Goose bumps...shivers...when the horn line, facing away, playing softly, moves and pivots as one and suddenly all the silver bells face you as the soaring melody crescendos to triple forte at triple speed! Wow! Applause. Uncontrollable cheers. Edge-of-the-seat excitement as the drumline hits every stroke with precision and flair, sounding as one drum...The color guard providing sparkle and drama, accenting and illuminating the music with grace and beauty... silver swords whirling, swirling, slicing up, up, up and down...all caught at the same moment... applause. The energy and special effects of the pit...musical dervishes with focused moves...dancing with their instruments. The eleven minutes of music and marching, of precision and emotion, color, and uniformity...whew! All this and world class competition too!
In 1994, when Robert first joined the Mandarins, the meaning of drum corps participation meant little to us...oh, we watched the slideshow, talked to Ray about how it was organized, heard parents' stories about years past, and watched video tapes of past seasons. We read the handbook, and worried about managing the increasing amount of time the corps seemed to take both from Robert and us. But we still didn't know what participation really meant!
In fact, we thought that it was probably just like high school band...Hah! Were we ever wrong! Oh, we had glimmers of understanding that grew through the year. Standing in the cold, dark shadows of Sam Brannan Middle School on a wet winter night, listening to the instructors work with the kids...and the kids getting better and better. Hearing the excitement and anticipation in a second-year rookie's voice about last year's tour...and the competition. Listening to a veteran's mother as she fervently describes how much her son had changed after being away on tour...why, he could even do his own laundry!
Those glimmers of understanding became beacons as early summer arrived. Watching the show, the music, and the kids evolve through hard work, practice, and quality instruction. The "dress rehearsal" for families at the final weekend camp at Yuba College, pink and black with white and brass. And then, in competition for the first time...Hornet Field on an oven-like evening...still... not a whisper of a breeze...other great drum corps marching into their seasons... the Santa Clara Vanguard...the Concord Blue Devils...The Velvet Knights from Anaheim...world class corps. And the Mandarins -- our kids -- are there with them, world class as well!
In California, they competed eight times, and took first all but once! But the work and practice and learning and development did not stop. They kept at it, improving individual and team performance, changing the show based on the feedback of the judges and the inspiration of the instructors.
Then to the airport for a midnight departure...tired and excited, and even Jean -- Robert's younger sister -- wanting to go on tour with them...Ray walking up to the check-in desk with 60 tickets in his hand! And finally they are off, and we follow their progress from competition to competition on the Internet, checking out scores on the Cybercorps Web site!
Long hours, late hours, living on buses and on school gym floors as they moved through the Midwest and Canada on the way to the Drum Corps International Competition in Buffalo. Fed and watched over by staff and parents who faced challenges and trials not even dreamt of by most of us...including preparing dinner for 60 in the men's restroom of one living site!
And still they practiced, getting sharper and cleaner and clearer and more confident each time.
Jean and I joined them in Buffalo for the DCI, and so we watched the Mandarins take over Rich Stadium for the Division III finals midday on a Tuesday. And as excited and anxious as I was to watch their most important performance of the year, I already knew that they were world class winners. I now knew what being in the Mandarins really meant. It wasn't the music instruction or individual music skills, as important as those are. It wasn't the physical exercise and the kids getting into competing trim, as valuable as those are, to their health and self-image. It wasn't the marching drill or the fun that came from being part of the group, as essential as they are.
No, what the corps really meant -- really means -- can only be captured ultimately in ideas that perhaps only parents can love!
Ideas like discipline, responsibility, independence, contributing to the greater good, doing your part, duty, teamwork, comradeship, friendship, managing conflict, trust, having high standards and high expectations, dedication, work, work, work, honor, losing and winning, having a vision and achieving that vision.
There's more...but standing in Rich Stadium as they finished their performance, with tears of pride welling up, watching Rita, our Drum Major, salute the audience, knowing that they took a difficult and challenging program, traveled light years with it, and wrestled it and now owned it, internalized it, absolutely aced it...
I now know what it really means for our son to be a part of the Mandarins...and it is good.
P.S. It occured to me that the energy, dedication, skill, and love that the Mandarins adults provide is spectacular.
Starting with Ray and Esther, who seem to dedicate their lives to the Corps...to all the instructors who work with the kids hour by hour and never give up and always expect more...to the other officers who keep the organization running, bills paid, history kept, uniforms sorted, t-shirts designed...to the parents who invest the time and energy in helping out wherever they can, cooking meals, sewing buttons, finding laundromats...to Janet and all the Bingo volunteers who keep the funds flowing (and save us from innumerable bake sales)...to Bucky and Frank who drove our truck non-stop across the country...and to everyone else who contribute themselves to our kids...THANK YOU!
(By the way, the alternative to the Mandarins is now unthinkable! Sitting at home for 3 months of the summer, listening to CDs, watching TV, and hanging out! No, no, no, no, no!)