Suicidal depression and drum corps

I saw the chilling article in the Web-exclusive edition of Halftime Magazine — “Broken Arrow Band Student Dies at Football Game” and, like many, I felt shock, sorrow and deep sympathy, both for his family, his friends and for everyone who knew this young man.  I was also left bewildered, wondering why such a young man would ever consider such an act. 

Then I wondered why he harbored these feelings — doesn’t being a part of a marching band (or any marching arts group) provide some salve through its inherent discipline, focused attention and camaraderie, especially when you are “in season?  I felt driven to ask myself and do research whether people who suffered from depression and, more to the point of suicidal depression, who are also members of a drum corps.  To help me, I made a request through Drum Corps Planet forum and to my surprise, I had eight people who shared their personal stories.

Now, before I write further, I want to set some ground rules for the rest of this article.  I am not a medical professional, nor am I an accomplished researcher, so this article is written simply to open a discussion about drum corps and its members and/or staff who suffer from either clinical or self-diagnosed depression.  I include support information at the end of this article and I strongly urge anyone who feels they suffer from any form of mental confusion or depression to please seek professional assistance right away.

Also note, even though several volunteers gave me permission to use their name, I am opting to keep them anonymous and aggregated their responses.  I am also not mentioning which corps  they were members that ran the gamut of World, Open and all-age, but it all included a wide range in ages and drum corps involvement.

I am not sure if this is relevant, but all volunteers were male and brass players except one who was in the pit.  You can come to your own conclusion why. ☺

One longtime lower brass performer and instructor commented, “My depression had a bit of a positive effect on me.  It turned me into a work horse with an insane work ethic.  I find that I’m at my most depressed when I don’t have responsibilities or goals to work toward.”

He further added, “Performing in drum corps helped me.  It made me learn how to manage my stress and expectations from others when I really wasn’t mentally or emotionally capable of doing it that day.”

His response was typical to most of the others, but I had one respondent whot sat on the opposite end of this spectrum.  He was a front ensemble (pit) performer who said that “… [in my] late teenage years, I went to a psychiatrist [where] I was informed I had schizoaffective disorder, which is mostly a combination of depression and schizophrenia.”  He added that the results of his condition “going to rehearsal became a trigger [for me].  I felt worthless while I was there.  They degraded me down to dead weight [and] they made me think I was terrible.  I believed it.”  He concluded that as a result he quit the corps before the end of the season.

As a former instructor myself, it is not always easy to know or recognize that you are dealing with someone suffering from depression and how our actions (no matter how well-meaning) may add to their stress.  I did receive a response from a “counselor” who worked with several World Class corps and he offered insight to this article.  “I don’t see drum corps as curative for any dimension of depression other than ‘situational depression’ ([defined as] a reaction in light of a temporary or abrupt life situation.” 

He added that “depression that comes from personality DNA, chemical and hormonal changes in one’s body or an environmental view of life (always seeing the glass half empty or life as a problem) as a result of early mis-informative training can be given new tools and coping skills by participation in drum corps, but I would never say the situation would be cured by that alone.”

Over his long history, he became aware of two suicides of DCI members who were unable to cope with life’s disappointments and their own depression; one had been the drum major of the Hawthorne Muchachos, the other a member of the Sacramento Freelancers, both who reacted after major competitive disappointments with their corps.

He summarized the effect of drum corps on those dealing with depression in this way: “Drum corps provides a challenge of goals and achievements which calls one beyond oneself and narcissism to team work and interaction with others.  Being on a DCI tour allows the person dealing with depression to step out of the usual environment of home and schoo.  One has the opportunity to name the depressive strains as either environmentally-based and/or internally-based (as when the same struggles continue to appear even when with different people in different environments.

“The high-energy level demanded in drum corps, the constant schedule of daily activities and the paucity of sleep and personal time challenges the depressed individual to move beyond navel-gazing ruts and behaviors; in effect to make choices of where one is and where one wishes to be on an emotional plane.”  He further lamented, “I know with my own [relative] who marched a DCI drum corps in a Jim Ott-winning first-place horn line, this challenge moved him to ask for help and to seek counseling once the season was over.  In his words, ‘he could no longer hide in his feelings and still attain his goals’.”

I was encouraged to hear through this counselor that most World Class corps now employ medical staff who are aware of which members are taking medications, especially on tour, both for the good of the member and the corps.  Such monitoring offers an assistance to the member in view of the heat and humidity that influences the effects of some medications.

Risk factors for depression and suicide can vary by age, gender and ethnic group and can often occur in combinations.  Statistically, over 90% of people who died through suicide have clinical depression or another diagnosable mental disorder.  Many times people have problems in combination with other mental disorders.

