2002 Cavaliers Opener Tenor Feature
THE TENOR DRUMMER Fun Winning a DCI Championship, My Painful Ride

Winning a DCI Championship, My Painful Ride

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2002 Cavaliers Opener Tenor Feature

Do you dream of winning a DCI Championship? Be careful what you wish for. Okay, yes, it’s all worth it, but don’t be surprised if there is some heartbreak along the way.

This website is all about YOU and your goals, but every once in a while, I will be a little self-indulgent. I will make sure there is always something you can learn from my rambling, though. Below is the story of my drumming career and my tumultuous path to winning a DCI Championship. It was not always pleasant, but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. The moral here is to always be humble, work hard, and never give up!

Concert Band

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, there was quite an emphasis on music and marching bands in general. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true throughout the rest of the country. There are some really great music programs in the Midwest, and I was lucky enough to be a part of some of the best.

I began playing percussion in fourth grade in the middle school concert band. One of my fellow drummers, now a rather successful indie-rock musician, came up to me and said “hey, can you play a roll?” As a brand new drummer, I didn’t even know what he was talking about, so I just stared back blankly. He then proceeded to play a nice, even, double-stroke roll on the concert snare in front of us. He became the first drummer I looked up to, someone to constantly compare myself. Without him, I highly doubt my talents would have developed the way they did.

Junior High Drumline

1993-1994 Frankfort Junior High School Winter Drumline

The students three years older than us, eighth graders at this time, were absolutely phenomenal. As the only junior high drumline, they competed at the Spartan Marching Percussion Festival against high school lines and actually won the “Novice” award for first time competitors. We had some big shoes to fill. In my two years of competition, we didn’t quite match their skill, but we still successfully scored higher than a handful of high school drumlines. This early experience and success gave me confidence that if I wanted to, I could really go far with drumming.

And then I quit.

BUT, I instead completely quit music and began devoting my life ice hockey… I still think back and say “REALLY, JOHN?”, but that’s how life goes. After getting knocked around the ice rink for a few years, I realized that the NHL was not in my future. I instead decided to go back to an activity where people weren’t trying to hurt me all the time!

Getting Back to Drumming

Lincoln-Way High School Marching Knights

Lincoln-Way High School tenor drummer in 2000

My senior year at Lincoln-Way High School, I quit ice hockey and auditioned for the drumline. Despite my school being very large, 1,100 in my graduating class, my few connections in the drumline gave me some pointers and plenty of music to work on over the summer. After long hours spent getting my chops up to speed, I successfully made the tenor line. Run by a young, innovative band director, the marching band was among the best in the area. He was able to build off the momentum of the previous director and we won the State Championship for the first time in school history!

University of Illinois Marching Illini

Illini Drumline Tenor Drummer for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Marching Illini in 2002

I did fairly well in school, priding myself on both working and playing hard. My hard work paid off, and I was accepted to one of the best universities in the state, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The university’s marching band, MARCHING ILLINI, is quite well-known, as well as the ILLINI DRUMLINE.

When I first received the audition music, the difficulty blew me away. Not only the rudiments, but also the around patterns where like nothing I had seen. Cheesed inverts with crosses, for example! This was a huge step up from my high school “beats”. Current veterans of the tenor line included a multi-year vet from Phantom Regiment and the previous year’s DCI I&E tenor drum winner from The Cavaliers (check out “Bat’s Out of Hell”).

Practice, practice, more practice, and I made the line, earning a spot outside of the reigning “best tenor drummer in the World”. Wow, what an education that was! Whenever I was stuck on something, getting frustrated, all I had to do was look to my left. There, the notes were played with ease, perfectly in time, and with stunning consistency.

Auditioning for The Cavaliers

Auditioning for the 2001 Season

Later that Fall, I decided that I had learned plenty from my inside guy and decided to try out for THE CAVALIERS. Thanksgiving break going over the audition material and thought I was ready. Unfortunately, the third exercise we were asked to play was on the last page of the audition packet. I hadn’t quite made it that far during my one week of practice sessions. Needless to say, I did not make it through the weekend. Embarrassingly, I was cut by an alum of the Illini Drumline.

Auditioning for the 2002 Season

The following year, my inside guy had moved on from drumline, but an incoming freshman, who had just marched with Cavies in 2001, joined the Illini tenor line. We quickly hit it off, and, determined not to repeat the previous year’s November camp mishap, I proceeded to learn everything I could from him.

I was in the cleanest tenor line I had ever been in up to that point, feeling great about my chops. The audition packet was memorized front to back. And I was relentlessly practicing with a metronome and mirror. I would stay for hours in the Harding Band Building practice rooms, critiquing every stroke and interpretation until my mind was numb.

