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Indianapolis – August 10-12, 2023

It is the first intermission of Thursday’s Preliminary show in Indy. I turned to head up the stairs to the food court when I thought I recognized the guy behind me. “Hey, aren’t you The Czar?” I said. “I’ve read some of your columns in the past.”

“Yes sir, I am!”, and we began to discuss the season and after a few minutes, I asked him if he would be willing to be interviewed for a column. He said it is not possible since the interviewer and the interviewee are the same person.

“So what?” I asked. “Wouldn’t Bruce Wayne like to know the inner thoughts of Batman? Or better yet, since Clark Kent was, by trade, a reporter, wouldn’t it have been an interesting interview had he interviewed Superman?” We agreed to meet Saturday morning in an undisclosed location (First Watch) following Semi-Finals to dig into it:

Wilson: Thursday was quite a junior corps blowout!
The Czar: Indeed it was. I watched all of them. What was it, 32 drum corps?

Wilson: Yes, what a day. And night! Before we discuss the season and the upcoming finals, perhaps give our readers a quick class on the evolution of the Drum Corps Czar.
The Czar: Of course. I was out of the D & B scene for a number of years due to my employment circumstances. After I returned, starting with an appearance in the 1999 alumni show in Allentown, with the Rhode Island Matadors, I realized how much I had missed the action. As I started attending more and more shows, I was shocked at how many changes had occurred over the years.

Wilson: Amplification for sure.
The Czar: Well, yes, but as I began to write about the changes I was against, I came to realize a few things. DCI has managed to draw an amazing number of fans to Indy, as well as the other venues. The crowd is just immense. How else can you deliver the sound product to all these fans without amplification? I was against it initially, just as most of the older crowd, but as I started writing commentary on the shows, I gave in to amplification. However, I have two chief complaints about the current state of DCI. One should be dealt with directly by DCI and the other by the corps directors.

Wilson: OK, let’s deal with those items and then I would like to get your perspective on the wild and popular use of trombones.
The Czar: First off, the pre-recording of any sound effects or music should be banned by DCI. With all the talent and equipment on the field, the desired product should be able to be performed live. This could possibly get so out of hand that eventually an entire show could be pre-recorded and we’ll have a 165-member ballet.

Wilson: ….and you mentioned another concern…
The Czar: Hold on a second…. a good example showing the extent of these pre-recorded soundtracks was so obvious last night when there was a malfunction with Spirit of Atlanta’s pre-recorded content. It was dead silent for quite a bit of time, several measures at a time and more than once, allowing the audience to realize just how much material is not performed live…especially when the drum major counted out loud to the corps until the live music came back in. A very awkward moment for the corps.

Wilson: And the audience! Indeed, it was. And your other main concern?
The Czar: Yes, my other big complaint, with some corps, is that their musical “book” is made up almost completely of sound bites. Sound bites are nothing more than sound effects like you hear in a Hollywood movie. There are several corps that have been specializing in this phenomenon. There is an endless amount of music already available, composed by the world’s greatest composers. So, while putting in the work it takes to get from the planning stages all the way to Indy, let these kids have the experience of playing something that has musical meaning while they are at it…

Wilson: You mean the classic composers such as Bach or American composers such as Barber or…
The Czar: No, not just the great symphonic composers. Look at the Crossmen this year. The whole book revolves around The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road.” McCartney’s chord structure and melody in that song are fantastic and evoke a strong emotion within the listener. The tune was later orchestrated and released; this being the final product you have heard all these years.

So, there is plenty of great repertoire to choose from, even from our generation.
The Czar: Absolutely! Look, after watching the corps outside the top 12 or 16, a lot of them with sound bite material, the Crossmen hit the stands in their opening sequence with the intro to “The Long and Winding Road,” and it immerses the fans with a beautiful sound and arrangement, giving them what they came for. Better composers write better music than also-rans. And better music is felt and enjoyed naturally and subconsciously. This then makes for better shows.

Wilson: You know, I was just thinking that it is really hard to put all this into words. It has to be experienced, doesn’t it?
The Czar: Yes, of course. I was reading a review of a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance recently. We all know they are known for their tremendous brass section since as far back as the 1950s. And the reviewer described the orchestra as “… the most muscular American orchestra.” An understatement, but how else do you describe that sound? You have to sit in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, or in this case, Lucas Oil Stadium, to experience it rather than have it described to you.

Wilson: Right, it has to be experienced! You could say this is why we return year after year: to duplicate the feeling you get when a drum corps you love hits the stands with one of those great openers or closers.
The Czar: Do you know what would make a great show? Take a corps like The Cadets and have them put on their top 3 openers and top 3 closers from years past into one show.

