Rev. Arts HN: Drum Corps Influence

Maybe the band kids were mocked in high school. After all, they’re a bunch of nerds running around the football field, or maybe pounding the pavement on a concrete “field,” squeaking through the clarinets with some drummers diddling just behind the drum major’s tempo. There was probably also some girls trying to throw and catch flags, doing their best to look graceful. Take that concept, age the kids about three years… and put them in the sun for 16 hours a day, every day, for four weeks. Whatever their show was is now close to flawless. The horn line is crisp, loud, and nailing their dynamics. The drummers’ tips and taps are so together they sound like one very loud drummer, or taking the whole section together could make their own band. The color guard is together, turning under their tosses, and the rifles are making one loud smack as each member catches it at the same exact time. This situation goes by two words: drum corps.

Drum Corps International (also known as DCI or simply “drum corps”), is the marching music’s major league. Think of it as football’s NFL (National Football League), or hockey’s NHL (National Hockey League), but for marching band. What separates a drum corps from being just another marching band is what the membership is comprised of — brass, percussion, and color guard. It wasn’t until recently that woodwind instruments were allowed to be featured soloists in drum corps shows.

DCI consists of four different “classes” of corps — world class, open class, international class, and Drum Corps Associates. World class corps can have up to 150 members, and the membership is primarily college-aged students, with the occasional high school-aged student here and there (16-22). Most corps follow an intensive tour schedule, traveling more than 10,000 miles over the course of the summer while performing at more than 35 sanctioned events, including DCI World Championships, currently held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. Members of World Class corps go through a rigorous audition process to get in to the corps, and more often than not, prospective members are cut after their first audition. Open class is similar to world, but with a less extensive rehearsal and touring schedule, and the membership is primarily comprised of high school students. International corps follow their own country’s organizational guidelines, and should they chose to compete in the United States, they compete with other open class corps. Drum Corps Associates (DCA), is all-ages, and aims to provide continuous progress and growth for drum corps for anyone who desires to participate.

DCI was founded in 1972, and since then, has seen more than 30 corps deactivate or “fold.” The issue of finances plagues the community, and to try and fix this issue, DCI has started an “Ambassador” program, where students can enroll to help spread the word to “grow drum corps.” Ambassador’s responsibilities are not only to increase awareness about the activity, but also to broaden the scope of what drum corps is beyond the top eight corps. They’re there also for those hopeful marchers that may have gotten cut after their first audition. After all, there’s other places they can go to have the summer of their lives, get better in the activity, and maybe try out for their dream corps again the next year.

There’s one more major difference between other professional leagues of sports and the DCI activity: payment. Members pay the corps upwards of $3,000 to spend their summer on the road, and this covers housing, travel, food, instruction, props/uniforms for the show, and equipment costs. Another aspect is the housing situation. For a large majority of the summer, corps travel around the country at night via bus. Members move from rehearsal at one housing site, to the show site, sleep en route to the next rehearsal site, maybe grab a couple hours of gym floor time, just to do the process all over again. Remember: performers aren’t paid anything to do this, they pay to do it.

Typically, current members are inspired to perfect their craft and participate in drum corps after going to a show, or viewing a video online, and seeing the activity evolve. After marching with Spirit of Atlanta (color guard, 2013 and 2015), and the DCA corps Minnesota Brass (color guard, 2014), I’ve had some time to reflect on why I work so much the rest of the year to be able to participate in drum corps. Three shows stand out to me in influence to current membership, innovation in the activity, show concept, and accessibility to the public from the mid 2000s-early 2010s (which is when most current members saw their first drum corps shows). These three shows are The Cadets 2007 “This I Believe,” Phantom Regiment 2008 “Spartacus,” and the Madison Scouts 2011 “New York Morning.”

