with extreme discipline and precision, similar to the way in which those in the ROTC lift their guns, ready for action.

“Watch your sound, AIR, focus on the AIR.”

Breathe….euphoniums…tubas…all together.

“Every notes gotta have it’s place. Okay now bring them all the way up.”

The performers begin to practice the starting pitch. “So that’s eight clicks faster than we started the weekend with, which is great.”

Looking at the exhausted faces, David finally gives the young musicians a break, and they all come together to gather for David’s pep talk.

“Okay so how many of you people are college students? With jobs? Busy?” all the hands begin to raise, “Remember that you don’t have to always have your instrument to make the performance better. Start with what is the worst. Don’t waste time on things that are easy. You need to deal with what you don’t do well first. Just take fifteen minutes a day to tackle things. We all as adults have very busy lives, so we need to take the time to schedule practice. So today we are going to give you some tips so you can tackle it at home. Key word: Focused time. That’s all it takes to make things better.”

“Make sure we maintain a constant air stream and muscle memory so we can play those patterns.”

The sound of the music drowns out all else and the performers play on until their tenth hour practicing for the day.

“Play to win. Play to win”

The members of The Blue Devils are composed of different ages, races, economic groups, and even different countries. The thing that unites them is love. Love for the music, love for the program, love for the performance.

Many misconceptions are held about drum corp. Contrary to what most think, drum corp is different than marching band.

Christine describes that, “Drum corps members like to say that it is like a professional marching band. But we don’t get paid; we pay. The main difference between marching band and us is the level of intensity of our training. Marching band and drum corps essentially do the same thing: perform field shows. But with drum corps the competition is more rigorous, the talent level is leaps and bounds greater, members and fan bases are international rather than belonging to a certain area or school, and band parents are thankfully absent.”

The standard definition for drum corps is that it is, “a summer marching music activity that utilizes brass, percussion and color guard to perform a competitive show.” The Blue Devils however are not just another drum corp, they’re the very best of the best. Created in 1970 out of a drum and bells corps, The Blue Devils currently hold the record for the most Drum Corps International World Championship titles, and have never placed out of the top five.

Drum corps has a very complex and comparative scoring system, with scores based on visual performance, visual ensemble, color guard, music brass, music ensemble, and percussion. The first performance of the day sets the standard for the rest of the corps, and that first score is what determines how much better or lesser other corps are in comparison.

As an organization, The Blue Devils sponsors three drum corps, Blue Devils “A”, “B”, and “C”, as well as winter guards, a world-class twirling program. Blue Devils “A” is the comprised of the top musicians and color guard members in the nation, consisting of one hundred and fifty members aged fifteen to twenty-two.

Not everyone has what it takes to be a Blue Devil. In fact, very few people do. It requires immense talent, harsh competition, perseverance, winning despite all odds, and dealing with hatred, jealousy, love, and admiration.

The audition process alone is highly demanding, as very few spots open up each year. Hundred of people audition, and auditions are held in Texas, Indiana, and northern California. Christine progressed out of Pacific Crest, a less renowned drum corp, and into the Blue Devils at age eighteen.

There is an enormous amount of pressure for The Blue Devils to win, as they have done so more times than any other group, setting the standard for future members that much higher.

Chris Anderson, the trumpet section leader and horn sergeant explains the pressures that they face, “Everyone thinks The Blue Devils are just good automatically because there is just so much talent in the members, and although that may be true, by no means are we good out the gate. It take a lot of work, a lot of dedication. You work from January to the beginning of August.”

These young individuals are paying to practice more than twelve hours a day, to sleep on gym floors, and to be away from their family for months at a time. As JD Rinehart, a rookie euphonium player states, “You pay a lot of money to live in some pretty harsh conditions, but the feeling of performing is indescribable.”

Helpmemarch.org is a website with the headline “where dreams come true one donation at a time.” On facebook there are several groups with Blue Devils members asking for money to help them, as member Greg March, a tuba player, yearns to have enough money to tour another year and therefore age out of the program. Helpmemarch.com is just one example of how much love people have for drum corp.

Sure, being a Blue Devil has nearly as many scarifies as it does rewards. As Christine states, “The only thing I truly dislike about the Blue Devils and drum corps in general is the chunk of time it takes me from my family and friends. My low moments usually result from this. I really start to miss home. I miss the beach, I miss my mother’s cooking, I miss California’s perfect summer weather, I miss sleeping until noon and not sweating out my body weight every day. But being a Blue Devil means absolutely everything to me. It’s everything I know, and I really don’t know what I would do without it.”

It’s nearly impossible to describe to someone not in the program just how much an impact drum corps and the people one marches with has on ones life, but the fact that these young individuals sacrifice months of their time for a little known activity speaks volumes.

“Feel the Energy”

The Blue Devils make it to the end of their “Through a Glass Darkly” performance without one single mess up, glitch, or out of tune note. They live up to the standards that David Gibbs set for them, as he sated, “I wanna feel the energy all the time. Soft and loud, pretty and aggressive. I wanna feel that energy all the way through it.”

Energy and passion intertwine, meshing together to create the most unique and precise performance imaginable.

With a score of 98.9 The Blue Devils win their fourteenth world championship, dominating over the twenty-two other competitive corps that they were up against. Tears stream down the member’s faces as they realize that they have in a sense, redefined the meaning of drum corp and all that it stands for.

Just like any other sports event however, people have their fan bases, as a chant of “BLUE DEVILS SUCK” could be faintly heard from the depths of the stands above after the announcement of their fourteenth world title.

Seven months have passed since their epic “Through a Glass Darkly” performance. The members reunite once again in Concord, California practicing every weekend until school lets out for summer. Fueled with even greater love, determination, and passion for the team than they previously thought imaginable, The Blue Devils are more than ready for the 2011 season to start.

Reporting Notes:

90 Minute interview with Christine Gow

20 Minute follow-up interview with Christine Gow

30 Minute interview with Chris Henderson

20 Minute interview with JD Rinehart

Watched two days of practice in Concord, Ca

“Through a Glass Darkly” performance video

YouTube video performances

Helpmemarch.org

Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_179500698758845&ref=ts

Bluedevils.org

http://www.middlehornleader.com/A%20Blue%20Devil%20Audition.htm

http://gaminnet.info/?p=816

Drum Corps International:

http://www.dci.org/corps/?criteria=06e68a02-d2c8-4149-ac94-14a7998caa06

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