Tournament of Drums groups march to a different beat

Annual competition returns to Cedar Rapids July 29

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Chris Magonigal describes a drum and bugle corps as a “marching band on steroids.”

As founder and director of the roughly 150-member Genesis Drum and Bugle Corps of Austin, Texas, Magonigal says his musicians often practice 14 hours a day, sometimes in 110 degree heat, follow strict diet and exercise regimens and come up with elaborate choreography that is on display during the group’s 70-day season each year.

“From a physical standpoint, it’s much more rigorous,” he said. “The intensity level is turned up quite a bit.

“It definitely takes a certain beast to do drum corps.”

Magonigal’s musical beasts made a stop in Cedar Rapids this week to rehearse for the upcoming Tournament of Drums, which returns for a second year Friday, July 29, at Kingston Stadium. Showtime is 7 p.m.

Tickets to the performance and competition, which features six drum and bugle corps from around the country, are $12 in advance or $14 at the door. Admission for children ages 5 and younger is free.

Hosted by Dubuque’s Colt Cadets, this year’s show also is to feature music from the Blue Devils B corps of Concord, California; the Racine Scouts of Racine, Wisconsin; Shadow of Oregon, Wisconsin; and last year’s champions, the Vanguard Cadets of Santa Clara, California.

“This is not your typical marching band show,” said Jeff MacFarlane, executive director of Dubuque’s Colts. “The performances they give will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

Last year’s show honored the 50th anniversary of the Emerald Knights, a retired drum and bugle corps from Cedar Rapids. After 9 years without a home show from the Emerald Knights, four alumni decided to revive the tournament last year. Organizers said more than 2,000 people attended the event. This year they’re hoping for more.

“If this show even takes one person and just grips their soul ... perfect,” said Steve Mickelson, a Tournament of Drums organizer and Emerald Knights alumni. “People come to experience the pageantry, the details and precision” of drum corps performances. It oftentimes brings folks to their feet.”

Above all, Mickelson hopes to attract more youth to the show, to expose them to the life-altering opportunity of drum corps.

“It’s crazy-hard work. It may be the hardest they’ll ever work in their life, but the benefits are immense,” he said. “If not the greatest experience of their life, it’s easily one of the greatest.”

Tournament of Drums is one of 27 stops on Genesis’ tour around the nation this summer.

After daylong rehearsals Monday and Tuesday at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Genesis members — including 72 horn players, 35 percussionists, 40 color guard members and a handful of drum majors — are heading to Illinois for a performance on July 13. Their season wraps up in August at the world finals in Indianapolis.

Spending so much time on the road can be tiring and nearly everyone, including staff, at some point hits “the wall,” said Magonigal. “You miss home a lot, but there’s nothing like strapping on that uniform and being in front of a few thousand people who love what you’re doing to cure that.”

Each show is judged and scored based on musical and visual performance standards.

Magonigal said his group’s performance this year is “darker, meaner and louder” than last year’s performance of music from “Phantom of the Opera.” This year’s show, titled “Hell Hath No Fury,” is based on the story of Madea — a Greek goddess who went on a murderous rampage after her husband was unfaithful.

It combines classical music with “angsty female vocals,” like Alanis Morissette and Amy Lee of Evanescence, Magonigal said.

“We tend to focus more on darker music selections, because I really like what darkness does from a theatrical standpoint for audiences,” he said.

Members of Genesis typically range in age from 17 to 21 years old. Some corps accept members as young as 13, but the average age is 19. The maximum age is 21.

According to Drum Corps International, more than 8,000 people audition each year for fewer than 3,500 positions available in roughly 50 drum corps groups worldwide. Magonigal said that of the 400 or so that audition for Genesis each season, only 150 are selected.

“You’ve got to be the best at what you do to compete at this level,” Magonigal said, adding that, especially in Texas, marching band is “very cut throat.”

For Cameron Wilson, 18, a drum major for Genesis, the whole experience can be “grueling” at times.

“But that’s why our family environment and our connection to each other is so important,” he said. “We’re able to push each other through these long days. Together we get through it.”

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