Participants work 12-hour days during the summer.
FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) -- For Robert Hicks, band isn't about Friday night football games or tall, feathered hats and gigantic tubas. And it sure isn't about marching.
Band, says Hicks, a member of a high-caliber national drum corps group, is about competition, playing for audiences of nearly 20,000 people and spending the summer on the road.
"This is what I love to do," says the 19-year-old biomedical engineering student from Dallas. "It's the most challenging thing I've done."
As part of the Canton, Ohio-based Bluecoats, Hicks headed to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro this weekend to compete at the Drum Corps International Championships. He was one of about 3,000 teens and young adults who made the trip to the home of the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots for the competition, considered a so-called "Super Bowl of marching band."
"They're the very best at what they do," said Dan Acheson, executive director of Drum Corps International, the company that organizes competitions and regulates drum corps around the country.
How it works
While bands of past generations marched in straight lines and played familiar John Philip Sousa songs, today's drum corps make complicated formations, weave together different compositions and treat marching band like a sport.
Each winter, drum corps around the country hold auditions and training camps. When high schools and colleges let out for the summer, corps members hit the road, traveling and sleeping in coach buses and hauling equipment in tractor trailers.
For June and July, band members practice and compete up to 12 hours a day. The path ends in August, at the championship.
"It's mentally draining," said Hicks, who said it took him three years of auditions before he landed a spot in the Bluecoats, one of 24 high caliber national drum corps groups.
The performers work hard, Acheson said, but their passion gets them through.
"You'll see a group that will draw five standing ovations throughout the middle of their program that's 10 minutes long," he said. "These are reactions that you just don't get in any other activity. An 18- or 19-year-old kid has 5,000 people standing up screaming for them. It's something they remember for the rest of their lives."
Corps members said there are other benefits, too.
"It's just the family," said Michael Wilson, a 19-year-old baritone player for the Kentucky-based Southwind.
Joanne Fricchione, an 18-year-old member of the Seattle Cascades, credits the people in her corps for bringing her back for a second year. Fricchione, who plays the mellophone, said she doesn't mind the hard work, either.
"It's worth it," she said, sweating after Friday's semifinal. "It was wonderful. We were amazing."
The Cascades didn't make the finals, but Jimmy Fursman, the group's assistant director, said it's not all about winning.
"To dedicate yourself so fully to something -- that's really an important lesson for kids at that age," Fursman said. "It becomes almost like the military, but for kids. The physical, emotional, mental effort."
Drum corps participants pay to take part, either out of their own pocket or by raising funds. DCI gives the corps additional funds (Of the $9 million it will get from ticket and merchandise sales this year, about 30 percent is divided among the corps.).
Football takes a back seat
Almost 20,000 fans were expected at Saturday's finals. Parents and corps alum swarmed merchandise booths Friday, bypassing Patriots garb in favor of shirts bearing corps' logos.
St. Louis resident Patti Mansouri was one of the proud parents packing the stands. She said she encouraged her son to be a member of a drum corps.
"It's just something that's in his blood," she said.
And though he's majoring in civil engineering at college, she thinks he'll end up pursuing a career in music. For now, though, he's ready for school to start again, she said.
"He's tired of standing in lines -- lines for the bathroom, lines for the food, lines for the shower," she said.
Hicks said his parents have been supportive of his decision to spend the summer touring. But it has still been draining, and spending many nights sleeping on a coach bus hasn't made it easier.
"Look at me," he said. "I mean, I've lost 40 pounds in three months."
And just a minute later, he turned away, ready to start rehearsing again.