Monday, July 28, 2014

The Intoxicating Aroma Called Drum Corps

DCI Atlanta has come and gone. For those of us in the most southern parts of the United States, it’s the only chance we get to see live drum corps without a significant amount of expense and travel. For those of us in Florida, we long for the days when DCI finals was in our back yard of Orlando. We miss shows that use to be in Clearwater, Daytona, and Miami. The times have changed, though. For most of us down here in the alligator swamp land, we only get the one show in Atlanta. We get the corps as they are starting the finishing touches headed into the push for Indy. By the time we see the shows live, we have already watched them on our computers and the big screen. Nothing is truly “shocking” by the time you get to the last weekend in July. 

Saturday night as I sat in the Georgia Dome, a place I’ve watched my share of the marching arts, between BOA and DCI (and in one exciting instance the SEC Championship), it occurred to me that it had been four years since I had seen a live DCI event. It wasn’t out of a lack of interest, but a weekend that unfortunately falls traditionally on a busy work week for me. This year, I made the decision back in May that I would go to Atlanta and figure all the work stuff out later. I’m not sure I went because of a thirst for live drum corps, as much as it was the thirst to see old friends. Regardless of the reason, I went. 

Seeing old friends all along the journey from the moment I checked into the hotel, to the first cocktail among the randomness of the activity, and even at a gas station in the middle of nowhere Georgia at 11 at night, made the reason I attended immediately apparent.  Before I even made it inside the dome I was having a true drum corps experience. To me though, it wasn't very different than a weekend at WGI or BOA. Friends, cocktails, laughs, and memories make up any one of our many activities of pageantry. It wasn’t until I stepped on to the big escalator heading down to the entrance of the Georgia Dome when I got my first scent of drum corps. It was sun screen. It was the smell of sunscreen. The escalator was packed full of people and somewhere in the midst of the eager drum corps fans I got a whiff of sunscreen. Living in Florida this isn’t a scent unfamiliar to me, but there was something about that smell of coconut that brought my senses to life. Research has shown that smell is the most significant memory trigger out of all five of the senses. In an instance, I was transported back to summer days on a practice field in the middle of some no name town in the midwest. I was 20 again and I could taste the smell of drum corps. The smell of drum corps woke me up to a journey I made a lifetime ago.

All of a sudden, all around me were people wearing drum corps jackets in 95 degree heat…a tradition I never could understand, but none the less, there it was. There were people in tee shirts representing drum corps of days long ago. Drum Corps I had never heard of were still being represented. There were the hordes of marching band kids standing with the band moms, having just finished a week of band camp. There were the girls who follow the Cavalier boys around and there were the old timers in heated debates trying to make sense of an activity that has left them behind. After four years of being gone, it was clear that nothing had changed. As I approached my seat in the dome, I felt alive again. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t in quite some time. I watched corps after corps, having strong opinions about what was occurring on the field below. I would turn to friends between corps and debate what we saw. No one ever agreed with each other.

"I loved that. Did you see that moment when...?"
"Girl please. It was trite." 

Even the debates had been stalled in time. 

It wasn’t’ until a shot on the Jumbotron above showed a guard member performing her heart out. Her face was sweating and her eyes had a look that drew me in to a world that was once mine. Her eyes were sunburned right below the line to wear she clearly wore sun glasses. It was that red burn mark that you get when you consistently forget to put sunscreen on. It was the mark of a summer spent rehearsing in places like Lisbon, Iowa and Elko, Nevada; places no person in their right mind would ever go to on their own. Her eyes brought me back. It was intoxicating. It was visceral.

For a moment in time, she was me. Twenty some odd years have gone by and I could still feel the soul of the performance. I could feel her. I could feel the adrenaline that raced through her body and the thrill of performance. My pulse raised with her and for a brief moment we were one. The performer and audience member became one as if time had stood still like a caricature of the never changing times called drum corps. I realized then that the shows might evolve (thank God) and the criteria they are judged against might change, but the activity remains just an amalgam of all of us who stood on that field with a painful sunburn.  Fans still bought their favorite corps tee shirt. People still rose to their feet when they witnessed something incredible and the crowd roared when their faces got blown off by a wall of sound. 

Nothing had changed. 

Later in the bar, there were complaints about the judges and the old curmudgeons grappled with shows that just seemed a bit too “artsy.” For me? I just drank my cocktail. Things hadn’t changed, because the cocktail conversation was still just a part of the culture as the corps were and the cocktails were still the same. Drum Corps was still the same. We were still the same. The passage of time might have changed what we see, but it hasn’t changed who we are and for that I’ll be back.

