(Almost) everything I need to know I learned in drum corps

Dawn Morrow

This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 18).

In 1991, when I was 15 years old, I traded in my piccolo, bought a mouthpiece and jumped into a friend’s car to go to an introductory meeting for a brand-new drum and bugle corps called Jersey Surf. For three summers, from 1991 to 1993, I marched with Surf, playing a baritone that was nearly half the size I was.

It’s 16 years later now and I’ve earned a BS in civil engineering, worked several jobs and nearly completed an MBA and Master in Healthcare Administration, leading my class both inside and outside the classroom. As I’ve been interviewing for full-time positions, I’ve discovered that many of my strengths were born in the years I marched drum corps.

In a team, everyone wins or everyone fails. There’s no in between. When you march a show, everyone matters. If the bass drum is not where they should be on the field, the formation is off, at the very best. If one of the rifles has a drop, the effect is ruined. If one of the baritones is off in their intonation, something just doesn’t sound right.

We were scored together, as a corps, as a section. So when one person was off, everyone suffered, and when we were on, it was magic. Because of that, everyone wanted to be right — we strived for excellence, we worked hard to perfect our show and we didn’t want to let each other down.

Today that value for the importance of everyone in a team is the foundation of my philosophy of leadership. When I lead, I make sure people understand their role and the effect it has on the whole.    I remind them that we win and lose together, and what every person does and how they do it has an effect on the whole. The business school that I go to is known for its commitment to teamwork, but my commitment to teamwork was cemented when I was marching corps.

Learn from your mistakes. Feedback in drum corps is the building block of improvement. After every show the staff poured over recap sheets, showing the breakdown of our score, analyzing how we needed to improve. Sections listened to audio tapes of section-specific feedback from the judges. The entire corps watched the videotape of the show . . . and then watched it again.

Discussions about failures were frank. No-one was berated, but there was also no fear in pointing out mistakes, whether it was someone out of step or an entire line out of place. And the response was simple. “Thank you for pointing that out, I will not do that again.” I have carried that with me into my professional life, knowing that every weakness is an opportunity for growth and being diligent in seeking ways to improve. Because of that, I have earned the respect of my classmates and the administration, and I have a reputation as someone committed to improvement and excellence.

Leave it better than when you came. Drum corps is a transient life. For several weeks during the summer, the corps takes to the road, sleeping on the floors of random gyms nationwide.   At each place we stayed, the mantra was the same — leave it better than when you came. It doesn’t matter if the mess isn’t yours, or even if it was there when you came. If you can do something about it, do it. If you can’t do something about it, find someone who can.

At 31, I’m not really sleeping on the floors of school gyms anymore, but I have brought this mantra into the organizations I’ve been a part of. When I returned to school, I thought, what can I do to leave this better than it is now? Over the past three years, I have helped launch a school-wide integrity initiative, worked at top levels, developing executive education, administrating a program in which 80 students get real-world business experience, mentoring other students in their career search and helping other people understand how to make an impact. And all of this because I was taught to leave it better than when I came.

You can do more than you think you can. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when it’s 10:00 PM at night and the staff calls for one last full run-through. The day started at 7:00 or 8:00 AM with breakfast and warm-ups. There’s been hours of marching basics, sectional rehearsals and partial run-throughs. It was 90 degrees all day long — although at 10:00 PM it’s cooled off to a balmy 88 — and the hot pavement has softened the soles of the shoes you’re wearing.

You’ve just finished two full run-throughs and your gloves are soaked through with sweat. You’re not sure that you can blow another note, toss another four, play another paradiddle.

And then you do, one step, one note, one count at a time. The run-through is tight and, in fact, it’s the best thing you’ve done all day. It’s because everyone put their head down and took one more step, and you’re better for it. Drum corps doesn’t typically bring huge, life-changing challenges, but it teaches you that you can go beyond what you think you can do, if you take it one step at a time, and that builds character piece by piece.

In the last three years, I have drawn heavily on the character that was shaped during corps.   During my first year of grad school, right before finals, I experienced utter chaos in my family as my father passed away and my mother was diagnosed with stage-four cancer.

Somehow I made it through that time, moving my mother into my home, burying my father and completing my finals with high marks, because I knew that sometimes you just have to put your head down and push through things you’re not sure you can handle, one step at a time.