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Point – What’s Right with Drum Corps in 1996?

by Tom Lizotte

To hear some say it, there isn’t a lot that’s right with drum corps in 1996. But while some would want to bring us back to the days of valve-rotor bugles, company front opening sets, and every other corps playing “National Emblem,” the fact is that there is more right than wrong with drum corps today.

It’s easy to fixate on the old days, in which (it seems) every local community had a corps and, of course, almost every corps was wonderful. The old days, however, weren’t necessarily better. They were just different.

While not all developments since the advent of DCI have been positive (the decline of drum corps grassroots being a major case in point), it is a fact that today’s corps are better than ever. And while there is still potential for growth aesthetically, the fact is that the on the field product is better than ever.

First, the playing is better than at any point in the activity’s history. Whether you loved or hated Star of Indiana, you must admit that their 1993 corps performed with balance, sensitivity to texture, and technical polish unsurpassed in drum corps history. Many more corps are playing well because the quality of teaching across the board has improved so much over the years.

1993 Star of Indiana

Second, the design is markedly better in 1996 than it was years ago. Most field productions are highly coordinated efforts that have a viewpoint and a creative thread running throughout. In the old days, one tune had no relation to others in the show. You programmed an opener, color pre, concert, and exit without much caring how one piece related to another. It’s the difference between a Broadway show and a vaudeville routine.

There can be great vaudeville and bad Broadway, but the creative process involved in the latter is much more sophisticated. And what corps are giving us today is good, not bad, Broadway.

Look at a video from the 1970s and look at one from today’s drum corps. The quality of the difference in visual design is startling. To deny that is to deny the contributions of George Zingali, Steve Brubaker, Marc Sylvester, and many others. What they did – and do– is art.

What about the guards? Today they are adept at dance, mime, and implement work. This is far from the days in which the guards, in their white boots, would frame the corps and do drop spins. The coordination in 1996 is subtle and pervasive. Little of what occurred in the old days (with the exceptions such as some of the great Lancer guards of the 1970s) is equal to what is being done today.

What’s Wrong with Drum Corps in 1996?

by Joe Casey

“Are you kidding??!!” As a long time critic and some time cynic, even I refused to believe that there would be anything but an “up” side coming out of Orlando. After the entertainment oriented “renaissance” in drum-corps programming observed in Buffalo last season, I was finally convinced that thought and concern for “man-in-the-street” entertainment value would be the hallmark of every programming effort by drum corps in 1996. Shame on me …

It’s no secret that corps members from top to bottom have never been so proficient. They have attained levels of achievement which are so outstanding that even the “average” among the upper echelon have far surpassed the accomplishments and in some instances even the dreams of participants rated as champions twenty, fifteen and even ten years ago.

In Orlando, the performance of the Phantom Regiment Auxiliaries was so engaging that I was not offended by the fact that I would never be able nor even be inclined to hum even four of the perfectly performed measures played by their magnificent horn line. I was, however, perplexed that the brilliance and proficiency of the cast members portraying the “American West” was directed towards lulling the audience into a state where the moronic en masse appellation “BEEF” was proffered as a distinguishing program highlight. What’s so entertaining about a cow wearing a shako anyway?

1996 Phantom Regiment

It’s this ambivalence which makes one wonder not where but why the activity has been allowed to follow its present course.

Since the days of the straight marching – “g” bugling – paradiddling post World War II drum corps; participants, instructors, organizers, judges and fans have always placed a premium on creative initiatives. The annals of drum corps history are replete with names of distinction and examples of genius within the idiom. Beyond the point references above, where has it brought us?

My first reaction is to demand, as did a famous Greek with reference to lawyers, that we KILL THE MUSICIANS … but only those who project the idiom as an art form more than as an entertainment medium. The first rule of the arrangers should be, “If the mothers can’t hum it, we should dump it.” Why can’t their creative genius be focused on a melody to which the average fan can relate; and portray it without second guessing the likes of Brahm, Gershwin, Williams, Kenton and Copeland in their search for the lost lydian chord and personal recognition in this “art form.”

Next … BLIND THE VISUAL PEOPLE … but only those who feel that visuals should portray a colony of E. Coli bacteria slithering across a petri dish or the last three strands of spaghetti being pushed around the plate of a recalcitrant toddler. The visual highlights of championship weekend which were most effective and appealed most to the audience were those with clearly defined frames of reference and progressions which maintained visual integrity as the performers responded to their challenge. The ooh’s and the ahh’s were most evident at times when people could say “front, diamond, star and circle.” Although the purist in me screams that some consideration should be given to turning on the end zone camera and grading the amorphous visual spectacle of these magnificent organizations on retreat and in parades, this area is by far the most encouraging for this critic even to the point where I could encourage people to bear with the Trojan horse chess pieces and rideable beach balls as a hopeful sign of better things to come.

Last, but not least, the percussion staff of late have been taking a beating since they have been limited in the weight of their impact on the outcome. The truly extraordinary physical accomplishments of percussionists within drill performances across the board and their individual proficiency as players is simply beyond belief. This, however, is balanced by the low created by all of that junk – valuable though it may be – which gets trucked in on the sidelines … a symphony this is not. I get no appreciable vibes from the six or seven sets which project a visual blob reminiscent of the junkyard of Sanford and Son. My disappointment in not seeing a kitchen sink was soothed by the fact that I was able to enjoy the sonorous tone of a clanging sewer pipe … the lost the end zone camera and grading the amorphous visual spectacle of these magnificent chord?? …Really!!

When corps directors and sponsors revolted some twenty-eight years ago against the established order of the V.F.W. and American Legion to form U.O.J.C. and ultimately D.C.I., there was hope that all would be well when the participants had their say. Since the inmates have run the asylum and are now looking to their twenty-fifth anniversary, the activity seems to be no better and in many ways much worse off. The organization is in debt, the attendance has been off, and even avid devotees are bored by what they see. The most compelling evidence of the decline and self-delusional failure of the incumbents are the facts that there are far fewer corps participating and the outrageous $75.00 price tag for a choice seat at the finals. Give me a break…I can get a great seat for “Phantom” and “Les Miserables” for less.

The next revolt should be that of the true stars – the young men and women in these units whose talents are presently being squandered and featured in spectacular mediocrity by self aggrandizing arrangers and designers concerned only with the art form. Their demands should call for shows which are simply entertaining and designed to attract audiences eager to salute their efforts and commend them for their brilliance. They deserve no less.

If entertainment is pursued as a key note and a hallmark, I predict a resurgence both in corps activity and audience participation. If not, the championship finals will soon be nothing more than an annual recital for alumni, parents, family, friends and a few aficionados who will be there no matter what.