‘Now the show is the game’

Times Staff Writer

The event takes place at the Rose Bowl, but the break is called “intermission,” not halftime. But what performing arts audience ever encounters an intermission that starts precisely on time? At 3:12 p.m.?

The reason for that, explains red-haired event publicist Diane Peasel, shielding her eyes from the baking afternoon sun, is that the groups performing can lose points for varying on either end of the 10 1/2 to 11 1/2 minutes allotted to present their show. No time for a curtain call. Besides, there’s no curtain.

Precision counts at the Drum Corps International World Championships 2007, which began Tuesday and will end today at the Rose Bowl with the main event, the Division I World Championship, at 5 p.m. This is the first time the 35-year-old organization -- traveling with more than 50 drum and bugle corps made up of close to 5,000 high school and college students from 22 U.S. states, Canada and Japan -- has brought the championships, the crowning glory of an eight-week tour, to California.


The Rose Bowl becomes a different sort of playing field when the “players” are musicians toting drums, trumpets, baritone horns and mellophones and accompanied by a color guard whose intricate moves, elaborate props and clingy leotard costumes seem borrowed less from rah-rah cheerleading than from the contemporary dance stage.

Is this music, sports or . . . what?

Both, say the leaders of the organization. Their slogan: “Now the show is the game.” They refer to the participants as “musician-athletes.” For these kids, the halftime show is a full-time gig.

Although the performers rarely aspire to concert performance careers, their ranks include many college music-education majors, says Drum Corps International Executive Director Dan Acheson. “About 49% aspire to be music educators,” Acheson explains. “A lot of school superintendents throughout the U.S. appreciate it when a person looking for a job has some drum corps experience, especially if their high school has competitive activities.”

This evening’s final event is expected to draw 30,000 spectators. Over the course of five days, a predicted 50,000 people will have cheered for the corps, including Sacramento’s Mandarins, a multicultural group that takes advantage of its roots as a Chinese American youth organization to include Chinese dragons and traditional costumes in the show; the Yokohama Scouts of Japan; the Boston Crusaders; Southwind of Lexington, Ky.; the Seattle Cascades; and last year’s Division I champions, the Cavaliers of Rosemont, Ill.

“We are used to thinking about marching bands as parade bands. This is more like a Broadway show -- although it’s more of a ‘Strictly Ballroom’ version of that, it’s a little bit odd and geeky,” says Kristen Laine, author of the new book “American Band: Music, Dreams and Coming of Age in the Heartland” and a former high school “band geek” who in her book follows an elite high school marching band, the Concord Marching Minutemen of Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind.

Laine’s Broadway analogy also works on a financial level: The nonprofit Drum Corps International’s annual operating budget is $10.5 million, about the cost of producing a Broadway show. This year’s competition is being recorded for a Sept. 5 broadcast on ESPN, and some events of the week became “Big Loud Live 4” -- which, like some recent performances of the Metropolitan Opera, was seen on a live feed in movie theaters across the country.

Unlike high school marching bands -- many of which are required to take all comers no matter how uncool -- the Drum Corps International groups represent a geek elite. It takes more than a pocket protector to join this group, says Brent Lehman, a former Concord High student and now a baritone player with the Cavaliers. Only a fraction of those who audition end up in a competing corps, practicing and performing 12 to 14 hours a day.

“Music is definitely not lost in this. It’s an art form. It’s its own thing,” says Lehman, 20, a student at Goshen College in Indiana. “There hasn’t been a point this year that I haven’t had a lot of pain -- not pain so much in your muscles but exhaustion, your heart just hurts. Instead of marching in straight lines, military-style, sometimes we’re playing while doing jazz runs across the field.”

But for the musically inclined student, it sure beats playing air guitar in your bedroom.

“It’s like living the life of a rock star,” Lehman says shyly. “You are walking out of a performance and people are asking you to sign something.” And as of one last year’s champions, he says, “When you are in the stand instead of on the field, you don’t wear anything that says ‘Cavalier’ because people pay more attention to you than the corps that’s performing. It’s a little taste of the big time.”

Diminutive Yvette Ferreira, 20, an 84-pound baritone player in Sacramento’s Mandarins -- her mom helps cook for practices and chaperones the buses -- agrees.

“It’s kind of crazy how serious it is,” she says. “You do get nervous, especially during my rookie year when our destination was Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colo. It was my first time being in a huge stadium, and for quarter-finals here I was quite nervous. But you learn from each performance, and you get a certain vibe from each performance. Before you step out onto the field, everybody is prepared.”

Victors get rings and bronze, silver or gold medals. There are also cash prizes for winning corps but not individual members. Participants pay about $2,000 per summer for room, board, meals, instruction and massive amounts of Gatorade, although some of the box-office take offsets corps expenses. Thirty cities; 15,000 miles.

The two grand, however, does not buy a rock star lifestyle: The corps members usually sleep on gymnasium floors at local schools so they can take advantage of the schools’ fields for practice. They are told to keep their valuables with them at all times, but, being kids, they don’t always comply. During their stay in Pasadena, the Pioneer corps of Milwaukee had about $7,000 worth of iPods, cellphones, DVD players and other electronics ripped off from the gym at Blair High School.

No matter what, though, they keep smiling -- even a color guard member when his or her flag or prop rifle falls to the ground in mid-twirl.

“Your heart kinds of stops for a second, but you don’t really have time to register it. You just put an even bigger smile on your face and keep going,” says Caroline Schaaf, 21, of Cincinnati, disengaging herself from a group hug at intermission. She dances with the Southwind Corps.

In the end, it’s not so much about music, or sports -- it’s about building character, says Evan Smith, 21, a mellophone player with Southwind from Knoxville, Tenn.

“There’s a strong sense of family,” he says. “It did a lot for me. In Drum Corps, I grew up from a 16-year-old boy to a 20-year-old man.”



2007 Drum Corps International World Championships

Where: Rose Bowl, 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena

When: Divisions II and III World Championships at 10:30 a.m. today; Division I World Championship at 5 p.m.

Price: $17 to $125

Contact: or Rose Bowl box office