by John Fitzgerald
Recently a contributor to the Netscape Drum Corps Newsgroup on the World Wide Web raised an interesting issue. She inquired as to what people thought was fundamentally more important in the activity, the music or the marching? This is a question I have been pondering since the end of the season, and it is, I believe, a question that merits some serious scrutiny.
As I formulate it, the question is: what is primary, the sound or the sight, music or marching? My response, as a thirty year observer of the activity, is that sound, in particular brass, is primary today. Now, before all you M & M freaks hit the ceiling, let me defend my position. To do so, it is necessary to examine a bit of drum corps history.
Those of us who marched in, or at least observed, drum corps in the early 1960s remember that the top corps of that era had fewer marching members compared to what we see today. For much of the 1960s the average size horn line was 30-32 performers. There were few contra bass bugles. The average drum line, including snares, tenor drums, bass and cymbals, numbered only 9-12 performers. No one was blasting away with the volume or the range of instruments we routinely expect from the best corps today. Likewise, the visual performances of most ’60s corps were simple and uncomplicated. Straight lines, symmetrical drills, small color guards that did little equipment work and no dancing characterized just about every performance. By today’s standards corps were primitive. This is not meant as an insult. Many were wonderful. However, times and standards change, and activities grow and develop. From today’s perspective, the question of whether sight or sound was more important in the early ’60s is just not relevant.
However, in 1964 the first shot in the sight/sound wars was fired by a group of baby-faced, spectacle wearing 13 year olds ( or so they appeared) from Casper, Wyoming. The Troopers couldn’t play horns or drums very well, but their marching technique was sublime and something never seen before. That same year, they pioneered the first great non-linear move in the activity, the Sunburst. They also stunned audiences with daring equipment work that was a central feature of their performance. The Troopers were a smash and within two years had won the VFW National Championship, then the competition of record. Score one for visual.
Sound fought back in 1973. However, in the interim the activity had changed significantly. Corps size inched upward and upward. By the early 1970s, the best corps routinely fielded 40-60 horns and larger drum lines with a wider range of percussion instruments. Programming sophistication was introduced by the Santa Clara Vanguard and was quickly emulated by other corps. M & M innovators such as Pete Emmons (Troopers and SCV) and Bobby Hoffman (Anaheim Kingsmen and Blue Stars) introduced new visual concepts to the activity, and overall marching and musical technique improved significantly. Many new corps arrived on the scene and started making waves. Enter the Madison Scouts. Coming back from a disappointing 1972 season in which they had failed to make the first DCI Finals cut, the Scouts put 64 horns on the field and soared to fourth place. Within two years they were DCI champs. While other corps (the Argonne Rebels being the best example) had put large horn lines on the field during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Madison’s in your face, big sound approach revolutionized the activity. It was loud, and it was loud with style and quality. The fans LOVED it (and obviously, still do over 20 years later). Madison stole the thunder from the Santa Clara Vanguard who had been dominating the activity with an approach that featured sophisticated, understated music and controlled playing. And waiting in the wings were the Blue Devils. The era of the big sound had begun and it has endured. Score one for sound.
The visual caption didn’t die during the ’70s. The 27th Lancers, thanks to the brilliant visual creations of Ralph Pace and the innovative color guard work of George Zingali, Peggy Twiggs and Steven Covitz, soared to great competitive heights. However, the Lancers were unable to field a horn line that could produce the wondrous sound and volume emanating from the Blue Devils, Madison and (by the late ’70s) Phantom Regiment and Spirit of Atlanta, and never won the big one.
In the 1980s the man who may have been drum corps’ greatest genius was single-handedly responsible for a temporary triumph of the visual George Zingali’s outrageous, breathtaking and seemingly inconceivable drills created for the Garfield Cadets (1982, ’83, ’84, ’85, ’87, and ’88) literally transformed the activity. Today the non-linear, high speed drill, marched with an individual marching technique entirely different from all marching techniques that preceded it, is ubiquitous. To illustrate -I attended the Bands of America Grand National Championships in November and observed more that 40 competing high school bands. Every band used the Zingali style drill and marching technique.
Creatively, during those years, Garfield was eons ahead of the rest of the activity. However, George and his colleagues at Garfield were savvy enough to know that those shows couldn’t win on brilliance and innovation alone. The Cadets put terrific horn lines on the field which came close to the volume of the Devils and were just as technically proficient. They also raised the quality of their percussion lines. Garfield won often, but usually not by much. Score one for visual – again not by much.
Sadly, there has been no visual revolutionary since. Today it is very, very difficult to create new visual thrills for the audience. We’ve literally seen it all, or so it seems. The moves creating the ovations now – rifle throws; expanding and revolving company fronts; flag spins and acrobatics, etc. we’ve seen a thousand times. The top corps do them all very well. What is making the difference in the mid 90s? What tips the balance toward victory? It is, I contend, the BIG SOUND. For some reason, and I am not sure why, THE ACTIVITY DEMANDS IT. Audiences love loud. Let’s face it, if a horn line is playing well technically, it can’t play too loud. Experience over the past 25 years seems to dictate that whatever changes come along in visual, sound will eventually return to dominance.
Percussion lovers may be asking, “What about drums?” I believe percussion is a wash. As much as the audience loves drum lines, most are loud enough for the average fan. Moreover, unlike a great horn line a great drum line can play too loud.
The recent experience of the Cadets of Bergen County illustrates my hypothesis. Over the last decade or so the Cadets have become identified with a “concert hall” or “orchestral” sound. Compared to the Blue Devils or Phantom Regiment, the Cadets are just not as loud. I remember watching the CBC give back to back brilliant performances at DCI in 1994 and coming up short. Sitting on the 45 yard line about half way up in the stands those nights, I could not hear the Cadets horn line at times. Their playing was too controlled. DCI, Buffalo in 1995 – same story. Music GE, see you later.
Another example: Star of lndiana in 1991 and again in 1993. Star marched phenomenal horn lines both those years but provoked tremendous fan hostility for not playing loud for most of those shows. Fans were furious because they knew that Star was capable of blowing down the stands but refused to do it.
So, this is my thesis: sound is primary. In 1996 the Blue Devils and Phantom upped the ante in this regard. BD fielded six more horns than had been customary for them and produced what must have been the loudest horn line ever to hit the field. They were truly awesome playing truly forgettable music. Phantom, with its 70 horns, was close behind BD in the volume category and produced wondrous, loud music for the fans. Sandwiched between these two corps, the Cadets had to suffer. Ten seconds into BD’s show, one intuitively knew that, for this championship, the Cadets were dead.
So, there you have it. Sound is primary. Whenever the visual component hits a creative plateau, drum corps come home to sound because sound is king. So, get out those bugles and start blowing.