Drum Corps in Annapolis

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For nearly half a century, Labor Day weekend has meant, for drum and bugle corps fans, Drum Corps Associates, or DCA, national championships. Usually it’s in cities like Scranton or Rochester. But this year, they’re coming to Annapolis, the first time the championships have been held south of the Mason Dixon line. WYPR’s resident drum corps nut, Joel McCord, spent last weekend with his favorite corps and has this report.

Joel McCord: It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon one week before championships and the Reading Buccaneers are going over and over and over one section of their show, striving for perfection. The instructional staff is perched on a deck high above the practice field.

Tape: "That next bar you gotta move, so zida za, zida…” “Guys, careful we’re not crushing the eighth notes. They’re turning into sixteenths, almost 32nds…”

McCord: The corps, based in Reading, Pa., ran off six straight undefeated seasons until they lost by less than a point to Minnesota Brass at championships in Rochester last year.

Jim Gruber: “Yeah, we want it back, no doubt about it. We want it back.”

McCord: Jim Gruber, whom I marched with in my years in this corps, is the corps director.

Gruber: “When you got a taste of that and you experienced and you lose it, you want it back. And the membership also, they just from day one, they’re more hungry, more focused, for whatever reason, I can assume, they want the cup back, too. We’re going to do this twice. We’re going to do it once with the met, once without… all the way to the end.”

McCord: On the field, horns, drums, flags are moving through swirling patterns that line up quickly into one picture and just as quickly are gone, forming another. And all the time, the music keeps flowing. These are the weekend warriors of drum and bugle corps. They come from all walks of life; a truck driver, the police chief of tiny Emmaus, Pa., and the drum major, Andrea Gwyn, a scientist with degrees in bio chemistry and genetics.

Andrea Gwyn: “You never get drum corps out of your blood, right?

McCord: She started in drum corps in 1987, left after the 1994 season, got married and had kids and now she’s back, along with her kids, who are marching in the corps.

Gwyn: “It’s a unique activity where you have a bunch of people focused on one goal and working really hard and always striving to be the best they can be and always striving for perfection.”

McCord: Krissy McMullen is a nurse at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. And at 48, she’s the oldest marching member of the corps. Her left foot’s broken and her right leg is in a brace. She needs a knee replacement. Still, she’s out there playing mellophone because she loves the feeling you get when you put on the uniform and step onto the field.

Krissy McMullen: “You just feel like a rock star because there’s so much admiration for the corps and respect for the corps…It’s just a great feeling, it really is, standing on that field.”

McCord: You’ll hear much the same thing from anyone in the 40 corps that will be coming to Annapolis this weekend from Connecticut, Georgia, Minnesota, California and points in between. There’s even a corps from England this year. Jeff Weir, director of the Naval Academy Drum and Bugle Corps, suggested Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium two and a half years ago. Drum Corps Associates’ staff members came to town, met with tourism and stadium officials. DCA vice president Allen Buell says they liked what they saw.

Allen Buell: “They were hungry; they understand what the tourism dollar is all about. And so they not only realized it would be great to bring it here, but once we saw the stadium and the layout of the community, we thought why not.”

McCord: Connie Del Signore, of Anne Arundel County Visitors Bureau, estimates the event will pump $10 million into the local economy. Already, just about every hotel room in the county, from Annapolis to Fort Meade to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport is booked for the weekend. Eric Ruden, deputy director of the Naval Academy Athletic Association, the non profit that runs intercollegiate athletics at the academy, says this is part of the overall plan for the stadium.

Eric Ruden: “When we put about 45 million dollars in renovations to the stadium back in oh two, oh three, oh four, one of our goals was to make it more than a football stadium. And by attracting this event it meets one of our goals as being more than a football stadium.”

McCord: They even joke that they moved Navy’s opening football game to Dublin, Ireland, this year to accommodate the DCA championships.

Paul Cullen: “Guys, you came ready to rock and roll. Are you going to light this place up?” “YEAH”

McCord: Saturday night. The last show before championship preliminaries in Annapolis. Paul Cullen, Buccaneers’ chief horn instructor, is getting his charges ready. He tells them how the staff lives vicariously through them, how much they value everything the marching members go through--broken feet, broken wrists, asthma attacks—because they love this.

Cullen: “Five days left, three performances left. This is number three of the countdown. Tonight you go out there, you forget about everything else. It’s about you. Enjoy your time. See each other. Enjoy it, breathe it, feel it, embody it and put it through the instrument guys.”

McCord: They line up in twos in silence and start for the stadium gate where they’ll meet the percussion section and the color guard and set up on the field. The show goes smoothly, the crowd goes wild and the judges love it. They give the corps a 95 point one out of a possible one hundred. But the staff? Well, they’ve got more to fix. The next morning the corps is back on the practice field. Five days, two performances to go and a championship to reclaim.

I’m Joel McCord, reporting in Reading Pennsylvania and Annapolis for 88.1, WYPR.

Mini Corps performances start at 4 this afternoon. Championship preliminaries start at 2 p.m. Saturday and Championship finals begin at 5 p.m. Sunday, all of it at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. You can reach the WYPR Newsroom at newsroom@wypr.org.


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