Adverse or traumatic life events in combination with other risk factors, such as clinical depression, may lead to suicide.  But it should be noted that suicide and suicidal behavior are never normal responses to stress.

Other risk factors for suicide include:

  • One or more prior suicide attempts
  • Family history of mental disorder or substance abuse
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family violence
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Keeping firearms in the home
  • Chronic physical illness, including chronic pain
  • Incarceration
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others

To help me with understanding the scope of depression and suicide as it may relate to drum corps, I asked the Internet through Drum Corps Planet Forum if anyone would be willing to assist.  I was pleased that eight (8) people offered to provide their personal stories.

Interestingly to note, the University of Illinois did research using a survey in 2004 based on a questionnaire created by Coffman and Adamek to examine quality of life issues related to drum corps participation.  The research was titled “Contributions of Drum Corps Participation to the Quality of Life of Drum Corps Alumni” that was conducted by Stephen Zdzinski, with the Frost School of Music, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL.

In the research he wrote in his Abstract: “Former drum corps members joined because they desired a higher level of marching musical experience and loved to perform.  Educational, job, commitment, time and monetary adjustments were made to participate in the activity. 

Benefits from their participation in the drum corps activity included personal development, mental and physical health benefits and social and musical development.  Drum corps alumni continue to be involved in the activity as instructors, spectators, volunteers or members of senior drum corps, as well as working in the activity as judges, media or vendors.

Drum corps alumni found social aspects of participation to be the most interesting, enjoyable, yet frustrating aspect of their experience.  Performance and travel opportunities were also found to be very important, as were competition and achievement.  Adults involved in the activity were mentioned as the primary influence in successful participation. Drum corps alumni expressed frustration with judging and the politics of the activity, as well as the general lack of support.”

Excerpts from Table 2 in the research titled “Perceived Reasons, Accommodations and Benefits of Drum Corps participation (categorized statements).”


He noted that 50% of the participants reported mental health benefits from drum corps anticipation, specifically in the areas of self-discipline, self-esteem and mental toughness.  In addition, 43% of the participants reported better physical fitness and health as result of their drum corps experiences.

Table 3 in the research titled: Drum Corp Impact Ratings on Quality of Life Factors

The ratings in Table 3 are similar to the open-ended response results found in Table 2.  The highest impact ratings for drum corps participation were for items such as knowing personal strengths and weaknesses (personal accountability), improving self-discipline, socializing and developing friendships.  Many of these personal strengths are also necessary for better mental health.

I was actually surprised when I found information about the use of drum corps in a very old psychological magazine.  The following is from an article in The Institution Quarterly, Copyright 1941.  Please note that terms expressed are reprinted as written and reflects language style used of that period:


Dr. Charles Bernstein, Superintendent of Rome State Custodial Asylum, Rome, NY, writes the “Institution Quarterly” concerning a report in its December 1913, number of the Lincoln State School and Colony.  He was particularly impressed by what was said in that report on the subject of hydrotherapy for disturbed cases among the feeble-minded.

Dr. Bernstein presents the subject from the viewpoint of one who has had long experience with this class . . . there are certain exercises with drum corps, it having been my experience that such cases respond more quickly to music and rhythm.  The more disturbed and violent among the feeble-minded will quickly respond and join the drum corps or marching squad on the ward, especially when they are fitted out with Quaker muskets or dummy guns.  This exercise can be carried on in a large day room connected with the ward, marching around the beds in various routes. Of course, in fair weather this marching can be done in the open yard.”

To be perfectly transparent about the article above, I assumed they used a combination of repetitive actions deployed using military-style training and basically “playing” army as a way to promote a form of mental discipline.  But these concepts are still valid today considering the use of marching blocks and the constant repetitive practice of basics and rudiments in music and motion to inch ever closer to show and self-perfection.

Lastly, from the Performance Arts Medicine Association (PAMA) in their Psychological Health in Schools of Music, State of the Art Reviews (StAR):  In an article titled “MUSIC PERFORMANCE ANXIETY PART TWO: Expanding the Treatment of MPA, Improving Outcomes and Reducing Relapse,” they wrote, “There are many negative life experiences during both childhood and adulthood that can create vulnerability to anxiety that may get triggered in the face of performance threat.  Anxiety is present in a range of mental conditions, including the various anxiety disorders and often ‘signals’ deeper emotional conflicts.  Early separation and loss of parenting figures, childhood trauma, stressful life events such as parental divorce, family illness as well as addictions, major depression, reactions to physical injuries and occupational stress are some of the stressors that can trigger anxiety.”  They further introduced ways to combat anxieties:

  1. Make referrals to a specialist in anxiety disorders;
  2. Consider psychological treatment of all co-morbid conditions in a sequential multi-modal treatment plan;
  3. Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment (MAC) therapy to promote acceptance of one’s internal experiences;
  4. Consider a medication evaluation to rule out a variety of mental health conditions; and

5 Apply performance-based interventions after treatment that includes mental rehearsal, gradual exposure to increasing performance challenges and lifestyle, self-regulation techniques.

