It's a perfect day for drum corps at Moon High School near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The lot is alive with the sounds of corps preparing for their performances at Innovations in Brass, an annual drum corps show hosted by the Bluecoats.
Alone at the front of a brass arc stands Sara Bowden, horn sergeant for the 84th iteration of The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps.
What happens next could almost be considered routine if not for the fact that every movement is done with quiet determination and intent. The brass is called to attention, their spacing is adjusted, they set down their horns, and Sara walks back to take their place amongst their fellow Cadets. This is nothing new for Sara who has spent four years in drum corps, the past three of which have been with The Cadets. Sara has been apart of some of the most tumultuous years for the organization in decades, yet in the face of adversity they haven’t faltered.
Before ever stepping off on the field with The Cadets, Sara spent their first year of drum corps as a member of the Boston Crusaders, where they learned almost everything about marching from scratch. It's also where Sara learned many of the leadership qualities they carry with them to this day.
“My first year I came from East Tennessee which is not an area that’s super popular for band. At my first camp I didn’t even know what an 8 to 5 was. Just having everyone around me support me and say ‘You can do this and we want you to succeed.’ has really shaped my mentality and approach to drum corps. Not only as a leader but as a member.”
When asked how this has influenced their leadership style Sara responded, “When I see someone struggling, I want them to succeed because that’s my way of passing down the way I was treated. With respect and with care.” It’s this philosophy that’s been the driving factor for Sara's ascension from a rookie to section leader in 2017, and horn sergeant in 2018. It definitely hasn't been an easy road for them, especially in light of some of the recent adversity surrounding The Cadets.
“My biggest struggle has been dealing with so much change. It’s been really difficult to have the three year vets currently with the corps be the most consistent people that have been here. We’ve had admin change. We’ve had brass, percussion, and guard changes, and it’s been really different to see how the corps vibe changes and adapts to each group of people who are in front of us.”
With all of this change it can be hard to develop consistency year to year, but Sara has high hopes for the future, albeit with the acknowledgement that there’s still work to do. “I think we’re headed in a really positive direction but there are still those growing pains.”
This adversity isn’t something that Sara runs from however. “There are a couple of life lessons in drum corps that you can’t necessarily apply to real life. You can’t run everywhere. You can’t drum corps shuffle to all of your classes, that’s just unproductive. But you can move with a sense of urgency, you can do everything with intent and with purpose and when you encounter very esoteric, weird situations that you don’t experience in everyday life, you’re ready for when everyday life throws a curveball at you. It provides you with this context to just look at everyday life and be appreciative.”
While continuing along the lines of adversity, it’s impossible not to bring up the fallout over very serious accusations brought to light in April against George Hopkins, disgraced former CEO of YEA! and former director of The Cadets. Many people wondered whether The Cadets would even field a corps this season. Would members quit? Would staff quit? The challenges of the previous two seasons seemed to suggest otherwise.
“It’s incredibly telling that no one left in light of the fallout of April. I think that culture of just sticking through it was actually formed in ‘17 when we experienced a huge staff change. We didn’t know who our caption head was going to be, we didn’t know who the techs would be, and there were just so many uncertainties that we didn’t necessarily have going into this current season. I knew Branden was going to be my caption head, I knew Drew Shanefield was going to write the music I had the privilege of playing. Now we have a staff that’s completely free and able to do things that they weren’t necessarily able to do under the previous administration. I think that’s something that’s very obvious to everyone in the outside world.”
When asked about how 2017 started off for them, Sara shed some light on what went through their head before starting the season, starting with a text from the head drum major.
“Claire texted me in both off seasons, but the context was different. She texted me ‘Are we doing this?’ In '17 I had to really think about it. What is the benefit of me staying here? Am I staying just to stay, or am I staying because never in my life am I going to do something as crazy and as challenging as be one of 17 vets in the hornline, and build a culture that is supportive, loving, and caring. I think it's incredibly special to be the group of people that established that.”
The culture Sara helped to create is one of the reasons that the difficulties of April never once caused them to question their dedication to the corps. “I'll never do something as crazy as go through a fundamental change in an organization that I did in 2018. When Claire sent me that same message, like, ‘Are we in?’ I thought, I don't know how else to be. I don't know how to not be a Cadet. I don't know where else I would go if the Cadets didn't exist. It's important to realize everything that has colored this season, the previous season, and the season before that, and look at it and say, ‘This is an incredibly important, critical time in the Cadets organization.’”
The determination of the corps leadership rubbed off on the members and not a single person quit after the fallout from April. The common denominator?
“I don't know how ... As someone who was a marching member, and someone who's on leadership, I can't look at that and be like, ‘Oh, I don't want to be a part of that.’ I want to be here and provide any source of stability possible. I want to create the magical rookie year for all these people that came in here, and honestly, as a rookie, took a chance on this organization. I want to give it, pay it back to them, like, ‘Thank you all for sticking around, because this is what this place means to me, and I hope that you can begin to understand that.’”
This willingness to stand up in the face of adversity, this determination to power through even in the most challenging of situations, is something that is in every Cadet.
“At audition camps, I'll meet people, and I'll already know that they're Cadets, just the way they carry themselves. It's not a maturity thing. It's not necessarily an age thing, we have 15 year olds here. The first time I met Gage [a first year baritone player], I was like, ‘That kid's going to be a great Cadet.’”
At the end of the day, being a Cadet is about more than how well you can march or play your horn, it’s about how badly you want to succeed. “It's not even something that's tangible. You know when you look at someone, that they want something so bad that they're going to do whatever they want to do to get it, and I think that's what a Cadet is. To be great, you have to inconvenience yourself. That is the epitome of what this organization is.
The warmup has concluded and the brass make their way over to the stadium. They engage in their various rituals: a special handshake, a huddle with their section, hugs shared between friends who have become more like family. Then the whole corps circles up, and as they put their hands on each others shoulders to begin singing the corps song, all of the troubles from the past seasons go away.
They are strong, they are unified, and they are in good hands with leaders like Sara Bowden to help guide them.
“You can honestly do anything you set your mind to. I think so many times we hold ourselves back from what we can achieve as our full potential simply because we look at something and say ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ or, ‘Oh, I don’t see someone else doing that, therefore I can’t do it.’ and I think drum corps has taught me that you can be that person that everyone looks to and says ‘If she can do that, if they can do that, if he can do that, then I can do that too.’”
- Story and Photography by Josh Clements