Wilson: Amen, my man. OK, let’s discuss the trombones.
The Czar: I am glad you asked. As you may have read in columns past, I am in favor of the trombones in drum corps. What I am not in favor of is the use of glissandos endlessly. Again, we are talking about sound effects vs. music. The trombones have been in the horn lines long enough now that the novelty has worn off. There can’t be a single person in the stands that doesn’t realize what a gliss sounds like. So arrangers take note: use the trombone for what it is…. a very powerful low brass instrument. About half the corps have figured this out. The other half need to reconsider how to use the trombones…

Wilson: Name a trombone highlight for this season.
The Czar: There are several, but I was going to point out something else before you cut me off. A nice by-product of trombones being incorporated into the horn line is that, and I am fairly certain of this, most of the baritone players in the horn lines are really trombone players. You can easily see it in their slide technique. So these kids are now on their main instrument. But as for a top trombone feature this year, look no further than The Mandarins. In the middle of the show, their trombone soloist is right on the 50, sitting fairly high on a prop under a trumpet soloist (sorry, for us purists I do mean a soprano soloist!). The bone player lays out a raucous solo then heads back into the line. A few minutes later, he returns to the right-hand 40 sideline with two other trombones, at an angle towards the drum major, and they play a fantastic trio. Then a fourth bone joins them and this feature continues for the balance of the show.

You are hinting that this is uncharted territory?
The Czar: We can all remember the days when certain soprano players spent the majority of the show out in front of the corps. You still see it in the alumni shows of course, but not in DCI anymore. When was the last time a DCI corps fielded “Tiger of San Pedro,” with its 16-bar high note solo followed by a solo cadenza? Right? I think, save for the Blue Devils, who have had the confidence in their trumpet soloists, most DCI corps are not risking the possibility of having a soloist hung out to dry. Blue Devils 2017 included some prolonged high-register stuff….

Wilson: But you still have a lot of high register ability nowadays….
The Czar: Yes, for sure. A lot of corps have high register trumpeters that can nail a high G or A, even a double C to end a section of a show, and could handle an extended high register solo, but the corps are not fielding this older concept at the moment.

Wilson: So getting back to the point….
The Czar: Yes, my point on The Mandarins trombone feature is that you have a low brass (trombone) soloist, then trio, then quartet as the main soloistic/ensemble feature in a show. Not just 8 bars, but in a nice long feature that gives the crowd a chance to get into it. This season it took me a few go ‘rounds with The Mandarins to rubber stamp my complete approval of the trombone feature. In fact, I am considering getting in touch with that soloist for an interview in a future column.

Wilson: You were that taken aback by it?
The Czar: It was a killer moment, one that sticks with you long after you leave the stadium. Possibly my top takeaway for the year.

Wilson: OK! Before we lose readers, some quick thoughts on this year’s shows. I’ll name them; you comment. I know you prefer to comment off the cuff…random thoughts as you conjure up the image of a corps and show. Now, way back to the beginning: Start with River City.
The Czar: Beautiful book…. something they can definitely build on.

The Columbians?
The Czar: All they have to do is recruit. They have a nice all-around package.

Wilson: Gold:
The Czar: They finished up the track in 23rd or so, however, they hit the line with Brahms! I believe it was the opening bars of his 2nd symphony. Unheard of on the field…that is a complex symphonic monster. And they followed it up with a Journey tune and even a few licks from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Keji Suite. A commendable show.

Jersey Surf.
The Czar: They are mired in the low twenty-something rankings, but they have what it takes to move up. For instance, I noticed from seeing their show many times that the staff is utilizing the field amplification properly. They amplify the horns so the players do not have to over-extend themselves, but it is not too loud. This allows them to get through the end of the show in one piece. In other words, with about 42 horns, they can play within themselves for the whole show. Carolina Crown gets the prize for over-amplification of the horn line. Ear piercing! Can anyone tell me why Crown’s horns need more than a moderate bump in volume? By the way, after Crown had me looking for an ear doctor on Thursday night, I braced myself for Boston’s volume as in years past. However, I am very pleased to report that the Boston show and sound mix is the best of all the corps. I was in Row 7, on the left-hand 48-yard line and it was as good as it can get.

Wilson: Madison Scouts?
The Czar: On the comeback trail for sure. They have the look and feel and sound of the Scouts of old. Yet they play Soundgarden material and it really works. When they regroup way back to the right-hand corner and turn to the stands, they reward the fans with their certain indescribable mystique. And as they enter the field, the fans enjoy seeing the horns march on in a block formation. Also, “Plus 5” for one of the best trombone solos of the night, period.

….and The Academy?
The Czar: They have the best ballad up to this point in the show lineup; they have a knock-out uniform, and an “in your face” closer.

Wilson: These kinds of shows are so good and when the corps go off the field, I find myself saying “As good as that was, it is not making finals!” Speaking of being outside the top 12 looking in, how about The Crossmen?
The Czar: Just what it will take to propel them back into finals, I do not know. Same for all the corps outside the top 12. The Crossmen are a beautiful drum corps, top to bottom.

Wilson: …ok, and nearly to the top 12…. Pacific Crest?
The Czar: New look; very musical book. They have abandoned the old colors and revamped, actually beating the Crossmen Thursday, finishing 13th. The Crossmen nailed them last night though.