At the first couple audition camps, I was playing great and considered a “shoe in” from the vets. I was on cloud nine! As the months went by though, my excitement and confidence began to wane. The entire horn line, colorguard, and drumline were set except for the tenor line. There were six drummers but only five spots. Finally, the decision was made that they were going to pick the guy who was new to tenors but a brilliant musician. He had already been in the corps for three years in the front ensemble including one year as section leader. What really hurt was the fact that this guy went to school with me, and I had helped him with his around patterns and technique.

I was devastated.

At no point in my life had I been so depressed. How could this happen? I had worked so hard, put in countless hours, and focused relentlessly on every aspect of my playing. Wasn’t I a shoe in? I was supposed to be marching Cavies!

Usually, I consider myself a pretty laid-back and even-keeled guy, but for the next two months, I would sit in class and picture throwing desks through windows. The burning anger and resentment was constantly running through my veins to the point where I could barely think. I even went as far as auditioning for snare for the next year’s college line.


Then the Phone Rang

Then one day, something happened. My roommate said I had a message on our answering machine (this was when those still existed). Something had come up and two of the five tenor drummers could no longer march that summer. All of a sudden, I had to learn the opener and get myself to the April camp in 10 days. The flood of excitement and adrenaline was overpowering. I was back on cloud nine, but now had to make sure I could prove my worth. I had to show them they made the right decision bringing me back.

Winning a DCI Championship

I went from being the last cut, to an inside guy with just like that. It is crazy how things can work out sometimes. I marched that year next to my fellow Illini tenor drummer as section leader. We ended up going undefeated for the season, winning a DCI Championship with the highest score in DCI history up to that point.

2003 Season

The following year, there were five vets and a Japanese prodigy among the tenor line hopefuls. Everyone else pretty much knew that they had no chance of making the line, and the room quickly thinned out. We started off red hot, playing stunningly clean while still reading off sheet music. This was a level of precision that I had never experienced, even the summer before. Each of those drummers were incredible musicians and people, and they all went on to do some great things.

Cavaliers tenor drummer DCI 2003

While we were playing extremely well. The show we were performing was very difficult. The year before, the drill was all squares, rectangles and parallelograms; but this year, it was all circles! Circles are much more difficult to pull off, and a relentlessly rainy summer didn’t help our cause. Because of this, and the exceptional talent of a rival corps (yes, of course it was the BLUE DEVILS), we did not go undefeated my second year. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though. I got to find out what it was like to have hang out time with other corps after shows. I finally wasn’t “stuck” always doing the victory concert (okay, I sound a little pretentious here). This extra free time was very welcome in a summer where you only get two days off!

Some Timing Issues

We ended up getting second place in finals, and I went back to school ready to rejoin the festivities. My Cavies section leader and schoolmate moved on from the Marching Illini that year. This opened up the spot for me, becoming a section leader for the first time.

That was an adjustment period for me. While I consider myself a great line player that I can play clean with almost anyone, I was not used to having to be the source of consistent time. There were a few comical mishaps when the metronome was off, especially when still learning music. I eventually figured it out though and enjoyed my new leadership role.

Easing My Way Out on Snare

My back decided it was done carrying those ridiculously heavy drums, so I marched snare my fifth year at school. So, naturally, I moved over to the snare line. Ah, such a lighter load. That is a good metaphor for my mindset towards drumline at the time. I was satisfied with what I had accomplished and ready to ease into my drumming retirement…or so I thought.


Here are the links to all Division I DCI Corps. Go check out your future home!

Blue Devils – Concord, CA

Blue Knights – Aurora, CO

Blue Stars – La Crosse, WI

Bluecoats – North Canton, OH

Boston Crusaders – Boston, MA

Carolina Crown – Fort Mill, SC

Colts – Dubuque, IA

Crossmen – San Antonio, TX

Genesis – Austin, TX

Jersey Surf – Sicklerville, NJ

Madison Scouts – Madison, WI

Mandarins – Sacramento, CA

Music City – Nashville, TN

Pacific Crest – Diamond Bar, CA

Phantom Regiment – Rockford, IL

Santa Clara Vanguard – Santa Clara, CA

Seattle Cascades – Seattle, WA

Spirit of Atlanta – Atlanta, GA

The Academy – Tempe, AZ

The Cadets – Allentown, PA

The Cavaliers – Rosemont, IL

Troopers – Casper, WY

Hey, thanks for reading! If you enjoyed my journey to winning a DCI Championship and want to start your own, be sure to check out my my other posts and lessons.

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