The first note is struck at 7 a.m. on the dot. There will be no waiting for those students struggling to make the early call-time or allowances for imprecision or mistakes resulting from a game day celebration the night before.

By 7 a.m., drums are on, and the drummers at attention, standing still in relaxed readiness, even if it feels like they can barely keep themselves upright. Under the watchful eyes of the instructors and TAs, the drummers begin to play.

The notes boom out into the early morning air, sometimes disturbing those in the dormitories with the luxury of sleeping off Friday night's activities, but this is about something bigger than sleep – this is about college football.

This is the drumline of the USC Trojan Marching Band (TMB).

Ask any member of the drumline, and you'll get the same answer: game days are exhausting, sweaty and long. The 7 a.m. warm-ups are only the beginning of a 12-hour day of marching, playing and screaming as your muscles ache from the effort.

The sweat drips down your back from the inside of the heavy uniform that pride will not allow you to remove. Game day means another Saturday gone, missing homework and social events alike, all for the chance to kick your own ass up and down the football field.

But ask any member of the drumline, and they'll also tell you that they wouldn't miss a game for the world.

“There's something about standing on the edge of the field with 90,000 people screaming who can't wait for you to get out on the field and play your hearts out and just seep this attitude all through the field,” says Kristen Mineck, co-section leader for the 2007-2008 drumline. “I don't know any other band in the country that actually makes such a difference in the football team.”

There's a rapport between the Trojan football team and its band that rivals any other such relationship in the country. In the TMB, the only reason to exist is to push the team that much closer to victory. But while the rest of the band is cheering and occasionally plays, the drumline is a constant force focused only on getting the team through those hard moments in a game.

“You want to be the x-factor,” explains Robert Millan, snare drummer and section leader for the 2006-2007 line. “When you're playing for the team, you're hoping that every note you play will pump them up more.”

But if Saturday is all about performance, the rest of the week is all about preparation.

The TMB practices together three days out of the school week for two hours, learning music and marching the drill for the half time show that any good Trojan fan has come to expect. Practices are essential, but there is a tedium to them that cannot be denied.

“The knowledge that it's going to end soon just makes it tolerable,” jokes Austin Jordan, a snare drummer. “What I find amusing about it are the players. Some people play catch or kick a soccer ball around – I go to band practice.”

But practice doesn't end for the drumline when the clock hits 5:45 p.m. and the words of Dr. Arthur C. Bartner ring out over the football field, “Band dismissed!” When the majority of the band members have gone home after practice on Tuesday, there's at least one section that puts in overtime.  

With only a week sometimes to put a show together, the extra practice is critical. If the drumline falters, the rest of the band goes down with them.

“We are the tempo, we are the groove, we are the attitude of the band at all times,” Mineck relays. “If we let our energy down even for a second, if we lose the beat, the rest of the band could unravel so quickly. We need to be solid all the time.”

All in all, a member of the USC drumline spends up to 25 hours a week working and playing with the line, plus whatever they choose to add on for individual practice and gigs. Some of them have jobs, all of them have school, but everyone makes time for the line.

“I think there are two [types of] people who join the drumline,” shares Jon Moss, quad player and section leader for the 2005-2006 line. “There's the guys who show up to play notes, and the other type of person is the kind of person we more commonly see in the drumline, who makes their life drumline.”

“It's a matter of prioritizing in your life what's important to you,” he continues. “I prioritized it so that I was giving the most to drumline because I was getting the most out of it.”

But who does the line make time for?

Recruits come from all walks of life and all musical backgrounds, from people who have never marched (and some who have never played) to those who've made a life out of marching bands and can rattle off the finite details of drum corps shows as though they were the characteristics of an old friend.

It's not always about experience – it's about ability and dedication.

“The drumline is looking for anybody who loves to drum, who loves the band and the university and the spirit,” Mineck assures. “Of course, we're looking for musicians, too.”

All new recruits come before the school year ever begins – their first freshman experience is with the drumline. That means missing all of the “Welcome Week” activities and never really meeting that roommate you're supposed to have bonded with except through a few forced Facebook messages asking who's bringing the refrigerator. Instead, new recruits come a week and half early to stand before the judges and take on their new role as a quad, snare, bass or cymbal player.

The soon-to-be freshmen stand anxiously outside of Booth Hall as they peck away restlessly at drum pads, awaiting the beginning of tryouts. They try awkwardly to avoid eye contact with the people they see as competitors for coveted positions on the line, not knowing that these are the people they'll end up being closest to in their collegiate experience. Their class will be their family.

“You turn around, and you can't believe this is what you just signed up to be in,” says Michael Rapp, a bass drummer on the line.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, few members of the drumline could claim to have close acquaintances outside of the line and the TMB.

“I don't think I know anybody outside the line well enough to call a good friend,” admits Miguel-Angel Manrique, a snare-drummer for the band. “Cool people, but nobody I'd hang out with on a Saturday afternoon.”

Not everyone who drums is cut out for four years with the drumline. Every class has lost members to school commitments or the realization that the culture of a drumline isn't really their style. Though not all may stay, everyone is encouraged to try it on for size, for the camaraderie, the art and that feeling of playing “Conquest” at the end of a game.

“I would be a completely different person,” Moss points out. “It's like examining an atom – you can't be part of it without being changed by it in some way. Even the people who are in [it for] a year and then out, I think they're changed.”