Nutmeg Volunteer Junior Ancient Fife and Drum Corps celebrates 75 years
Groton ― Divya Varadharajan, 13, a member of the Nutmeg Volunteer Junior Ancient Fife and Drum Corps, feels uplifted when playing the upbeat music of the fife and drum corps.
Varadharajan, a Groton resident who plays the fife, remembers how kind and welcoming other corps members were when she joined. Now they are her friends.
“We’re a team,” she said during a practice last month at the Groton Municipal Building. The corps was practicing Irish tunes for the upcoming performance in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City under the guidance of volunteers who were once in the corps themselves.
The Nutmeg Volunteer Junior Ancient Fife and Drum Corps, based in Groton, is the second oldest Junior Fife and Drum Corps left in the United States, and this year is celebrating 75 years, Director Terrie Lamb said.
Thousands of youths ages 9 to 18, have participated in the corps over the years. But the future for the corps, which currently has 8 to 10 youths, is uncertain if more members don’t join, Lamb explained. Fewer members mean more pressure for the current corps members to make every performance, which can be difficult for them. Alumni volunteers are filling in the gaps during performances.
The corps’ recruiting mission is to “Help Keep History Alive” and help save the corps from having to fold.
“We’re at a point where if we don’t get a good, steady stream of new kids to come in, I don’t know that we’re going to be able to keep going,” Lamb said. The corps is seeking new members and support from the community.
A long history
The junior fife and drum corps started in 1948 and was originally sponsored by the Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department, she said. In 1964, the corps reorganized and became sponsored by the Groton Lodge of Elks.
Members come from across southeastern Connecticut ― with current members from Clinton, Waterford, North Stonington and Groton. Sometimes children younger than nine years old take part if they have siblings in the corps or family members who can help them.
The corps practices Monday evenings at the Groton Municipal Building and performs across New England and New York. Students learn to read music and can progress at their own pace, depending on how much they practice.
The corps’ uniforms are modified versions of the uniforms worn by George Washington’s Continental Army line officers. The corps plays a lot of military music used to give commands to soldiers and provide a cadence for marching, as well as boost morale at the end of the day. It also plays other types of music, Lamb said.
“We play a mix of music that comes from the Revolutionary period but also the Civil War period and then we also play songs that have been written in the 20th century,” Lamb said.
The corps leaders discuss the history of the music and make their music selections with a growing awareness that some traditional songs are not appropriate.
Fifes and drums
Jovanna Burgess, 13, of Clinton plays the fife and her brother Josh Burgess, plays the snare drum and is learning the fife.
“Both the fife and the drum work together in sync pretty much so I think it’s a really nice experience to get to play with my sister when we’re both performing and marching together,” Josh said.
Rebecca Tsai, 10, of Groton, said she always wanted to play drums, and after joining the fife and drum corps, now knows how to read music and play the snare drum.
Lilly Evans, 11, said that through the fife and drum corps, she made friends, who also enjoy music like she does, and built up her confidence. Before, she wouldn’t play music in front of anybody except for her family, but now she feels comfortable playing in front of others.
“They get to recreate music that was played years ago and it’s kind of cool,” said her mother, Wynter Evans of North Stonington. “They get a little history lesson in it, and Terrie’s really great with history. She gives us little tidbits about these different battles and different areas that we go to.”
Carrying on the tradition
Samantha Batch, a Waterford resident who grew up in Groton, joined the junior fife and drum corps after her cousins, who were in the corps, encouraged her. Her parents and uncle also helped the fife and drum corps.
When she marched down the road, she knew she was not only representing herself, but her hometown of Groton. She said the experience in the fife and drum corps taught her responsibility and gave her a feeling of pride.
“You took that time, you put in the effort, you learned the music, you're putting on that uniform,” she said. “It’s just all part of that package, and you’re preserving history.”
Now her 10-year-old son, Ian, plays the drum in the corps and wears his uncle’s uniform.
“To see it still going this many years, as it is, it still fills my heart with joy, and I’m so glad that they’re still going and still carrying on this tradition,” she said.
Batch, who also participated in the senior fife and drum corps in Westbrook and knows more than 150 songs, now helps out with the junior fife and drum corps, whether filling in for an instructor or marching in a parade.
Her cousin, Jeannette Hickey, who lives in Norwich, said her cousins and brother were in the corps, and her father drove the bus up and down the east coast to parades during the summer.
“It just became a family affair,” she said.
She remembers when the fife and drum corps started playing at Independence Square in Philadelphia on a Revolutionary War tour in the 1990s, and drew in a crowd, with people stopping what they were doing to watch them perform.
“That was a really memorable experience,” she said.
Debbie Sayer, fife instructor, said she’s teaching students traditional music, but also musical skills.
“We think it’s important to teach our students how to read the music so that they can go on and learn new tunes even after they leave the corps,” she said.
Sayer was in the corps as a teenager and she said her experience connected her to the nation’s history and different eras of music.
Sayer said she is researching the history of the music and how some folk songs were for minstrel shows and “written from a place of racism.” She said that work is opening up discussions with the students about how those aren’t the types of songs they want to perform.
Lamb said a lot of times musicians know the music of a song, not the words. If it comes to light that a song is inappropriate, or if a student or parent says they aren’t comfortable with a song, then the corps drops it from its repertoire, as happened with a couple of Civil War tunes.
The fife and drum corps is desperately looking for new kids to join.
Lamb, who is in her 36th year being director, said that when she was growing up, there were four or five kids on her street alone in the corps and close to 15 or 20 students in her middle school that were participating.
But over the last ten to 12 years, the corps has been struggling to find new members. The corps has been hovering around 8 to 10 kids, and many other corps are facing similar challenges finding more participants.
“Sadly, all the junior corps in the surrounding community are all struggling with recruiting,” she said. When she was a kid, she said there were about 12 to 15 junior corps in Connecticut, and now there are about 7.
Lamb said the fife and drum corps is looking for support to keep the corps alive, including volunteers to help out at practices and rehearsals, instructors, and people who have expertise in other areas, such as grant applications.
She said the corps had to sell its bus during the pandemic because it could not afford to keep it on the road. Parents are carpooling and helping accompany the kids during parades.
Lamb said the fife and drum corps teaches music, helps members develop self-discipline and makes them feel good about themselves. Participants in the corps also make friends, and Lamb said the people she met while in the corps have become lifelong friends.
Many youths build on their experience in the corps and go on to be in their high school marching band, Lamb said. Many alumni have gone on to play in adult Fife and Drum Corps. Some have studied music in college and some have become music educators. One former corps member became a professional musician who did a tour with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
“It’s a great place for kids to get their feet wet with marching and performing, and then they go on and do other great things as well,” Lamb said.
Rehearsals are held 6:15 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays and interested children and teens are welcome to stop by. More information on the corps and how to join is available at: www.nutmegfifeanddrum.org or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
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