When I got home, I went into the garage and took out something that had been in a box for twenty years. I opened the box and removed my old corps jacket that had been folded neatly with my memories from so long ago and placed in the past. I held it up, with my name embroidered on one side and “colorguard” embroidered on the other and I took a deep breath. With the touch of the jacket and the fragrance of old times, it was 1990 again. I could smell the bus fumes and years spent passing through no name towns. I remembered friendships formed in the battle of victory and defeat and could taste the bad food and feel the long hot summer days. Mostly though, I could smell the sunscreen and thought about that young performer on the field Saturday night as she pushes through to the end and hoped she could feel the echos of the past through an old drum corps guard girl sitting in the stands enjoying the moment with her.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Exit Stage Right

"Time is a companion that goes with us on a journey. It reminds us to cherish each moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived."

Anyone who has ever met me, known me for longer than 8 minutes, or followed me on Facebook knows that I have two Hollywood heroes (so to speak). The first is Winnie the Pooh. I've loved Pooh ever since I was a child. I loved the movies, his sweet voice, his animal friends, and his gentle nature. When I was taking a basic psych course in college, part of the curriculum was to read, "The Tao of Pooh." It was my first introduction to Eastern philosophy and in one book, took Pooh from the childhood Disney(ized) two dimensional character, to a wise shaman guiding my journey through life. The ultimate goal, according to Pooh, is to live life on a daily basis without concerning yourself with the past or living for the future. Live for today and all your worries will take care of themselves. Pooh also believed in friendship. He valued the trust that comes with friendship. He knew that there is no life without the friends around you to build you up and help you out. It seems silly, but the symbol of Pooh means more to me than a yellow stuffed animal with a red shirt. 

My second Hollywood hero is Jean Luc Picard from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," who is probably one of the wisest, most complex, and well acted characters in television history. Right about the time Pooh became my guiding spirit, Jean Luc Picard entered our lives with the return of Star Trek. Anyone who is considered a Trekkie will tell you that Star Trek is based on Eastern philosophy. The series is an embodiment of a world where people seek nothing in life, but to better themselves through the foundation of knowledge and to live for the betterment of society.  It was inevitable that I would eventually start to see life that way. With Pooh guiding the present and Jean Luc guiding a future utopia, I transitioned from child to grown up. 

Last year I attended my 25th high school reunion. As everyone else does who participates in this middle aged rite of passage, I did a little soul searching. On the drive from Florida to Tennessee, I thought about my 25 years since high school. I thought about a hard earned career that was starting to finally take off. I thought of the people that had come into my life. The friends. The lifelong soul mates. I thought about the adversaries and unintended enemies. I thought about adventures. I thought about the people I had lost and mistakes I had made. Mostly though, I thought about the pageantry arts. A career that started when I was 14 and took me on a journey few would understand or even believe. 

When I look back on 30 years spanning hot days on a football field and long nights in a gym, I can't help but think that our activity as sprinkled with a hint of Pooh and a twist of Picard. People living for the day, striving for perfection, seeking to find answers in music and dance, and friendships born from struggle and defeat. It is a life I have wanted to live ever since the first day I stepped on a practice field with flute in hand. 

To me, life is meant to be lived. It is meant to be explored. Humans should be challenged and pushed beyond their comfort zones. It was the world that made sense to me when I would be confused about what "normal" people did on the weekends. While standing around on Monday morning at the water cooler, my co-workers would regale me in their weekend tales of dinners at Cracker Barrel, the pride in the work they did around the house, or the family staycation. They would then turn to me standing silent and ask, "So Shelba, what did you do this weekend," all while I was still wondering how in the world a person lives a "normal life. 

"Ummmm...well...I did that guard thing I do." Not disclosing that I flew to some exotic location such as Springfield, Mo on Friday night, to judge a show all day Saturday, to fly back ass early Sunday morning, just to get into my car and drive to rehearsal in Orlando. To me, as crazy as it sounds, with the exhaustion, stress, and guilt...THAT is living. 

In my time in the activity, I have met some of the most interesting, creative, and intelligent people on earth. For a while, I believed that no one would ever replace that level of three dimensional interaction. These people are brilliant artists. Sometimes confused. Frequently broke and oftentimes tortured. There are many people in the activity who, just like all other forms of art, repair their souls and find their voice in a medium not understood by many. The torture at times plays out on the football fields and in the gyms around the country. I have seen arguments, fights, interventions, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, marital affairs and other insecurities take the stage in the form of pageantry with flag in hand and music as the backdrop.

This is not an activity for the faint of heart. It is a watered down version of the Hollywood tales that play in an A&E Biography. I have seen "isms" that I'm not happy about. Jealousy and envy rears its head more than it should, but those emotions are real, and as much as we would like to pretend that we are "above" the actions of mainstream society, we are not. We have biases that stay hidden under the table, that are only talked about late at night over a glass of wine with our closest friends. 

With all of are faults and all of our craziness however, we are what we are and what we are is still a group of people living for the day, striving for a better world. A more colorful world. The pageantry arts is life. It is the embodiment of what life should be. Life should be a rainbow of emotions without fear of expression and fear of mistakes. It is the very essence of competition and the arts. 

