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by Phil Dennesen with Jeff Sacktig

In Part One we covered Visuals in the “Golden Era” of Drum Corps.

In Part Two we covered Visual Evolution from “The Golden Era” to Drum Corps today.

Part Three – Visual Evolution of the “What, How and Why” of Today’s Drum & Bugle Corps

How did props come into the visual picture in current day Drum & Bugle Corps? When, where, how and why did they come into existence?

Back when the VFW had control of the activity, there were no props, There were no non-military type uniforms. This was not allowed! The first props and dramatic uniform changes towards costuming appeared to my knowledge in the 1971 season.

VFW was in their last year of total control of the activity and the national Corps wanted change. Corps wanted to tell a narrative in a theme show. Madison Scouts did the amazing “Alice in Wonderland” show. Madison had their first female performer, Corps Director Bill Howard’s young daughter who appeared as “Alice” in full costume during the show. This was possibly the first non-military uniform costume used in a VFW Show, and according to Scott Stewart, (Madison’ Corps director 1977-2002), The Madison Corps actually did NOT have a female member march the Alice in Wonderland show, “she was a prop”. Go figure!

Also in 1971, the Chicago Cavaliers did their circus show. The VFW wanted to penalize them for the change into clown outfits during the last half of the show. And Blue Rock, Wilmington, DE, played “Baby Elephant Walk” and as a Production Number “Camptown Races” with prancing horse flags. At the end of Baby Elephant Walk, who can forget the Pink Elephant put on the bell of a ContraBass and being played to create an elephant’s squeal at the climactic ending? The crowds absolutely loved these first little props and roared with approval. Corps were looking for more ways to heighten General Effect scores. Looking back now, props are not new, however they now have evolved into a much larger role in today’s Drum Corps visuals.

1971 Blue Rock

Blue Rock’s Chuck Quakenbush playing his Contra with prop at the ending of “Baby Elephant Walk” 1971

Incorporating props into shows in smaller venues where WGI color guards perform is far more easily done than what Drum Corps use on a football field. Winter Guards typically use an area the size of a basketball court to compete. It was easily achievable to use props for Winter Guard. The Color Guard activity also found that props could help them tell the narrative of the show and they were used extensively in the 1990s and beyond. But making the big picture that scored well with the judges on a football field was extremely difficult. One of the first big attempts was with the Blue Devils “Pinball Wizard” show in the early 1990s. Turning a stage performance into a football field size traveling road show is no easy task.

Drum Corps is a traveling road show, somewhat similar to the old-time traveling circuses. It takes time and lots of effort to get all this paraphernalia from place to place, trucks, personnel and real logistics. Not an easy task! It has taken Drum Corps longer to do this as they don’t have the large base of a band parents association with tons of local support. Each corps has limited resources as the members come from all over. In the past decade, drum corps have learned how to manage these logistics better to enhance the big visual pictures on a football field.

2016 Bluecoats

Props continue to evolve – Bluecoats performing “DownSide Up” in 2016, used to create more GE

As the three pageantry activities have blended over the years, comparing the infrastructure of a High School Band and Drum & Bugle Corps is striking. Local bands all have a place to practice. All the members and parental support is right there. A High School Band can easily have 300 members. It is quite an achievement for Drum Corps to be able to present a show with most members being from out of state. There are few parents willing to tour with the brutal schedule of travel required from location to location in order to support a Corps of 154 members. Today’s top Drum Corps present a finished show that virtually no band can meet in almost every respect visually and in performance.

Talking with Jeff Sacktig has confirmed what we may have suspected these days on how a show is written. In the previous generations of 50s, 60s and 70s Drum Corps, the horn instructor would likely choose and arrange the music, then hand it to the drum guy, and then things get passed off to the drill instructor, who writes the chart (or keeps it in his head). Finally the color guard person would incorporate the color guard to fit what was going on.

Some people today think that the drill is written first, then the music, but not so according to Jeff. Today’s staff meet and collaborate through the whole process. There may be a design conference call once or twice a week with the entire staff, visual and music, everything is written in a more cohesive manner. Music is still the driving force, but each of the staff works with the others, conversations come from both sides of the fence between captions.

There is a show coordinator that does lots of editing and fixing after the 1st draft and then going forward. For example, if a drill guy thinks something sounds too repetitive, he will mention this to the music people. If the drill needs more time to make a statement, the drill person may ask for an extension of phrasing. It may be to expand on the visual idea the staff is looking for. Always trying to find the balance of being exciting, and having variety throughout. A well designed show will be interesting to listen to and offer more than one feeling at a time. There is a blending of ideas to complete the finished product/show!

2008 Cadets

The Cadets perform “…and the pursuit of happiness” in 2008

Remember the old days when a color guard person would have the same piece of equipment the whole show? For example a church or state flag, or one color design, that person stayed as a flag, rifle or sabre the whole show. Today, members are far more versatile, handling a variety of equipment, while simultaneously incorporating complete dance and athletic movements. There can be multiple uniforms changes to interpret the show and music. It has taken decades to achieve what is possible today. All for increasing the General Effect of a show, something that has always been the driver of the Drum Corps visual evolution.

Way back, all shows were first imagined in the instructor’s mind, put on paper then taught to the corps. Jeff hand wrote drills until 2003, that is when he started designing using computer programs. Using a computer program can help show flow seamlessly from set to set, picture to picture. Today Jeff will write the entire drill for a show, the kids will download it on an “app” on their smartphone. Now each member has their own individual part to learn right at their fingertips. Who would have thought! What fabulous tools and skills and training the Drum Corps have these days.

2019 Carolina Crown

Jeff Sacktig’s amazing visual design with Carolina Crown in 2019. A long way from squad movements!

In our minds, we still think of “what was” in Drum & Bugle Corps. But “what is” today has evolved year after year, decades, actually generations and lifetimes. When you look directly at who are the people responsible for all the evolution and change, it is the Drum Corps people like Jeff Sacktig, and the many others who have spent their lives being involved in our activity. Visual evolution, for better or worse, is a matter of one’s opinion. But there’s no denying Drum Corps continues to reach a new apex yearly. Let us all hope it can continue and give our support whenever and wherever we can. Thanks Jeff!


*Featured Photo: 1971 Madison Scouts perform “Alice in Wonderland.” Photo used with permission from the  Madison Scouts Alumni Association.