To that end, there are ways to help yourself to feel better when struggling with depression and/or anxiety including:

  • Taking breaks;
  • Exercise;
  • Reach out;
  • Get active;
  • Eat healthy;
  • Get enough sleep;
  • Limit alcohol consumption;
  • Limit caffeine consumption;
  • Speak to someone; and
  • Always seek professional help.

Having the right coping mechanisms to deal with depression and anxiety can help you to feel better.  Depression and anxiety are more common than I thought and, in my research, I discovered that we should avoid feeling ashamed because of how we feel.

With that said, I am no stranger to depression and deep sadness.  During my younger days, I have suffered through strong self-doubt to the point of having fleeting suicidal thoughts.  They never lasted more than a quick thought and I never acted upon them.  Drum corps became a form of salvation for me, even though I didn’t actually understand it at the time.  It became my source for friends, alternative family and, more importantly, a focused purpose that I didn’t realize was missing in my life. 

My drum corps tenure began marching with a small community corps called The Black Watch from Willingboro, NJ.  Nearly everyone in the corps lived locally.  This was from 1970 to 1983 that I was involved, either as a marching member, instructor, volunteer or avid supporter.  Black Watch took center stage in my life in ways I hadn’t completely understood until many years later.  All of my really close friends were members.  They remain even today. 

What was that line from the 1983 Stephen King movie “Stand By Me” — “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.  Jesus, does anyone?”  That quote certainly resonated with me.

I also lived through the clinical depression of a family member that ultimately resulted in a deep loss.  I probably could have benefited from professional mental support, but I come from a family where seeking help of any kind was looked upon as a form of weakness.  Basically, all I needed to do was “suck it up” and “get my head on straight.”  I

t wasn’t until my older brother, Robert, suffered a serious psychological break and nearly died from a self-inflicted knife wound that I actually witnessed the true benefits of professional help.  They worked with my brother for many months and he improved dramatically.  Ironically, just when he was able to return to work, he died from a dislodged blood clot to his heart caused by the repaired knife wound. 

My brother was just 36 years old and it affected my family deeply.  His depression was long in developing, it certainly caused great strain in his marriage and his relationship with his daughter.  We didn’t recognize the telltale signs until his depression was more overt and he was actually seeing and hearing hallucinations.  We just got so caught up in our own lives that we failed to see the pain and struggles of others.

When I started this article, I knew I was delving in some murky and deep emotional waters.  Based on the information I gathered from the volunteers, the counselor, the myriad of articles and studies I uncovered, plus my own emotional history, I see depression much like a coat of many colors.  We all wear the coat, but the color we see and display is as unique as fingerprints. 

It is important that drum corps management and its instructors remember to take great care and remain cognitive of how they might affect others around them.  Get trained and be aware of the signs of depression.  Have resources available to offer assistance when it becomes clear that a member of your corps displays signs of depression.

As I conclude this article, I made a promise to provide information to resources and people that can provide help to you or anyone you think may be suffering from depression.  There are many, many other support programs and resource by simply searching the Internet, just talking to your family physician or maybe a clergy at your place of worship.  Just take the first step to help sort these feelings.  YOU DO NOT NEED TO BE ALONE!

Suicide prevention resources:

Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

For more information on-line, you can visit

Other resources:

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Basic information on suicide from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

National Center for Injury Prevention and Control

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web page on suicide prevention.                                   


Teen-oriented website with suicide warning signs, life skills information, and links.

American Association of Suicidology

This site is designed as a resource for anyone concerned about suicide, including AAS members, suicide researchers, therapists, prevention specialists, survivors of suicide and people who are themselves in crisis.

Suicide Awareness Voices of Education

Information on suicide: questions and answers, misconceptions, fact sheets, how to interact with survivors.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

SPRC promotes the implementation of the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention and enhances the nation’s mental health infrastructure by providing states, government agencies, private organizations, colleges and universities, and suicide survivor and mental health consumer groups with access to the science and experience that can support their efforts to develop programs, implement interventions, and promote policies to prevent suicide.