UMass sisters march to beat of different drum

By Samantha Webber

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For the average student, summer is a season to sit out by the pool, soak up the sun and hang out with friends. However, for a select few, this is far from a typical summer. While their peers spend their days sleeping in and laying on sandy beaches, more than 5,000 college and high school musicians participate in the competitive Drum Corps International summer programs.

These students spend their summers traveling throughout the country, devoting up to 16 hours a day rehearsing and performing marching shows and living on tour buses and gymnasium floors. Many members of the UMass community may not realize it, but two of their fellow Minutemen spent their summers traveling from state to state while performing with DCI’s oldest active corps.

Sisters Iris and Sheila Heady, of South Hadley, Mass. chose to give up everything typically associated with summer to make music. Iris, 20, and Sheila, 22, are both currently students at UMass. This past summer, the sisters packed up and went on tour with the Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps.

Founded in Garfield, N.J. in 1934, the Cadets are the oldest drum corps in the country and have won nine DCI World Championships. The corps has consistently placed within the Top 5 since 1992, and placed fifth at this year’s World Championships with their show, “Toy Souldier.” The show tells the story of a young boy named Jeffrey whose toy soldiers magically come to life, allowing him to play the role of the drum major, or band leader.

The drum corps season starts long before the school year has even ended. Weekend audition camps begin in Nov. and are followed by monthly rehearsals until spring training begins in mid-May. The spring training camps last about a month and are mostly spent learning the music and the formations for the show before the tour begins in mid-June. From that point onward, the Cadets, along with the 22 other world-class level DCI corps, tour until August.

The Heady sisters both play in the front ensemble as well as for the Cadets. Front ensembles for most marching bands and drum corps are typically comprised of larger, non-marching instruments, such as xylophones, pianos, drum sets, gongs and electric guitars. While a less traditional aspect of the style of music, the front ensemble allows new opportunities for the participating musicians.

“One of the best opportunities [that] drum corps has opened up for me is I’ve learned how to operate and program a synthesizer and sampler, which ones up a lot of sounds that traditional instruments don’t offer,” Sheila said.

While Sheila has performed in front ensembles, also known as pit bands, since high school, the experience was a new one for her sister, who normally plays the bass drum for the marching band at UMass.

“It’s definitely a lot different from what I do here on campus,” Iris said. “But it was an incredible experience and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity.”

The opportunities and experiences come with a cost, however. Tuition and fees for the Cadets typically cost around $3,000, with the money covering gas, transportation, housing, food and uniforms.

A large percentage of the staff that works with the corps are volunteers, who act as cooks, bus drivers, cleaners, medical personnel and other necessary workers required to keep everything running smoothly. Because of the high number of parents, alumni and community members who volunteer with the drum corps, tuition costs have the ability to be reduced, allowing many more students to participate in the programs.

Like sports or dance, there are physical costs associated with drum corps. While serious injuries are not common, they do happen. During the World Championship finals, a horn player for another corps suffered a broken tibia while performing. Though injuries are rare, minor ones such as joint problems, sprains and pulled muscles occur frequently. When injuries do happen, the corps’ medical personnel are always there to help.

“I had pretty bad back problems for almost all of July,” Iris said. “Luckily with the help of one our physical trainers, I was able to recover.”

While touring in Texas, a coach bus for the Boston Crusaders was shot at. Meanwhile the Blue Devils learned during their spring training that the 36 eight-foot tall mirrors they incorporated into their show were reflecting the sun and burning the grass on the practice field, requiring the Blue Devils to make a set of mock mirrors to practice with so they wouldn’t ruin the field.

Despite any of the costs or problems, the Heady sisters both agree that the drum corps experience is a worthwhile one. Those who perform with the Cadets and other drum corps, it’s about more than just the music.

“During the off-season, I don’t go around thinking about how cool the parts I played were,” Sheila said. “I think about the amazing friends I made and the crazy memories we have together.”

Samantha Webber can be reached at [email protected]