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Arts & Culture

Carolina Crown Student Drum Corps Returns To Field For First Time Since Pandemic

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Courtesy Carolina Crown

Live performance is making its way back into our lives after it largely went away during the pandemic. That includes a group of 186 student performers who make up this year's Carolina Crown drum corps.

The corps includes brass, drums, keyboards, marimbas and a color guard. All of the performers are students between the ages of 16 and 22 who auditioned for a spot.

Typically, Carolina Crown and other competitive drum corps hold intense summer programs, then leave for a tour around the country.

"When anyone who's a part of this activity thinks about what it is, we all remember the same experiences: the tour bus, the smells, the schools, the fans, the things," said Rick Subel, artistic director for Carolina Crown. "So when you say drum corps, that's what most of us think of."

But all of that has been canceled this year for COVID-19. Instead, they have just a single performance this season — and it's Saturday night at Gardner-Webb University for their fans and alumni.

At a rehearsal Wednesday night, the students were tuning up in the stadium's parking lot. It was one of the last rehearsals before the big show. They stood in circles facing each other, their shoulders back and their brows furrowed, as they listened, trying to match each other's pitch and tone.

Jenna Zolasko held up a little square device into the trumpet next to her. A needle on it shows if the note is out of tune. It ticked to one side, showing her partner was a little flat.

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Courtesy Carolina Crown

The students have been practicing for weeks, and Zolasko gets emotional thinking about Saturday's performance since it will be both the first and last time the group performs together for an audience since the pandemic.

"I already know I'm going to have a hard time not being emotional," she said. "I have to keep it together until the end of the show. Then I can cry."

This is Zolasko's first year with Carolina Crown. She's wanted to join the group since she first saw them at a competition in 2014. She was accepted for the 2020 season, but then the pandemic shut everything down. No practice. No performance. This year, she wasn't sure what to expect.

"I definitely had doubts in terms of whether of not this was going to feel like drum corps," she said, "because although this is my first year with Crown, it's not my first year of drum corps."

On the field, head drum major Doug Bell stood on scaffolding conducting as some 180 performers stood in rows before him. They come together on the field each night to hear what they sound like as a corps.

Bell said even though the experience is different this year, he still felt that energy that comes from a group of young musicians getting together to collaborate.

"I mean I could feel it even before we played," Bell said. "Just being back together as a group was so nice."

He said he has missed the sense of community.

"I missed hanging out with people in dorms, at dinner, walking to the field, walking back from the field, just handing out with people," he said. "I mean, some of my closest friends are here at Crown."

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Courtesy Carolina Crown

Trumpet player Zolasko felt that way, too. She remembered the very first rehearsal when all the students got together to play one of their musical numbers — "Smile," by Charlie Chaplin.

"And a lot of us were crying, myself included," Zolasko said. "It was hard to play because I couldn't stop crying. So that was definitely one of those moments when it was just like, we're all here, we're all playing together. Super emotional, and super happy to just be playing with the horn line."

The students will now get to share that with a live audience Saturday night.

"I just can't wait for that, because you really feed off that energy," Bell said.

He hopes to savor the moment since he'll be too old to participate in the drum corps next year.

"This is my age out," he said. "I'm not going to get to march after this year. This is the end of my drum corps performing career, and to get to go out in front of all Crown fans is going to be amazing. It's going to be really exciting."

Carolina Crown's live performance begins at 8:30 p.m. at Gardner-Webb University's Spangler Stadium. It will also be streamed on their Facebook page, with a virtual tribute to their alumni, beginning at 6 p.m.

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