One of the first innovation-inspired controversies in modern drum corps is the use of voice-overs in shows. The Cadets made a big impact in this piece of drum corps history with their show “This I Believe.” Aside from the controversy, “This I Believe” made a huge impact in the community: by offering a comprehensive look at some of what goes in to the perfecting of a drum corps show, why members do it, and the passion this activity requires. The 2007 Cadets color guard also proved to be striving for the future, with the use of double-silk flags (a silk on each side. The performer pulls the desired silk to be shown on one side, and the silk on the other side disappears), and having a silent flag feature (members continue to spin while the corps isn’t playing). But, the most impressive and appealing part of “This I Believe” is how vulnerable the corps made themselves to the non marching member, and it worked to their advantage.

Traditionally, corps were musically fueled by single-valved G-tuned bugles. Now, they are modern multi-valved brass instruments, tuned in B♭, and mellophones pitched in F. All of these changes have stirred controversy, but allowing the use of the human voice in a voice-over style and including the use of electronic instruments is perhaps one of the biggest debates. The Cadets proved that it’s possible to still field a very talented, high-scoring corps even with the continuous use of voiceovers. In this case, they made the concept of their show rely on voiceovers, using about five different members throughout the course of the show to share what they believe, break down what a drum corps show consists of, explain their love and passion for music performance, and a glimpse of their favorite parts of it. Because they follow the “short and sweet” method (saying what they need in just a handful of words), it works.

The Cadets color guard plays a vital part in making “This I Believe” an impactful show in drum corps history. By being able to perform and move with simply a human voice speaking, and sometimes absolute silence, the members of the color guard proved that they are strong enough to be able to perform on their own, and don’t always have to rely on the emotion and backing of the corps’ music. These days, this is almost a necessity for color guard members to be able to perform to anything, and that can partially be attributed to the innovation that The Cadets brought to the field in 2007.

But, the biggest thing to consider when discussing “This I Believe” is how vulnerable The Cadets made their corps by drawing attention to the parts of their show that could be considered weak or difficult, and following it up with completely pulling it off. By breaking down some of the pieces of the show, what is required of members, and running pieces of the show in a way that mirrors how rehearsal is, it was made very accessible to someone who might be new to the world of drum corps. For example, doing a basics block in the middle of a show. A basics block is when the horn line and battery (marching percussion members, including snare, quads, and bass drums), line up in an almost-perfect square and practice marching together. The fact that the corps is in straight lines makes it very easy to spot when someone is out of time or not stepping (marching) on the same foot as everybody else in the block. Especially with The Cadets’ traditional white uniform pants, this brought a wider margin for error. These gutsy acts proved and affirmed that The Cadets were bringing new things to the activity, but still held the same high standard for their members.

The following year, Phantom Regiment’s “Spartacus” stole the spotlight. 2008 wasn’t the first time Phantom Regiment did a “Spartacus” show, previously performing “Spartacus” in 1981 and 1982, both of which had similar arrangements to each other. But 2008 brought a new “Spartacus” for Phantom Regiment. There was a lot more crowd involvement, they used classic bugles for the intro/opening of the show, and the dedication of the featured performers is one of the most commendable parts of the show. “Spartacus” is an influential show to the marching arts today because it is one of the most recognizable shows in modern drum corps. The style, technique, and concept is Phantom Regiment. For a lot of the current marching members in DCI, this is one of the first shows they ever saw.

Before 2008, Phantom Regiment had only won one other World Champion title, which was a tie in 1996. When a corps wins the Champion title, they get set to do an encore performance of their winning show. Luckily, this encore performance is posted online so fans can catch it even though they weren’t there in person. The most popular video for the run on YouTube is shot from the audience (versus the box on the 50 yard line, or a multi cam on the field), so the viewer gets to almost experience what it was like to be in the crowd for a run of this show. The audience cheers at just the right times, they cry at the deaths that occur, and scorn at the soldiers. Being able to be “part” of the audience in that way, and experiencing a show that’s designed to connect the audience with the corps in such a deep way is an amazing experience, and it’s something that a lot of drum corps strive for. This connection that Phantom Regiment was able to establish that year has rang true for them in the years since, and it makes “Spartacus” one of the first shows to come up after the question “what is drum corps?” is sprung.

