Mar 182013


I began distancing myself from the Glassmen after marching two seasons. I felt it happening during the next audition season, when I got a phone call from the new mellophone tech wanting to know if I’d be at camp. I was still on their list.

Sitting on the floor of my kitchen, I explained to her that I wouldn’t be back for the next season. I thought that would be the end of the conversation. Instead, I spent the next 45 minutes to an hour talking about the strengths and weaknesses of every other mellophone vet on her list and telling her who was likely to come back.

It was my last contribution to the Glassmen until, 10 years later, I helped start our alumni association. This post, the first in what I hope to be a long-term series by as many alumni as possible, is to tell you why I came back, with the hopes that it’ll inspire you to tell your own story.


The first time I saw a live drum corps performance, I hated it. It was the summer before my freshman year of college, which I spent working long shifts at Kohl’s (mostly taking naps in the fitting room unless I was paged). I went back to a venue I’d performed in as a high school student to support friends and enjoy the show. I watched people who I’d thought were gods of the marching arts tear up the field, and quickly realized, “They’re not gods at all! I could do this. Why am I not doing this?”

I knew then why I hated paying money to watch drum corps: I was not a spectator. Being in the stands never excited me, no matter how great the show was, because I was on the wrong side.

I had spent the whole previous year since my last high school performance coming up with the most ridiculous reasons not to try out for a drum corps. Each one can be easily debunked.

“I have asthma.”

Yeah, but not that bad. Some people are hospitalized when they have asthma attacks. This had never happened to me (and to this day still hasn’t). If you can run a mile without having an asthma attack, even if it takes you longer than anyone else, it’s not that big a deal. The first few times I did a run through as a member of the Glassmen, I either had an attack or had to stop playing to prevent one. By the end of move-ins, I could march and play the whole way through.

“I’m overweight.”

On tour you can eat four meals a day and still lose weight. Looking back, I was probably only a few pounds overweight. Everyone thinks they’re fat when they’re 17, then when we’re 30 we wish we were that size again.

“I’m not good enough.”

I had a self-deprecating attitude that had kept me from marching, despite the fact that I knew how to play and march and had done it well. During brass rehearsal at one of my first camps, after giving a long speech about how ridiculous it was that some people were absent, Frank Williams made a point to say that he could train cockroaches to play horns, they just had to show up. Anyone who truly wants a drum corps experience can find a home.

“I can’t afford it.”

Just another excuse. I had enough savings to cover most of camps and tour fees for my first year, thanks to a scholarship that paid for my textbooks. I worked for minimum wage on campus. During audition season my second year, I took a second job at a convenience store–also for minimum wage. I’d bring my Glassmen music with me and memorize it in between dealing with college kids trying to buy alcohol without an ID. It wasn’t easy to come up with the cash, but between my jobs and a partial sponsorship for tour fees, I pulled off a second year.

“I don’t have a car.”

When friends in the marching community found out I was considering drum corps, I was offered rides to multiple camps. After choosing the Glassmen, a few very fantastic people helped me get there. Over the course of two seasons I never missed a camp. People went out of their way to make sure I could get there. Sure, I felt like a total mooch, but hopefully I was halfway decent company. More importantly, I learned my first drum corps lesson: You can’t do it alone. Not any of it.

Reasons I didn’t think I could do it became, over time, the exact reasons I had to do it. As it turns out I was good enough and I could work through the other issues. Despite a few asthma attacks and messing up my back at one point, after one season I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my summers.

During my second season, I was diagnosed with a condition called vasovagal syncope. I don’t think I told many people what it was called, so they just referred to it as “whoops, Jenny’s unconscious again!” The condition causes a sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate, meaning you faint. Some of the triggers are having blood drawn, standing for long periods of time, or the sight of blood. It was a little more complicated than asthma, which I was starting to outgrow anyway, and not at all conducive to drum corps.

Medications didn’t eliminate the problem, but did cut down the regularity of my fainting spells. I had to fight with my body and learn when it was time to take a break. Sometimes I’d jump off the field, sit down until I could feel my pulse again, then jump back in. Other times I’d faint, scramble back to my feet and keep going. I hated being on the sideline. I was not a spectator.

I was lucky enough to never faint during a performance, but after finals, I knew I wouldn’t be back the next season. My body had betrayed me. I was a danger to everyone around me. I learned my final drum corps lesson: You can push your body to do things you never thought possible, but you have to listen and know when to stop.

I left the Glassmen with a chip on my shoulder, knowing that my body had cheated me out of the two more seasons I deserved. I couldn’t get past my jealousy that others didn’t have the same limitations. I was a dramatic college girl and didn’t want to be around drum corps because I couldn’t march and I was not a spectator. It didn’t occur to me at the time that staying away wasn’t doing anything to help ensure that others could have the same experience I missed so much.

Over time I distanced myself from the activity altogether and, subsequently, from the Glassmen organization and my fellow alumni. Every so often I got a letter asking for a donation, or an invitation to something, and I’d ignore it. In 2012, when I saw a call for alumni interested in running for the alumni board, I paused before ignoring it the way I used to ignore everything else.

I came back because I remembered why I joined the Glassmen in the first place and how it shaped my life. Every kid who fidgets in the stands, hating that they have to watch when they should be performing, deserves a chance to become one of us. I support the idea of more young adults getting past the excuses and pushing the limits of their own minds bodies.

Jenny Porter Tilley

Please note that posts in the “Why I’m Back” series reflect the views of each individual author. If you’re a past Glassmen performer who’s now involved with the corps in any way (donating, volunteering, joining the alumni corps, etc.), e-mail to contribute your own personal essay. Stay tuned for additional posts by alumni who are donating and volunteering for the Glassmen and the Glassmen Alumni Association.

 Posted by at 9:24 AM