Wilson: Top 12:
The Czar: Well, the Blue Knights kick it off with the fanfare from the beginning of Verdi’s Requiem. This excerpt is a brass player’s dream and I was really pumped when I realized the arranger was able to get most of the elements of the fanfare squeezed in and come to a good stopping point. Many times, we’ll hear a great excerpt and just as you think it will end the way it was intended in the original, the arranger goes off into some cut-and-dried drum corps chord sequence and the moment is lost. But I think the Blue Knights better get on the stick for next year! Twelfth is dangerous territory. Ask anyone who marched a season hanging on to 12th place.

Blue Stars?
The Czar: Do you mean the Green Stars? The purist in me does not want to see uniform changes from year to year. Without playing a note, don’t you get a certain expectation, almost goose bumps, when, say, the Cavaliers come on the field? When a corps changes their uniform, it takes time for the fans to accept it. Maybe 5 minutes, maybe an entire season, maybe never. So I did not care for the blue/green uniform distraction, but I’ll say this for the Blue Stars, just like last year, the baritone solo and baritone duet which follows the solo, features some of the most beautifully played lines of the season.

We are running out of time. I think the waitress wants this table…

The Czar: The Colts: a most refreshing show. They have developed their own style and look and appear to be in the top 12 to stay.
The Czar Again: And my comment to The Cavaliers…. don’t change anything, although feel free to move up in the standings if possible. I find myself glued to the drum lines. The Cavaliers are really rolling in the drumming. Even though I am a horn player, I have learned that there is little to be had watching the horn lines. Watch the drum lines at all times and simply listen to the horns. The Cavaliers drum line just blows the mind!

Wilson: Phantom:
The Czar: Too much on the glissandos again from the trombones of Phantom Regiment. But they get a “Get Out of Jail Free” card because the show ending between the 45s, packed at the sideline, with the snares in back, up on that riser, was, in itself, worth the trip to Indy. What a drum corps!

We have covered The Mandarins…
The Czar: All I can say is keep an eye and ear on this corps. Where will Santa Clara fit in to all of this is a subject for another discussion.

Wilson: Garfield? Sorry, I mean The Cadets?
The Czar: I’ll bet you doubted them when they came out in that “work-out” uniform. Till about 2 minutes into the show when they cut off the last note of the opener, bringing the crowd to its feet. The guy behind me last night, an ex-Marine D & B snare drummer, upon that cutoff, nailed me on the shoulder and proclaimed “now THAT’S drum corps!!” Absolutely. How do these corps do it year after year? When a corps can duplicate their style, excellence, and look over a period of many years, the fans reward them by returning the following season.


Wilson: Boston Crusaders?
The Czar: The Czar’s wife’s 2nd favorite show, topped only by The Mandarins. WAIT…she has The Troopers over Boston and just how in hell did I forget The Troopers? Everyone raved about last year’s Troopers show, but this show is a step up. Nothing satisfies the drum corps veterans and fans from past eras more than seeing a corps like The Troopers clawing their way back into contention over the past 2 years. Plus, the newer fans get to experience a corps with a great, long tradition but see new shows through the same traditional lens.
The Czar Again: As for Boston, I went to a Crusaders’ rehearsal at the Comm Ave. Armory in Boston in the early ’80s. There were all of about 15 kids there. I was invited there by Glen Connoly who marched there in the late 1960s – some of the glory years. I asked “this is the state of the Boston Crusaders?”, which it obviously was. Now look at Boston! A perennial powerhouse.

Wilson: Carolina Crown?
The Czar: Again, on the great composers…. Crown’s ballad offers one of the ultimate spine thrillers from all that the world of music has to offer. They resolve the Tristan Chord taken from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. 99% of the crowd has no idea what the hell this is, but when that chord resolves, every spine in the place is tingling. Actually, they do it twice for good measure. Your readers will have to look up this chord; we apparently don’t have enough time or space to get into Music Theory 201.

Wilson: Lastly, the top two Blues: Coats and Devils.
The Czar: On the Coats, the first half puts me in brass heaven until suddenly we get to the flugelhorn solo in the ballad. I have upgraded this solo to tie with the Blue Stars’ baritone solos for top solos of the season. Then it is on to the most raucous feature of the year, DCI wide, in the Bluecoats’ brass sequence after the ballad. Starting with, apparently, all the baritones on trombone, in a rhythmic back and forth with the other sections. This is where we see and hear the trombones deliver a different power than the traditional baritone; more penetrating. All four of the brass sections are in their own groups on different parts of the field and the show builds to the finale leaving the fans mentally exhausted!

Absolutely……and lastly the Blue Devils:
The Czar: What to say other than they seem to be on another plane, another drum corps galaxy, a few years ahead of the rest. How do they dream up the concepts and the charts and the drill year after year? All I know is when I am watching them, I am praying it never ends!

Wilson: Well, it has been a pleasure speaking with you and I hope you enjoy Finals night tonight!
The Czar: My pleasure! What was your name again?


The Czar invites you to submit your ideas for “change for the betterment of drum corps;” however, the decisions of the Czar are final. No ideas will be considered without the expressed written consent of Major League Baseball and Drum Corps TV Network, if it exists.
Chuck Wilson