The way that “Spartacus” is built makes it so memorable, too. Phantom Regiment is notorious for its revealing all-white uniform, which makes even a fraction of a difference in step size blatantly obvious, but also looks crisp and great for the corps when it’s done right. The use of the classic G-bugles at the beginning of the show also brings not only a little bit of nostalgia, but sets the tone for the show.

One almost can’t discuss Phantom Regiment without bringing up the color guard. 2008 was the second-to-last year that Phantom Regiment fielded a co-ed color guard in their current history. Another big part that made “Spartacus” work is the dedication that the color guard gave in their performance, especially focusing on the featured performers. When Spartacus’ love interest is murdered by one of the drum majors, she is mercilessly dropped to the ground. On finals night, the last run of their show, she was dropped so hard that she got a concussion… and still went back out for the encore performance, to do it just one last time. Another remarkable thing (coming from the perspective of a performer), there is an abundance of breathtaking action shots of so many of the color guard members. Typically, the photography company that partners with DCI for the summer doesn’t always get the best action shots, especially of color guard performers, but the members on the field for “Spartacus” must have been bringing it the entire time, because so many of their photos are astounding. The pain they feel their character is undergoing is visible in their eyes, which also feeds back to the big picture of the show, when viewed on video.

One of the shows that has inspired so many current marching members (including myself) to participate in the activity today, is the Madison Scouts’ 2011 show “New York Morning.” Although they didn’t place very well (coming in 11th at the end of Finals night), “New York Morning” is an iconic show for the drum corps community, because it is centered around one of the hardest times our country has been through in this generation’s lifetime: the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “New York Morning” also has a great show design, and the horn line was one of the strongest in the 2011 competition.

“New York Morning” is relatable to a wide audience because it tells the story of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11th, 2001. Although most of the current membership of any given corps doesn’t remember those attacks personally, they are one of the biggest historical events for the United States that has happened in their lifetime. Taking on the task of telling the story and putting it on the field in the form of a drum corps show was no small task, but the Madison Scouts aren’t new to telling historical stories (2005: “The Carmen Project”). “New York Morning” is also made accessible to a wide audience because of the musical selection, including the opener “New York, New York (from On the Town)” by Leonard Bernstein and “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys closing out the show.

The show design overall was another aspect that makes “New York Morning” so inspiring. Clear drill formations tell the story, as well as the equipment choice and usage for the color guard. The corps forms a series of “buildings” at the beginning of the show, and the color guard is dancing with newspapers as if it’s a “normal day” — and then tragedy strikes with the trill from the horns.

The horn line for the Madison Scouts in 2011 has set a precedent for what the corps is expected to execute at their shows now. They set a new standard for power and control in horn lines throughout the activity. The fact that a contra soloist and a trumpet soloist are reaching the same volume, and still being heard at the top of the stadium, shows that the Madison Scouts had their technique figured out throughout the horn line, and it is audibly present throughout their entire 11.5 minute show.

What makes drum corps keep going is the membership, and without the inspiration and knowledge of past shows, students might never make the jump from the fake-it-‘till-you-make-it high school band to World Class drum and bugle corps, where perfection is expected, and anything less than the best is unacceptable. “This I Believe” (The Cadets 2007), “Spartacus” (Phantom Regiment 2008), and “New York Morning” (Madison Scouts 2011), all have made an impact on the activity today, because they were innovative, set new standards, and told stories that were relatable to the potential members of their corps.


Author: erikabunk

Raised in Northern Minnesota. BA in Radio/Business & Entrepreneurship. Painfully average marathoner. Spends too much time on Spotify, in search of the best record store in the world, and dreams of returning to Reykjavík.

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