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But the Drum and Bugle Corps is the only active-duty drum corps in the armed forces, which makes becoming a member highly prestigious — most soldiers in the Commandant’s Own came to the Marines looking specifically to play in this band. Miles explained that this results in extremely competitive auditions for open positions.
“If there’s one bugle opening, 300 people try out,” he said.
And only a few, such as Gunnery Sgt. Keith Martinez, make it. Martinez played soprano bugle for the Drum and Bugle Corps for nine years before moving up to assistant drum major.
The application process for his current position was intense, requiring a 10-page paper, an oral interview with a seven-person panel and a demonstration during which he had to lead a unit around in a small ceremony. Martinez now does much of the administrative work for the band, but he said the 95 percent of work is worth the 5 percent of time spent performing.
“When Marines mess up out in town, it’s not that bad because for every bad thing you turn around and have something good happen. You get to meet somebody famous,” Martinez said. “It’s satisfying.”
He said he counts meeting President George H.W. Bush at the U.S. Embassy in Paris and President Barack Obama and his family here in D.C. as some highlights from his time with the Drum and Bugle Corps.
But the experience is not just glamorous travel and famous encounters. The Marines in the Drum and Bugle Corps practice their music and their marches for eight to 10 hours every day during an average week, but as many as 12 hours a day in the weeks leading up to their spring tour.
Majors and assistant majors, such as Martinez, must know every instrument’s part and all of the possible marches to be prepared for any mistake that might occur.
“It’s kind of like playing chess,” Martinez said. “You have to be five steps ahead of what everybody else is doing.”
Like a quarterback, he studies video of the performances to keep track of all of the different movements and possible mistakes.
For many of the musicians, meeting important dignitaries is just a side perk to doing what they love — playing music. Percussionist Austin Williams said he came to the Drum and Bugle Corps because he wanted to be able to play music and make money doing it.
Being one of the older members of the Commandant’s Own means he had an unusual experience from the beginning.
“Boot camp was a challenge,” he said. “There are very few recruits in their upper 20s.”
Despite a grueling boot camp, Williams wouldn’t give up his experience in the Drum and Bugle Corps. He said it is unlike any band he had ever played in and that the fact it is steeped in Marine history and tradition lends a sense of connection within the band.
“I was surprised by the brotherhood, the camaraderie,” he said. “We call ourselves ‘brothers in music.’”