LAWRENCE — Colin Plante Jr. is a very big young man. Almost big enough, in fact, to be an NFL lineman.
He was out on the football field early this morning, warming up with some exercises alongside his 100 or so teammates. They will be here until well past dark. After scarfing down some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they’re about to begin practicing their kickoff.
But this is not football. It looks more like the halftime show. Over and over, the performers rehearse their routine at Veterans Memorial Stadium. Moving to a few bars of music, they swirl and scamper in formation. When the brass players reach their marks, they pick up their instruments and blurt a loud resolving note. Then they regroup and do it again.
Growing up, Plante was usually on the ice, not the football field. He’s 19 now, and he says he played hockey for 13 years. But nothing has stoked his enthusiasm quite like drum and bugle corps.
“This kicks my buttocks much more,” he says with a grin. “It’s like marching band times ten.”
The rousing music and vigorous moves that make up his ensemble’s summer program is worth every grueling minute, he says: “We want to impress you right now. We want to blow you out of your seat.”
This is the summer world of the Spartans, one of about four dozen drum and bugle corps competing in Drum Corps International, which bills itself as “Marching Music’s Major League.” The Spartans are based out of Nashua, N.H., and are a throwback to a time when thousands of communities across the country had a youth drum and bugle corps sponsored by the local VFW, the church, or some other civic institution.
Each year the Spartans assemble a new squad of drummers, horn players, keyboardists, and color-guard performers. Many students get hooked, returning every summer until they “age out” at 22. They practice extensively and take part in local parades and travel showcases, all in preparation for the annual DCI world championships, which are held in August at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts.
The non-profit Spartans were established more than 60 years ago when Albert LaFlamme, owner of a music store in Milford, N.H., was approached about instructing a drum and bugle corps of at-risk youth. “Berdie,” as he was known, agreed to help the kids prepare for a Labor Day competition.
The squad won their division that year, and Berdie got the bug. A few years later he moved the Spartans to Nashua. It’s been a family enterprise ever since: Berdie’s son Paul is a longtime board member, and the Spartans’ president is now Paul’s son, Paul G. “PG” LaFlamme Jr.
The young men and women on the Spartans come from all kinds of backgrounds and circumstances. For some, like those kids on Berdie’s first squad, drum and bugle means an opportunity to focus their energy and steer clear of bad choices. Paul LaFlamme notes proudly that he just got an e-mail from a parent of one of this year’s performers expressing gratitude for the high schooler’s improving attitude.
“If I can do that with one kid a year,” says LaFlamme, watching the rehearsal from the stands, “I’ve done my job on this planet.”
But many more of the performers come from solid families and good grades. They simply find they enjoy the competition and the camaraderie.
As a boy, Casey Saitow saw a group of flag spinners in the Santa parade in his hometown of Merrimac, “and I said, ‘Yo, I want to do that.’” The Spartans, who travel across southern New Hampshire and the Merrimack Valley to practice, sometimes rehearsed at Saitow’s high school, and he was encouraged to sign up.
His parents now take in a few Spartans boarders each summer. Because there are far fewer drum and bugle corps than there once were — New England has one other Open Class team, out of New London, Con.; the legendary Boston Crusaders compete at the World Class level — the Spartans draw new members from all over. One girl this summer is visiting all the way from England.
Matt Vayanos, a music major at UMass Lowell, is in his sixth and last year of performing with the Spartans. Asked what he’ll do next year, he jokes, “Get fat, I guess.”
This year he’s been named one of the troop’s drum majors. During rehearsal, he and his counterpart stand on scaffold towers on the sidelines, keeping time and blowing whistles.
On a warm day, they’re all wearing shorts, T-shirts, and baseball hats. (In performance, of course, the corps wear resplendent band uniforms.) The breeze carries a strong scent of sunscreen, and the players take frequent breaks, scurrying off the field to guzzle from water jugs.
Saitow’s co-captain in this year’s color guard, 19-year-old Danielle Beaulieu of Salem, N,H., is wearing knee sleeves and ankle braces.
“I have shin splints, and I’ve always had ankle problems,” she explains. “This is a lot harder than high school marching band. A lot more stamina is needed.”
But the rewards are great though, she says. The Spartans’ color guard has been on an incredible run in recent ensemble competition, either winning or taking second place among all Open Class entries in 10 of the past 11 years.
More importantly, she says, looking around, “These people are basically my best friends.”
For corps director Richard Rigolini, who is in his 22nd season with the Spartans, there’s no mystery why this year’s performance is called “Connected.”
“It kind of gets in your blood,” says Rigolini, who grew up in a drum and bugle corps family in Everett, where he still lives. Under his leadership, the Spartans have enjoyed plenty of success, winning five championships since 1997.
But the connections they make are the real reason he keeps coming back. He pauses as a sound engineer cues the recorded voiceover, which booms across the stadium. (“We all have the gift to see our profound connection to everyone,” a male voice intones.)
The years when they don’t win anything are often the most meaningful, Rigolini says when the music stops again.
“We go at it every year the same way.”