By: Jackson Heiden
As I walk down Regent Street in Madison, Wisconsin the sounds of tenor and snare drums fill the air. College students donning red and white uniforms with furry plumes sticking out of their heads are dancing around crazily while drumming away. The dancing is an invitation to go along with everything they’re doing. We find our seats in the beloved Camp Randall Stadium, just in time for the University of Wisconsin marching band to take the field. I sit there in awe as these 150-some-odd people move around in formation and high-step simultaneously. The loud sounds of brass and percussion hit my chest as it fills the stadium. Little did fourth grade me know that the activity I just witnessed, was the first day of the rest of my life. I was hooked.
I vividly remember the sights and sounds of the round black drums that wrapped halfway around the marching band member’s waist. I asked if I could try out for percussion. The instructor asked me to do one type of rhythm with my right hand while doing another with my left hand and something with my right foot. I failed. I then asked if I could try the “slidey thingy.” Before I knew it, I was fitted for my instrument and the first day of the rest of my life began.
During my years of middle school band, my director would occasionally talk about how well the marching band was doing at the time. I was heavily invested as I couldn’t wait until I was a part of the marching band. I remember the early mornings of my mom driving me to school and seeing signs at the grocery stores throughout town displaying, “Good luck at state marching band!” on their advertisement boards. I’d occasionally think, “I can’t wait for my chance to perform at Ford Field.”
Before I knew it, I was getting dropped off at this rustic-looking band camp in the middle of the woods and spending a week with the rest of the band learning our show. I was scared about leaving home for a week as I had never been away from home that long before. I would quickly grow comfortable, meeting new people and friends that I would keep for the many years to come. What was yet to come was the long days of being stuck on a football field in the middle of the dog days of summer. This would be my summer routine for the next four years.
About halfway through my first year of marching band, a couple of friends and I were sitting around watching professional marching bands that were filled with brass, percussion, and color guard. They were loud, unique, and interesting. I would later come to find out that these bands were called drum and bugle corps, also known as Drum Corps International (DCI) – a drum corps that doesn’t allow any woodwind instruments.
The discovery of DCI quickly became my new dream and goal for my young music career. I talked about it with my former director and the current director at the time. One would go on to be extremely supportive of the idea (as he did a year of DCI) and the other told me that I wasn’t good enough and that there was no way I’d ever be contracted to march and play with this group. However, my work ethic and determination were only fueled by the words of doubt.
Fast forward to the summer going into my junior year, I decided to pull the trigger and sign up to audition for Legends Drum and Bugle Corps out of Kalamazoo. When I received my audition music, I knew there was a lot of work to be done. I would start taking private lessons once a week and that would forever change my musical career. After a month, I still wasn’t the best at what I was doing, but it was a lot farther than I ever thought I’d be. Walking into the first camp all I was hoping for was a call-back, and that is what I received. I knew what I had to work on but only had a month to learn and improve.
Going into the next camp it was either get cut or get contracted, and I was offered a contract. The opportunity was life-changing, as I would go on to be a part of an amazing drum corps. I met a bunch of new people from all over the state and country – my seat partner was from California! I would go on to spend the entire summer sleeping on gym floors, touring the country on coach buses, and ultimately make new best friends. Even though we’ve all been out of DCI for a little over two years now and we all live on different sides of the state, whenever we get the chance to see each other we pick right back up where we left off and don’t miss a beat.
During the final weeks of the season, things would get busier and crazier. We had a big stretch of about 10 shows in two weeks. During that time, we traveled through four different states with three stretches of nights where we had back-to-back shows. The corps turned on a switch and we were closing in on the gap that the second place drum corps had created. We were grinding like no other corps. Every morning we would start with stretching, and I eventually would meet my current girlfriend (who helped with the overwhelming moments) through our stretching routines.
Following our stretch of 10 shows in two weeks, we traveled to Marion, Indiana at the Open Class Championship. After the first round (prelims) we found ourselves behind second place by a few tenths of a point (which, in the marching band world, is a big gap). I didn’t have the greatest show as the whole day of rehearsal leading up to that I became very sick to the point it was hard for me to rehearse. The next day was finals night, and it was fair to say that most of us had thought we had third place locked and we weren’t expecting second – at least I wasn’t. We would enter the field, under the lights of Wildcat Stadium, and have the absolute best show of our lives. As the top-12 open-class drum corps waited for the final results, we stood with anticipation to hear what we were going to place. My corps would go on to make the finals night jump and took second place by a couple of hundredths of a point.
After the season was all said and done, I entered my senior year of high school. This is the time when I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. My first drum corps season had inspired me to teach music, so that’s what I was dead set on. At the same time, I wanted to be a sportscaster as I am a sports nerd. I knew sports information that a lot of people didn’t know. Ultimately, I chose music education. I auditioned for the Grand Rapids Community College’s music program on tuba and got in.
COVID-19 put a pause on my drum corps career as I was contracted to march another season. This would open a way to get a head start on my teaching experience as I was prepared to go into GRCC. I came on as the assistant brass caption head for the Kent City High School marching band. I would learn from my tuba section leader that I marched with at Legends on how to run brass sectionals and what to listen for. I learned the type of musical warmups to run, how to get the students mentally prepared for everything, and most importantly, what not to do, so I could keep them engaged and wanting to come back for more. Little did I know I was being trained to be able to take over the brass caption head position.
I was asked to take over the brass reigns at the high school I taught at – I was officially the brass caption head. The band I taught was the reigning state champion and the director is my girlfriend’s father. I respect everything that he has built, but being handed the reins for his brass was very nerve-racking for me. I knew from being the former assistant that I was not a good teacher whatsoever. Some of the kids that I taught let me know about it. I knew I had to change my teaching style as I wanted to make rehearsals fun for the kids. I didn’t want the kids to lose interest and hate high school band as I did during my last two years of high school marching band. It took until the end of band camp to get comfortable with my new role. I wasn’t nearly as hard on them as I was the year prior, and the kids seemed to be appreciative of that. With the school year looming, the brass and I would start to click, and we would take big musical jumps and become what we felt as unstoppable. I grew a bond with the kids that I had no idea was possible.
I have been on countless teams, and occasionally, I had a coach that would become teary-eyed about his team and how proud we made them. This never made sense to me since I didn’t believe our groups were that good to become emotional. Little did I know, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose: being able to see the growth of the kids you teach from the beginning of the year until the end of state finals and building a bond with them made me more proud than winning the state championship. I became the coach I aspired to be by giving my kids that feeling that I once had when I began band, and that was more important than any medal we could’ve received.