It is time though, for me to live up to the bargain I made with my soul when I entered into this world. Life is meant to change and there are many of us in this activity who hide in it and for me, the comfort zone has become too comfortable. As Captain Picard once said, "Buried deep within you, beneath all the years of pain and anger, there is something that has never been nurtured: the potential to make yourself a better man. ant that is what it is to be human. To make yourself more than you are. Oh yes, I know you. There was a time you looked at the stars and dreamed of what might be." 

In the thirty years of doing this activity, I have been a performer, instructor, director, board member, and judge. I've done it. I've seen it. I've lived it. It's time however, to see what the next 30 years can bring. How can I take all that I learned in this activity and use it for a life I can barely imagine right now?  I realized recently that I have a voice and am not afraid to use it for the causes I hold dear. I realized that I'm stronger than I could have ever hoped to be and I know I'll need that in the fight for a peaceful world. I realized that fear is not something that haunts me, but pushes me. I realized that the good I can do in the world can extend beyond the confines of a gym and a flag. I can be anything I want to be and you know what...It was the pageantry arts that taught all of this to me. That is its greatest gift.  So I say goodbye to the guards I taught and I say goodbye to a past that taught me what passion really means. I thank every single person who sat in a gym with me and the late nights of laughing over ridiculous show ideas that would never come to fruition. I thank you all for the cocktails and conversation. I thank you for the life lessons! I say goodbye to listening to music for the sake of an idea, but say hello to music that doesn't necessarily have to be spun to. I leave on the table show ideas that I will never see come to life and counts for others to clean. I take one last look around, turn out the lights, close the door, and hopefully I leave it a little better than when I entered. 

Oh I'll still be around. I'll still find my way to a tape recorder now and then. I'll enjoy a cocktail or five while sitting in the bar waiting for my friends to finish up with retreat. I'll still board the plane to Dayton and when it's over, will leave hungover with bloodshot eyes. It's time however, for the gym door to close and the counts to cease. I wouldn't underestimate me, though. You never know where I'll pop up. If this activity taught me one thing, it was that you never quit and you keep striving to be the best you, you can be and that my friend will happen until the day I die. 

To close, I would like to draw from and out right steal the words of Captain Picard:

"So, five-card stud, nothing wild. And the sky's the limit."

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

From Performer to Performer: Stop Whining!

In my short guard career, as a performer, I have come to accept that there is always good with the bad. Thankfully, I was given the chance to march with Paradigm this past season and we had a phenomenal season. As with every colorguard however, we had our share of issues and struggles. I have been on both ends of the spectrum serving as both a performer for an independent team and an instructor for a high school guard simultaneously, and both have their share of headaches. This post is being written in the hopes that maybe it can alleviate problems for both members and staff.

First things first, whether it be independent or high school, if you commit to it, nothing about it is optional. Nothing! Synchronization can only be achieved by countless hours of cleaning and repeating so that training styles match and that can only be achieved if everyone is present. Competitions are the whole purpose for rehearsals, so if you somehow manage to miss those, you've wasted a lot of time for performers and staff. We all know emergencies arise, and when it is a true emergency, we can all relate and understand, but missing a rehearsal because you forgot you had class or work on a rehearsal the day of is not considered an emergency, it's a careless mistake. Learn to plan ahead!!!

Secondly, along with your responsibility to be present, be on time! For high school kids, that means getting there fifteen minutes early and making sure you're prepared for practice. For the independent performers, we have all known the struggle of pulling a floor and setting up with less than everyone present. As a team, everyone should be present to help. One of the things guard should be teaching all of us, is what teamwork is all about and being a team, means not just working on the show, but working together on the not so fun stuff as well.

Also, missing stretch makes you more likely to get injured at rehearsal. No one needs that headache! So, be proactive with your time. Stretch is also the time when everyone should come together to get focused and mentally ready for the day.

Third, realize that unless you have forty other members on the floor with you, your attitude will  affect the staff and your teammates as well. You can literally suck the life out of your fellow teammates and not realize you're doing it. I've had the chance of working with several different kinds of people over the years and I have had a real appreciation for those who were going through struggles and still managed to smile during through the pain. We all know injuries can be painful, but you cannot let it defeat you otherwise it will defeat everyone else around you as well. Which leads me to my next point:

Make smart decisions while away from rehearsals and shows. I know I am guilty of failing to exercise everyday and always eat right, but roller skating the night before a show isn't exactly the best idea! Take care of soreness as best as you can in between rehearsals and treat your body like an athlete would, because that's what we are...ATHLETES.

Do us all a favor and don't simply join because you want your name on the back of a shirt. If you're there and you're paying money to work your butt off, WORK YOUR BUTT OFF! Don't be that person that gets called out all of the time for giving half the effort at rehearsals and all your effort in performances. Try to be consistent in energy, performance and technical training so that it is easier to get into character for shows.

Lastly, while working your butt off, you may find that things are not so easy. Progress and perfection is never easy. Realize that nothing in life is ever easy, but remember that you've already started something, so why not make it worth it and achieve what you're pushing for? After all, there are other people around you doing the exact same thing, help them by helping yourself!