A kid from the mountains of Montana, Nathan Connell was first exposed to the world of drum corps the way many kids were; his band director showed his percussion class videos during school. It wasn't until Nathan and his friends went to a DCI "Live in Theaters" event that his world changed. Each year, DCI broadcasts select events into movie theaters across the country, allowing people like him to experience the shows. Nathan still remembers his first time,
"This was back in 2014 so I saw Bluecoats’ Tilt and that Carolina Crown show [Out of This World] where they were throwing frisbees and bouncing on trampolines, and The Cadets had some giant stage with Abe Lincoln. I thought 'What is this madness?' and then the announcer talked about how DCI was Marching's Major League and I thought 'They're getting paid for this??'"
Unfortunately, after some research, Nathan discovered that students actually pay to spend a summer learning and touring in drum corps, so he gave up on that aspiration.
Nathan moved to Kentucky to study at Morehead State University. There, he made multiple friends who had just come off of summers on tour. He again found himself toying with the idea of marching himself, but marching for the summer would mean missing the opportunity to fly home to Montana and see his family during school break. Then, Vic Firth released their video of Blue Knight's 2015 show "Because..." Inspired this show, and all of the stars aligned in his past, he realized he wanted to be involved in the activity.
"I knew that if I did it, I could only do it for one summer and I wanted to march with Blue Knights. Their shows were something I had to be a part of."
Another percussionist from Morehead State, Joe Miller, played marimba for Blue Knights in 2016 and agreed to help Nathan prepare for his run at a spot.
"I went to a one-day audition and I was not prepared for the intensity. I was able to adapt to comments and kept a positive attitude with the staff, but there were things my hands just couldn't keep up with. I didn't think I was hanging. When they pulled me into the room at the end of the day, I was ready to get cut right there."
But he didn't. He got a callback for the December camp, and a month later, he was contracted to play keyboard for the group.
Fast forward through move-ins, learning a show, playing at high schools, performing in professional stadiums, sleeping on countless gym floors, and listening to hours of playlists on overnight bus rides across country. Fast forward through World Championship Prelims and Semis and the Finals night run, the smiles and tears of the final chord, the bitter-sweet goodbyes of friends from every corner of the country and reunited hugs from family. Fast forward to Nathan's reflection on his growth,
"It's weird because I came back home to the same practice room, but suddenly I'm hearing everything differently. When you work on the same 12 minutes for 85 days, you learn this attention to detail that's unlike anything other. I can move my mallet on my board or change my grip on the mallet and now I've completely broadened the sound palette I have to work with.
"Drum corps teaches you the importance of every single detail. You get every single part of everything you do as good as it can possibly be...because you can. It's no longer okay to not make your best sound."
Nathan also learned how to take on life differently. During tour, curveballs became expected. The showers are too cold or too hot. The equipment truck has to park 2 miles away. The practice field only has tall grass that's hard for the keyboards to roll across. Mississippi is basically liquid air and solid fire ant hills. The housing site in Texas has lava flowing out of the shower nozzles (very slight exaggeration).
"Sometimes the biggest thing you take out of a season is how to deal with all of the nonsense. Things go comedically bad, but you learn how to take it in stride. You get home and you're grateful for paper towels or being able to choose your shower temperature. It totally changes your perspective."
We share Nathan's story for the kid that has an inkling that the marching activity is for them. It doesn't matter how late you start, even a one-and-done summer can change the way you approach music and the world around you.
"The days are long and hard and hot. So maybe it isn't for everyone. But if it’s a question...if you are even remotely considering it, DO IT. I had no aspiration of teching or teaching band, but it taught me tons of musical and life skills. As a choral director, I can hear specifically what’s wrong, where the sound is coming from, and how to adjust it. I can better adapt to crazy situations. If you are doing music in any capacity, you’re gonna learn. If you can find a way to make it happen, you need give it your shot...It's not just the drum corps experience. It's everything that comes with it. One summer can change your entire perspective on music."
Nathan Connell is currently a senior at Morehead State University, pursuing a double major in Vocal Music Education and Percussion Performance.