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Drum corps enthusiasts who have followed the competitive activity for decades have witnessed a significant evolution. Gone are the days of the ’starting line,’ playing ‘concert’ at a standstill, inspections (ended in the early ’70s), color presentations, the ‘tick’ system (early ’80s), and uniforms that appear, well…….uniform. What corps play, how they look, and what is allowed on the field is dramatically different now than in DCI’s inaugural season. Changes that have transpired over the past two decades have been especially significant, as the visual and musical landscapes of the activity have morphed away from their traditional roots.

This evolution has been fueled by innovation across all captions. The ‘Summer Music Games,’ as they are now called, portrays elements of musical theater, dance competition, concert, and sport, with the echo of military pageantry. While some people believe the activity has transformed into a unique art form, others – including many drum corps alumni – are distressed by a series of changes they dislike. Some have sworn off the activity entirely.

There is no doubt that the result of this evolution has offered more opportunity for creativity and artistic expression, and most drum corps organizations have been quick to take advantage.  The changes we have seen have led to improved performance levels while enabling new and spectacular effects.  And, while many of the changes have had positive impacts, a subset of the various ‘innovations’ have caused consternation, even among the activity’s most ardent followers (this writer included).

I group the areas of innovation into four major categories: Brass Instrumentation, Electronics, Repertoire, and Visual.

Part ONE- Brass Instrumentation

Prior to the turn of the century, DCI rules restricted brass instruments to those that were ‘bell front and pitched in the key of G’. This was in keeping with the traditional definition of a ‘bugle’. In the year 2000, a rule change allowed ‘any key’ instruments that were ‘bell front’, excluding trombones and sousaphones. A 2014 rules change went further, allowing all brass instruments. Corps adapted to these new rules quickly, and today every DCI corps plays brass instruments pitched mostly in B-flat and F, essentially the same instrumentation used by marching bands (sousaphones being the lone exception). There were likely valid reasons for this change, which could be debated.

With dramatically fewer drum corps than had existed in the ’70s and ’80s, there was far less demand for G bugles and fewer manufacturers. The quality of the bugles might have also been a factor. Depending on the manufacturer, bugle intonation had been quite variable. The move away from G bugles might have gone unnoticed to some, but to the more perceptive, the difference was apparent. Bugles produce a ‘different’ timbre, slightly darker and mellower, and many people contend they produce more volume. In fact, I remember a time when, sight unseen, you could identify an individual corps by their distinctive brass sound.

With DCI’s expansion of corps size to 150, most of the top corps today march 80 brass players which helped address the volume issue. Today, you would be hard pressed to find even a single ‘bugle’ being used by any DCI corps. (Note: Many alumni units still play G bugles, as well as some senior corps). In general, the quality of the instruments being used by DCI corps has improved, and better quality brass performance (particularly intonation) has been a notable byproduct. Of course, we can no longer, ‘technically’ call these units ‘drum and bugle corps’ anymore with the absence of actual bugles. The full reality of this surfaced for me a few years ago when I saw this self-designation emblazoned across a top corps’ massive equipment truck:
Carolina Crown Performance Ensemble.

As a person with a history of brass teaching and writing, I appreciate the improved performance quality afforded by the expanded instrumentation.  I will admit that, along with some of my associates from ‘back in the day’, I was initially dismayed at the appearance of trombones and French horns on the field.  With the exception of some excessive glissandos early on,  these previously illegal ‘band instruments’ have been used moderately and effectively, for the most part.  I have learned to accept (OK, more like ‘tolerate’) this innovation because the positive effects have been so pleasing to my ears. (I’m an admitted intonation devotee.) And recently, their use has been mostly in solos and features which has somewhat allayed my fears of trombones and French horns becoming a predominant presence all over the field.  For now.

The brass instrumentation change was quite significant as it supplanted one of the most distinguishing characteristics (G bugles) of the activity. To accept this and remain a fan requires that you 1) accept that ‘drum and bugle corps’ is technically no longer a valid descriptor and 2) tolerate the appearance of some ‘not very drum corps –like’ instruments. (If you must, close your eyes – the audio is quite good!) Overall, weighing all the factors to date, the change in brass instrumentation has been more positive than negative, even though some of us long for the more resonant and distinctive sound of G bugles. The biggest concern among many of the activity’s elders- and it is a serious concern – is that this change could lead to dissolving the extremely thin line that currently exists between drum corps and bands.


Next week – Part 2



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