In its origin, Northern Lights Drum & Bugle Corps was, admittedly, somewhat of a self-seeking endeavor. In practice, it’s anything but.
It was simple. Director Misty Olmstead and her husband, Doug, wanted an accessible, all-age marching music option, local to their home region of Muskegon, Michigan, in which they could take part.
So, naturally, they just went ahead and created one themselves.
“There are very limited opportunities here, for all-age drum corps,” she said. “So, it started off a little selfishly, to be honest.”
But when Olmstead describes the mission of Northern Lights, and the steps the organization has already taken to support that mission, it’s the furthest thing from self-serving.
The key word in all facets was, and is, accessible — accessible to all.
“It has become a passion to provide this for everyone who wants it,” Olmstead said.
After ideas began to formulate in the summer of 2022, the organization hit the ground running in September, working full speed ahead toward its first rehearsal camps, with the eventual goal of taking the stage as part of Drum Corps International's SoundSport program in 2023.
“We just took a look at the gaps here in western Michigan and went, ‘What can we do to make this accessible to the youth and to anybody who wants to march here?’” Olmstead continued. “The outcome, and the interest, has just been mind-blowing.”
Along the way Northern Lights engaged in aggressive fundraising to get things started.
And there’s a reason for that. When Northern Lights says it hopes to be an easily-accessible marching opportunity, it includes cost in that equation.
As Olmstead put it, the organization’s goal is to provide a “low-to-no cost” experience, with plans of making that goal a reality through creative revenue generation, frugal spending and resourcefulness.
“We're constantly trying to raise funds, we're constantly reaching out to local businesses and looking for sponsorships, and we're looking for partnerships,” she said. “And in doing that, we're keeping our costs as low as possible.”
It truly was a GREAT day for drum corps. Huge shout out to our community partners for making our camps happen for...Posted by Northern Lights Drum & Bugle Corps on Saturday, February 18, 2023
“Right now, we're looking at anywhere between free — which is still the goal — to no more than $300 or $400 (member fees) for the entire season,” she added.
Beyond simply bringing all-age marching music to western Michigan, Northern Lights hopes it can also serve as a stepping stone for local performers to other opportunities.
Ultimately, Northern Lights aims to simply serve as whatever it can, for whoever it can.
“If there’s a high school student who is kind of testing the waters and isn’t quite sure if they're ready for that next step yet, we want to help them prepare to get there," Olmstead said. "If there’s a DCI-aged person and they are just wanting something closer to home, or they don't have the funds to go to one of the bigger corps, we're here for them, too. If hey've aged out and this is their resting place, and they want to come back and relive those years, we want to be that for them, too.”
Interest from performers, according to Olmstead, has already drastically exceeded expectations.
She had originally expected a couple handfuls of attendees at Northern Lights’ first rehearsal, held in November — just two months after the organization’s founding. The final total was triple her estimate, and it snowballed to as many as 80 interested individuals as the organization’s February 18 camp approached.
“I was really crossing my fingers for like 15 people, and at our first camp we had 45,” Olmstead said. “I'm excited to see where we land after these next couple of camps.”
Northern Lights’ short-term plan is to keep moving forward, step by step, toward a culminating performance at the 2023 SoundSport International Music & Food Festival, held August 12 in Indianapolis.
The organization will hold single-day rehearsals every other month during the spring — Currently, dates are on the calendar for April 5 and June 3 — before ramping up to bi-monthly Saturdays in June and July.
“If we're performing, and we have a great response from the crowd, then that's a successful season for us,” Olmstead said. “Along the way, we do expect to learn a lot of lessons, and learn better ways of moving into the next season to improve the member experience.”
In the long term, Northern Lights aims to continue to grow as an all-age ensemble, keep building its local roots, and stretch its legs gradually, reasonably and strategically.
And if early steps are any indicator, that growth is well on its way.
“If we can continue to grow our numbers and put on an amazing performance every single year, that will be a win for us,” Olmstead said. “Our three-to-five year goals are really just to continue building off of previous years, continue learning lessons, and continue creating a member experience that is rewarding and allows our members to be where they need to be, when they need to be there.“