The sleep-in summer crowd need not apply.
Nor the untalented. Nor the homesick. Summer may be a break from school, bit it’s big league time for marching music.
“We moved up here May 20, and ever since we've been rehearsing about 14 hours a day, drill and rehearsal for our show,” said rising Fort Mill High School senior Thomas Fitzpatrick, a color guard member this summer with Carolina Crown.
“I'm just excited to perform. That's why I signed up to do this.”
Fort Mill-based Carolina Crown ranks among the best marching bands in the world. About 500 people tried out for the 36 color guard spots, so Fitzpatrick isn’t complaining about the 7:30 a.m. wakeup to midnight lights out schedule. He has nearly 30 cities to visit.
Even as strong as Fort Mill and Nation Ford high school bands are, with dozens of state championships and both parade and concert appearances between them, drum corps units like Crown are a step up in class.
“This isn't something that your parents can just force you to be in,” Fitzpatrick said. “All the people that put drum corps together, we’re spending all day every day together doing this. You really get to know each other. You create a bond that you can't necessarily get at the high school level.”
Crown and the high school programs are no strangers.
“The partnership we have with Carolina Crown is awesome for both groups,” said Martin Dickey, band director at Nation Ford. “Over the years I have had several students perform with Carolina Crown.”
Crown has worked and played with high school musicians in the past. The group helps fundraise for trips. All while earning top scores of its own nationally, including a Division II national championship in 1993 and world championship in 2013. Crown finished third last summer.
Dickey said comparing bands to sports teams is one way of illustrating how fortunate high school bands here are.
“It would be similar to our sports teams having a professional sports team in our community,” he said. “We have the opportunity to collaborate with their staff, share ideas, utilize equipment and have their staff and performers do clinics with our students.”
Ann Bitter has a daughter, MacKenzie, who graduated Fort Mill High last year. Ann Bitter raves about Crown, from musicianship to fundraising for faraway band trips. But Crown isn’t the only band marching.
“It goes beyond Crown,” she said. “This whole drum corps season is a big deal in the music community. It's like the Super Bowl of music.”
MacKenzie will march for the second time this summer with the Troopers out of Casper, Wyo. That band has people from as far away as Japan and, to them, Fort Mill. Like similar units it has about 150 performers. Drum Corps International, the “major league” of marching music, lists 16 world class and 24 open class bands.
“It's kind of hard to explain drum corps to people who aren't part of drum corps,” Bitter said. “It's kind of siloed to people who really enjoy their music.”
Last year, the Troopers traveled 15,000 miles for summer shows. Players audition, then have spring training before setting out on a professional level schedule.
“They sleep on buses,” Bitter said. “They perform every night or every other night, they sleep on buses while their drivers drive them through the night to their next event.”
MacKenzie is no stranger to a crowd, having marched last fall with the Clemson University band during the national championship run for the football team there. Ann Bitter hopes to catch her daughter performing next month in San Antonio, Texas and Wake Forest, N.C. From their time at Fort Mill High, Bitter knows how seriously musicians take their events.
“They do, and that's just at the high school level,” she said. “You should see some of these drum corps fanatics.”
Sarah Keenen has seen plenty. The Nation Ford band booster president hasn’t yet had a child compete in a drum corps band, but she worked with Crown, including events where the top players brought sleeping bags and stayed in the school band room.
“We have some of the directors that work with Crown, they come over and help us at Nation Ford High School with our marching band program to get ready for the fall. They do workshops in the summer time. Our students get conditioned and get excited, and really want to join.”
The same kind of dedication and effort that served local high school band, Keenen said, continue through drum corps. When local students go on to drum corps units, it often isn’t the last musical step.
“It's very common,” Keenen said. “A lot of our percussion and brass students, we have a lot of kids that go on and are music majors in college. They just really absorb everything.”
Dickey can think quickly of an area middle school band director who played at Fort Mill High and in Carolina Crown. The band director at Clover High School, Joe Gulledge, and his son both marched with Crown. Dickey’s associate at Nation Ford, Ray Linkous, is a Crown staff member.
With all the local Crown connections, perhaps it’s odd that this year’s show theme is all about deconstruction.
“As the show progresses we start taking apart the field,” Fitzpatrick said.
This summer he will cross paths with former local high school performers with the Troopers, Boston Crusaders, Spirit of Atlanta. Maybe more. It can be hard tracking all the talented players from local schools. Not that Fitzpatrick would have the time. A typical day involves rehearsal at 9 a.m., two hours of dance, another 90 minutes of technique, lunch before starting back at 2 p.m., choreography until about 5:30 p.m. and a 7 p.m. ensemble appointment with the full group.
All geared toward the world championships Aug. 10-12 in Indianapolis.
It’s far from a sleepy summer off school. It’s a chance to show the world how good music, and the musicians who perform it, can be.
“If that's the best in the world,” Fitzpatrick said, “then that's a great opportunity for us.”
Want to see a show?
The Nation Ford Marching Band hosts the Crown Preview Show at NaFo 7 p.m. Sunday as Carolina Crown gets ready for its summer competition tour. Special guest performances will be featured. Tickets are $2 for individuals or $5 per family All proceeds support the NaFo Band’ March to Macy’s fundraising.