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.
An OLD question. Is the activity a SPORT, or an ART FORM? The answer we used to use was “a sport, using art as its vehicle.” But, as Maynard Ferguson pointed out when he was doing the color commentary in the ’70s, he was upset about the music being judged. You don’t judge art! Today, I believe the individual performance levels are not actually being judged in some areas, especially in percussion and visual. As Dr. Baggs use to say before every rules congress, “We are here to discuss the judging rules of an activity that is actually impossible to judge.”
Art vs Sport?
Always a good question, and not just in Drum Corps. Olympic ice dancing? Juried art shows?
A very astute look at brass instrumentation. Appreciated outlook. For me the real “test” of the G bugle equipment was the soprano sound . . . more bright than trumpets. I speak with people all the time who lament that drum corps should return to the “old” ways, but like the author, I have accepted the changes that have been adopted. The quality of performances is certainly significantly higher and that’s probably a combination of highly-talented young people and equally-excellent arrangements and instruction. I’m a big fan of Rick Connor’s magazine content and look forward to each release!
I came up through the junior drum corps activity from the late 1950s through 1968. Marched DCA with Hawthorne Caballeros 1988 to 1993 and Cab’s Alumni 1995 to present. It’s always been about “G” Bugles. The 36 or so we had in junior corps, the 50 we had in Caballeros and the Alumni always seemed at least as LOUD as the 80 that are fielded by the DCI corps of today. I agree with Steve about the quality being better, but after being “On the Tour” for the summer how can it not be. We were weekenders, with a “Tour” to Nationals or DCA Finals. Enjoyed doing the “Marching out of Time” 1960’s series for MMA, reread the old mags all the time.
will the infamous Golden Eagles Phonebone ever be allowed on the field??
DRUM CORPS = MILITARY BALLET.
DCI’S intonation improvement is a poor tradeoff for killing all the grassroots drum corps, leaving hundreds and thousands of kids with nothing but time on their hands. Take the city of Bridgeport, CT. There was a time when you couldn’t turn a corner and not find a corps in that city. I would like to see the youth crime stats before and after DCI.
Grassroots drum corps were the first and only place that most kids got their taste of musical instruction and team work. DCI killed all of the grassroots corps. Whatever technical gangs they can take credit for, they left hundreds and hundreds of kids without a corps.
Can you imagine your life without a corps? So much of who l am, what I do, and how I do things I can trace right back to my drum corps days. There is no quit in me because of drum corps.
The only reason DCI USED DRUM CORPS IN THEIR NAME IS BECAUSE OF THE FOLLOWING REAL DRUM AND BUGLE CORPS had and still has. DCI isn’t drum corps – real drum corps. Never was or will be.
Thanks for the mention of “Bridgeport”. I grew up in that blue collar city, which was INDEED the home to a gaggle of junior drum corps, most of which were represented in the Park City Pride Alumni (Of which I was a Charter member). St Raphael’s Parish had THREE corps, the Buccaneers, Musketeers and the all girls Marionettes.Add to this the Bridgeport PAL Cadets, Conn Royal Lancers, St Ann’s Loyalaires, NDettes & Colonades all girls, Trumbull Troubadors and Cadets and Milford Shoreliners. This group of corps took HUNDREDS of kids off the streets, gave them training in music and marching (Usually from scratch, quite different from the “Auditions” of today)goals, discipline, and a sense of pride in belonging to an affordable competitive organization. Sadly that era is long gone, replaced by the “Pay to Play” big money junior corps of the present.
I truly miss the Old D&B days . I played French horn both in jr corps and the Marine corps. I was lucky enough to find the old 1 valve one rotor French horn. Playing it brings back some great memories. I miss the real color guard and flag presentations also. Seeing trombones and hearing xylophones is just strange to me.
First of all, the comment by James Wedge, is this Jim Wedge that instructed 27? If so hi, this is me who marched lead baritone in 79 and 80. We are both Don Ellis fans and had many discussions about him when I marched. Second, being a brass player, trombone and baritone, I loved many of the musical advancements through the years but a few really got my ire. Amplifying the horns! Come on, if you can’t project your sound to the back of the stands you are doing something wrong with the teaching of brass technique. Using a sound track! Give me a break, that is just cheating. Was DCI copying Britney Spears, Milli Vanilli, and Beyonce? What’s next, just playback and faking it! As far as judging goes, the music and art industry and education is competitive in many aspects. Concerto competitions, band competitions, battle of the big bands, art competitions (my sister is an artist), dance competitions (So You Think You Can Dance?), singing competitions (American Idol), I could go on and on. I hate to disagree with one of my idols but he is wrong. I love your articles though and hope you respond to my comment!
It’s Me alright. Thanks for the nice comments. I have no problem with judging the performers, it’s judging the “art” that bothers me. Rap vs Niner-Two? If they’re going to judge the art, give me the numbers for “Mona Lisa” vs the statue of “David” vs a “Campbell Soup Can.” Art is in the eye of the beholder.
Now, speaking of Don Ellis, I think we should go to 4 valve sopranos in “G”. Those were good times.