John Stewart was a total novice when he signed on to be co-chair of the 30th Annual Festival of Drums and Bugles.

“It is a whole different world out there,” says Stewart, somewhat bewildered. “These people come from all over, and they are almost religious about it. I had no clue what kind of fervor there was.”

The 10 drum corps that perform at the festival are essentially marching bands without the woodwinds. Except that these marchers are the elitist of the elite from high schools and colleges across the nation. The result is a stunning world-class show right in the heart of Lake Highlands, but a lot of neighbors don’t know anything about it, Stewart says.

There’s a reason for that, says Gayle Garinger, a 2000 Lake Highlands graduate who marched in drum corps for three summers while in college.

“Band people are thought to be band dorks, so people are like, ‘I don’t want to go watch the band,’” she says. “But they don’t really realize how exciting it can be. There’s just so much passion that radiates from the field, and the crowd can feel it.”

Drum corps is so regimented that some students have joined only to quit two weeks later.

“It’s almost like watching a military base, it’s that structured,” says Sue Garinger, Gayle Garinger’s mother.

The students who stick it out for the entire summer are incredibly disciplined and devoted. They live and breathe drum corps, sleeping on two or three buses and accompanied by an 18-wheeler or two (outfitted with kitchens, sewing rooms and instrument repair shops) as they tour all over the country. Every once in a while, they get to stay overnight at a good gym with a decent floor and showers, Sue Garinger says. And to be part of this, they pay $1,000 to $2,000 “for the pleasure of beating yourself to death all summer,” she laughs.

Stewart describes them as “world-class Olympic athletes for the sport” who are up at the crack of dawn practicing and out on the field sweating in 100-degree heat. But they can’t help it, says Sue Garinger.

“It gets in your blood,” she says. “It’s like being in a sorority in college. These bonds stay with them for a long, long time.”

The one-big-family feel of drum corps is a major draw for the marchers. The other is no surprise – their love for performing.

“There’s a huge adrenalin rush right before you step onto the field,” Gayle Garinger says. “And there’s not one superstar – it’s everybody.”

The Lake Highlands competition is the longest running event of its kind west of the Mississippi and draws more than 5,000 fans.

“Drum Corps International judges over and over say the Lake Highlands stop is one of their favorites because the fans here are ‘wild about marching,’” says Jeanne Spreier, a parent volunteer.

And there’s an added bonus for neighbors who attend the show – all money raised benefits the band programs in Lake Highlands’ schools.