How Tom Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Drum Corps
I can’t remember the exact moment, but when I was probably 8 or 9 years old I fell for music. Like head-over-heels, butterflies in the stomach fell. At first it was just playing 45s in my bedroom or listening to the radio while my friends and I roller skated around the unfinished basement, but the more time I spent around our family’s piano, the more I wanted in on the action.
I was born in western Nebraska, but moved to Omaha when I was 10. I started playing music at a young age: piano in second grade and drums in fourth grade. My elementary school was amazing at starting kids out young. Like a lot of schools, if you wanted to learn how to play the drums, you had to first have a few years of experience on piano. I think of it as a very clever weed-out system, since I would imagine a lot of kids in elementary school would love nothing more than to bang on a snare drum for a few hours. I didn’t really think of it as having to pay dues, though, since I loved playing the piano and continued to do so through high school. I took to the drums at my first opportunity and can still vividly remember the afternoon my mom and I went to pick up my first snare drum. I just stared at all of the great stuff inside that black plastic carrying case and set up and broke down the thing over and over. I finally got up the nerve to actually put the practice pad on and hit the drum and I was hooked.
I continued playing through a number of school band programs, where I learned that even at a young age the percussionists who stood in the back of the band room were a different breed. Truth be told, I’m sure that we were insufferable to everyone else, but it was like being a part of a secret club, except instead of secret handshakes and passwords we had Pearl and Zildjian t-shirts and worshiped at the alters of John Bonham and Stuart Copeland. The latter of which led to the obvious next step of learning how to play on a drum set. I received my first set for my birthday in 1989 and some friends and I immediately started a band.
I started taking drum lessons from a guy named Steve Thomas at Joe Voda’s Drum City, who had this tiny office crammed in the back that barely fit his drum set, two chairs, and a small music collection. My lessons with Steve were mostly on the drum set, but he introduced me to drum and bugle corps via tapes and videos. Myself and a friend, and fellow drummer, who was also taking lessons from Steve, became enthralled with these performances and we got hooked by the drum corps bug in a big way. It turned out that a few people from my school had gotten involved with the activity and they warmly allowed us entrance into the crazy world of drum corps. Finally seeing a show at the annual Drums Across The Midwest in Omaha was the final piece in the puzzle.
In high school I was very active with my marching band and played snare for four years. My fellow drum corps enthusiast and I decided to join up with the junior corps of the Omaha Railmen in 1991. I marched with the senior corps of the Railmen in 1993 on cymbals. This was the year of the infamous DCI Finals in Jackson, Mississippi, if anyone remembers that wonderful experience. I had a great summer and was looking forward to marching again, but the Railmen folded and then put on a very limited show in 1994. One of my clearest memories from that summer was playing a lot of shows with the Madison Scouts. We would pull up to the site of the show and there would be this group of pirate-looking guys wearing green jackets, smoking cigarettes, and pretty much scaring anyone who dared to look at them. I knew instantly that Madison was were I wanted to go if I was ever lucky enough to march Division I (as they called it back then). The fact that the 1993 show was amazing and their Finals performance in a torrential downpour was one for the ages didn’t hurt either. Plus, I had been studying their cymbal line all summer and could hardly imagine what it would be like to be a part of that crew and tradition.
My friend and I decided to take the plunge and audition for the Madison Scouts for the 1995 season. The Scouts were our favorite corps and honestly we didn’t think that we would make it. Back then, auditions were conducted over one weekend in November, so you really only had one shot. My friend’s grandfather drove us to Madison in the dreary midwestern winter and there was a sense of doom that was palpable. But once we got to the audition everything changed. Turns out that those same guys that used to scare us were there in their green jackets, but were actually completely laid back and welcoming. I don’t know how to describe it other than it felt like home the first time I walked into East High School and heard the echoing drums. All the tension was gone and all that was left was to perform the audition piece and cross my fingers.
As luck would have it, we both got spots: my friend on the bass line and me on cymbals again. I marched three seasons with the Scouts on cymbals and loved nearly every minute of it. My buddy ended up being drum major for two years. During my first year with the corps, I ended up befriending fellow Omaha-guy Mac Smith, and we were able to convince the right people to be able to be seat partners for that year. This was not a small task since Mac was on the horn line and I sat on the drum bus. We bonded over our love of movies, annoying anyone within earshot of us on the bus, and became very close friends. I am happy to say that I introduced him to the woman whom he would latter marry (a good friend of mine from high school) and we have maintained our friendship even though we live on different sides of the country.
Since my drum corps days, I have continued to play in a ton of bands and musical projects. It has always been the one activity that keeps me grounded and there is nothing I love more playing live, even if it is just for a few audience members (that was last Friday). This film project is a labor of love from Mac and I. We have always wanted to make our own movie, and the Scouts were the obvious subject since our experience with the corps was so important to both of us . It was been a long journey, but we think that the end product will be an accurate representation of what it takes to march drum corps at the top level, while presenting a number of personal stories that demonstrate how this musical brotherhood effects and ultimately shapes the lives of the young people who participate in it. Marching with Madison was the defining experience of my life as a young adult, as I’m sure that it will be for many of the guys that we have filmed over the last two years. Trying to capture why that is and present it to the audience is the ultimate goal of “Scouts Honor.”