Having spent the summer of 2011 touring the United States as a rookie member of the Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps horn line, naturally everyone wants to know: How much weight did you lose? Did you become a better musician? Well, I didn’t lose any weight because I’ve always been in shape, and I did become a better tuba player. However, what I learned about what it means to perform, what it means to produce, what it means to reach out to an audience, reach in through their eyes and ears and touch the part in their soul they thought no one could reach, isn’t something I’ll forget anytime soon after exiting the finals field choking on dry mouth and turf turds.
In the Jersey Surf hornline, if you make a mistake that is tentative, unsure, or no louder than the squeak of a minature dying unicorn, someone on the brass staff is sure to come up and ask you this.
If you come in a beat early or late and bust the living heck out of the note, you’ll receive a high-five.
We’re taught to be confident in everything we approach. Never are we to back down even the slightest bit, even if we are unsure with what we are doing. Whether you’re performing a dance-visual on the field or ordering a complicated sandwich in a shoe store, we must always portray to everyone around us that we know what we are doing. The louder a mistake is, the less people are going to think it is a mistake. The more you appear to be doing what you believe is the right thing to do, the less dignity you lose. You might even be so convincing that the clerk at the shoe store actually gives you the sandwich you ask for!
With the knowledge that nothing we do is truly a mistake unless we show it, everything we do has meaning. In dance block, we are told that in order for our arms to look graceful and important, we must engage the energy throughout are arms and extend it through our fingers and out into the wide and desolate universe. You must feel as if you are reaching for something. It hurts. In one particular dance we do in the show, we stomp like a monster and then proceed to some seriously provocative hip swaying while playing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. We’re instructed to put space between our legs and to exaggerate the height of our stomping and the distance that our hips travel in their circular, booty-shaking path. There is little subtly in drum corps. If we want something seen from the farthest seat away from the field, we’ve got to do it big. You’ve got to perform as if you are not one person in a corps of 150 but as if you are the only person in the entire universe who is putting on a performance, all by your small little self, as the world floats above you, expecting only the best.
You’ll never know how vulnerable, or strong, you really are until you perform in an indoor dome. Entering semifinals as the 25th ranked corps and the first corps to take the field, I took flight and fluttered along the back sideline, flag sailing behind me in the mechanical air. The thing about domes is that it is dead silent on the field. The crowd is a distant murmur and they are high, high above you. Looking down. You are an insect under a microscope. A prisoner on trial. Jesus in a circus ring. You and your 149 siblings are under the scrutiny of the hundreds, thousands of people that sit safe in their seats, watching from afar.
The only thing you can do from your prison of a football field is to lift up your chin and stare up at them, stare back with courage, pride so fierce that the unspeakable energy racing through your blood touches theirs. Make them know, know deep inside, that you are here to draw out their applause, their emotions, their flighty spirit that they keep bottled up inside. Never lose your connection with the audience as your body dances through the heavily rehearsed routine of the show, as air draws itself into your lungs and out through your instrument as if you were nothing less perfect than a well-oiled machine. Never stop reaching out, not even for a second, whether people have already leapt to their feet in wonder in gratitude, or whether they have not. Never stop sharing the love for what you do, no matter what you are doing and where you are, for it touches and inspires others in ways you may not have realized were possible.