Among the aspects of the drum corps activity that have changed over the past five decades, it could be argued that the visual elements have been the most affected. The standards “back in the day” included marching in straight lines, wearing uniforms that matched exactly in color and style, and adhering to extremely stringent rules. Today’s visual programs have changed so much that many alumni claim it is “no longer drum corps.” Admittedly, some of the changes have diverged glaringly from the activity’s original roots. And yet, many of the same elements that made people “drum corps nuts” back in the day still exist today.
As a drum corps veteran whose experience began in the mid-1960s, I got to witness several years of “pre-DCI” (established in 1972) visuals. Very few videos are available prior to that time, so I can only reference what I have heard and read about the visual aspects in those preceding years. Consequently, the majority of my observations reflect the most recent 50 years.
At the inception of the activity, the military influence was very strong as veterans’ organizations sponsored most of the corps, providing funding, support, and rehearsal facilities. Accordingly, the visual displays of the earliest corps were often limited to marching in parade formation. Straight lines, tight intervals, and a heavy emphasis on military bearing and execution, with modest room for creativity, defined the visual aspects for decades. It was not until the 1960s that a trend toward entertainment, innovative design, and showmanship with more emphasis on General Effect (GE), emerged in earnest. The momentum of this trend accelerated and intensified late in that decade. What followed was a clash between the restrictions in place with American Legion and VFW judging rules, and the corps’ interests in more advanced show design. This conflict ultimately resulted in the formation of Drum Corps International (DCI).
In the following series of articles, we will examine four key areas that have evolved over time in the visual aspects of modern drum corps: Rules/Judging, Attire, Equipment/Props, and Design/Movement.
The way drum corps has been adjudicated over the decades has changed significantly. Some of the more impactful changes occurred with the advent of DCI in the early ’70s, with many more changes being implemented since the turn of the century. Before DCI became the activity’s governing body, competitive units were subject to some very restrictive rules. The VFW and American Legion had imposed those rules as they had jurisdiction over the major competitions. Several of the earliest rules inflicted major constraints on visual design and performance. Those included mandatory inspection, entering the field from the left goal line (aka “the starting line”), maintaining a marching tempo between 128 and 132 beats per minute, and “exiting” the field across the right side goal line. Those rules were in line with the militaristic nature that was pervasive in the early decades.
Until the mid-1970s, prior to their field performance, corps were required to stand “at attention” on an “inspection line” in the scorching summer heat for up to 45 minutes. During inspection, every member of every unit was scrutinized for any stray thread, spot on a uniform, hairline that infringed on their collar, shoes that were not perfectly shined, or failure to have feet at exactly a forty-five-degree angle. The inspection of a brass instrument, where the judge could ask the player to perform a “bugles up!” for a closer view of the instrument, was often troublesome. If a drop of spit were dislodged and became visible on the instrument, it would incur a penalty. Any defect the inspection judge identified would cost the corps a “tick” – a one-tenth of a point penalty. Although entirely unrelated to a corps’ actual performance, their final placement could be affected by tenths that were lost before they ever took the field. (Note: The “tick” system of judging meant that any error a judge could detect resulted in marking down a “tick” or one-tenth of a point deduction. This system of judging was in place for all execution captions until the early 1980s. It was replaced by the evaluation system, in place today, which awards scores based on overall performance quality.) After inspection, corps then had to wait on the “ready line” for another 15 minutes before they could perform. All this standing around, motionless, at attention in the summer heat, was certainly not conducive to optimal performance.
In addition to the Inspection judge, the Timing and Penalties judge also had a prominent role. The rules around boundaries, tempo, time in motion, and violations of flag code were strictly enforced and corps frequently received penalties of up to two full points for a wide variety of infractions. The marching and maneuvering instructors back then had to be vigilant not to create situations that might result in penalties, as a corps’ final placement could literally be decided on the Timing and Penalties judge’s scoresheet. The “presentation of colors” was required, where a nation’s flag (American or Canadian) was marched down the 50-yard line during the performance of a song celebrating the patriotism of the corps’ country. This rule, revered as an integral part of the activity by many, was a virtual minefield of potential penalties for flag code violations. Designing to avoid those penalties often resulted in a more conservative drill.
During the late 1960s, corps were becoming frustrated with the strict nature of the rules, not only because penalties often unrelated to their performance were affecting them, but also because they stifled creativity. For example, forcing corps to begin on the “starting line” and end the judged portion of their show by crossing the right side goal line inhibited visual design. It also created a “sameness” to the beginning and ending of many programs. Tempo requirements limited program choices, with every piece of music having to be a “march” or forced to approximate that idiom. As a result, some music translated quite poorly.
Program designers from top corps were eager to inject more artistic and creative elements into their shows, but the rules presented large obstacles. In addition to the aforementioned restrictions, VFW rules also put severe limitations on what corps members could wear.
Another contentious issue was the low or nonexistent appearance fees paid to corps not affiliated with a veteran’s organization. Leadership from several top corps became so frustrated that in 1971 two groups, the “Midwest Combine” and the eastern “Alliance” were formed to promote changes in the activity. This movement ultimately resulted in the formation of Drum Corps International (DCI), a new governing body for the activity, after the 1971 season. Within a few years, DCI had implemented a new set of rules developed with input from the top competing corps. They also implemented an annual Rules Congress to provide ongoing stewardship for rules and governance.
The most significant early DCI rules changes eliminated inspection, the “starting line,” the requirement for color presentation, and tempo and boundary restrictions. These and many other rules changes, implemented in the following decades, offered much more flexibility for visual designers. The evolution of the aspects discussed in this series of articles has been, at least in part, a result of more accommodating rules.
In upcoming articles, we will examine Attire, Equipment/Props, and Design/Movement. Stay Tuned!
The Royal Airs of Chicago, IL performing at the CYO Nationals in Newton, MA on August 29, 1967
*Featured Image: Lt. Norman Prince Drum and Bugle Corps on the Inspection Line. Drum Major – Al Saia