Physical Therapy on the Road with the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corps

Recently, Symmetry’s founder, physical therapist & marching-band-mom Julie Mankinen had the opportunity to spend several days on tour with the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corps – a performance marching band that is traveling across the United States this summer.  The group is one of more than 40 organizations that compete in the Drum Corps International (DCI) season, which begins in June and finishes with a World Championship competition in mid-August.  These performance groups have been described as “Marching Music’s Major League” and are comprised of primarily collegiate-aged musicians, along with a handful of high-school-aged performers.  The Corps performances take marching drill as might be seen at football game half-time shows to the ‘next-level’ – incorporating elements of dance, costume design and thematic visual effects.  Each Corps consists of approximately 160 members, who travel along with a fleet of buses, RVs, equipment trucks, and vans that support the group throughout the tour.  Julie was asked to volunteer as a part of the group’s medical staff.

Most folks are likely unfamiliar with the physical demands of marching band.  Here is a brief rundown of some of the things that kids in the Santa Clara Vanguard & other DCI organizations do on a daily basis:

  • 2-3 rehearsals (each 4 hours in length) on non-performance days, during which time members are moving around at often-rapid speeds while performing music that requires intricate breath patterns and sustained exertional breathing.
  • Maintain both arms in an elevated position while carrying and precisely maneuvering brass instruments that weigh up to 15-30 pounds.  Drum line members wear harnesses to support drums that are of similar weight.
  • Perform choreography that requires significant strength & flexibility.  When they are not playing their instruments, members might be doing somersaults, or cartwheels, or kicks and leaps, or rolls onto the ground and back up again.
  • Drill team members are performing dance and gymnastic type movements while also twirling and throwing and catching wooden rifles or sabers or weighted flags.
  • Large wooden and metal props and various pieces of musical equipment are pushed and pulled around onto and off of the field for each rehearsal and performance and are assembled and disassembled to be transported via equipment truck on essentially a daily basis.
  • Each competition performance is approximately 12-13 minutes in length and is preceded by a lengthy warm-up.  Many of the competition events take place in southern and southwestern states where temperatures at performance time are not infrequently around 100 degrees F.

Corps members participate in a rigorous musical and physical training programs starting in December and continuing until the summer pre-tour camp begins in mid-May.  They are quite physically fit as the season begins and their strength & stamina continues to improve throughout the tour.  Despite the preparation, injuries are certainly possible.  Among the issues that Julie worked with Corps members to address during her time with the group were:

  • Neck & shoulder pain that had accumulated during long hours of rehearsal.
  • Ankle sprains sustained while changing directions and moving quickly during marching drill and/or from stepping awkwardly onto or off of the moving props on the field.
  • Knee pain and quadriceps, hamstring, & calf muscle strains from learning new choreography.
  • Concussion injuries acquired when throwing and catching rifles or flags went wrong, or in one instance when a band member’s knee hit another member in the head during a maneuver during which one person was lifted and thrown into the air by several other people on the ground.
  • Finger tendon and ligament injuries from sustained carrying of instruments or twirling of color guard equipment.
  • Various bruises and bumps resulting from knocking shins into equipment or dropping flags or other objects during rehearsal.

Working with the Corps was quite different than working in a typical physical therapy clinic.  Julie was able to evaluate and treat people within minutes after their injuries occurred, rather than days or weeks or months after an injury event, as is more common in an office setting.  Julie’s orthopedic manual physical therapy training worked very well in these situations, because being able to fairly immediately correct mechanical problems caused by injuries with hands-on joint and/or muscle mobilization techniques generally prevents some of the secondary issues associated with sprains and strains, such as swelling and joint or muscle stiffness.  Another difference from typical clinical practice is that injured members of the marching band needed to and wanted to return to activity pretty much immediately after injury, because there was always another rehearsal or another performance about to happen.  It was very difficult to recommend rest, as is often one of the management strategies after injury for the general population.  Getting creative with athletic tape and elastic support tape was important, to help support the performers as they attempted to “get back in the game” without delay.  It was also Julie’s job, in association with other medical staff members, to determine which activities were and were not safe for the injured band members to return to for upcoming rehearsals.  If an injury occurred on a rehearsal day, it was possible to recommend activity modifications for the next several hours or the next day to allow an injury to begin to heal or a body part to rest.  For instance, a person with a freshly sprained ankle could be given supportive tape and then advised to do straight-line marching drill while avoiding dance choreography that would require twisting or jumping.  It was also the job of the medical staff to make calls as to whether or not injured performers were ready to fully participate on performance days.  In some cases, such as when concussion symptoms such as light and sound sensitivity were persistent, the injured band member needed to be coached to sit out of a performance and an alternate performer needed to be inserted into their spot for the show.

Spending time with the Santa Clara Vanguard was a fascinating opportunity to participate in the medical care for a group of high-level athlete-performers.  Watching the Corps members rehearse and put on their full show provided a glimpse of precisely how hard the group works to produce the performance that goes into each competition throughout the season.  There are 3 weeks left in the 2022 DCI tour.  Santa Clara Vanguard has been scoring well and is expected to qualify for the finals round at the World Championship coming up August 10-12th.  Wishing the Corps the best of luck during the rest of the season!