This is one of my every-few-yearly posts about adventures in the Drum & Bugle Corps activity. If you, like most of the citizens of the known universe, have never heard, or witnessed, the sheer power and breathtaking beauty of World Class Drum & Bugle Corps., you’re probably thinking this is about some kind of marching band, or other oft-maligned form of marching musicianship. If so:
A) You couldn’t be farther from the truth
B) Until you’ve seen drum corps at its finest you won’t get it, because it is nothing like anything on a professional level that you have ever seen; and
C) That’s been the problem with drum corps since Day Zero, and will always be the problem with drum corps.
I once wrote a piece that started out with something like, ‘every time I get into a conversation with a civilian about drum corps, it starts out with “Well, yeah, it’s sort of like a marching band, only different”, proceed through a lengthy discussion that ends with, “Well, yeah, it’s sort of like a marching band, only different.”‘ It’s a perennial marketing problem for the activity. No matter how Drum Corps International (the ruling body for ‘Junior Corps’, that is an age restriction limiting membership to those under 22 years old, which constitutes the majority of the active competing groups in the U.S.) tries to brand or market drum corps, there is always brand confusion with H.S. marching bands, and anything else that involves music being played on a field outdoors while moving.
Really kind of a bummer, too. What this activity has evolved to, at its highest levels, is a spectacle of sight and sound that evokes the kind of passion in audiences that I’ve only felt from musical theater or opera. The levels of musicianship are incredibly high, and the visual elements create an overall performance which, well, you just have to see it.
I’ve given up trying to explain drum corps to most people, accepting that this amazing activity will remain one of the music world’s best kept secrets. A friend of mine once compared drum corps to buggy whips, saying “The Cadets make the finest buggy whips in the known universe…But, for the most part, nobody cares about buggy whips anymore.” Which, now that I think about it, makes me feel like I understand the Amish a little better.
Okay, so maybe a bit of a generalization, but it’s a fairly accurate analogy. Drum corps in this country has declined from a high of about 2500 groups, of all sizes and participation levels, in the 1970s, to about 60 actively competing groups today. Part of it is due to the cost, which is astronomical both for the corps themselves, and for the members, many of whom travel all over the country to participate with their favorite corps.
Then there’s the whole “Edutainment” issue, where the focus of the activity has shifted, over the years, from the corps being social/fraternal performance organizations to elite music schools. This has lead to a shift in emphasis from entertaining audiences to providing the best music and performance education experience for the ‘students’ (a term for members of drum corps that has only come into use in the last twenty years.) A shift that has turned the activity into a largely judge-and-instructor-oriented activity, with the audience, and the type of entertainment being provided, taking a back seat to the preferences of program designers and adjudicators whose aesthetic values and artistic priorities can be decidedly different from those of the audience.
Again, that’s part of the marketing problem: Know your audience, and who you are selling to, and you will understand what your product needs to be. The drum corps activity hasn’t figured this out yet, and they need to…Fast. The attrition rate among corps continues to move forward, time is not on the activity’s side, and unless the powers that be can figure out a way to make this peformance medium more appealing to a wider variety of audiences, it will probably be extinct within the next 10-15 years. And that would be a shame.
I guess that’s why, after a lifetime of participation as a corps member, volunteer, and fan, I’ve backed off of the activity in recent years…While the ticket prices are certainly a bargain ($25-$75 for a 4-6 hour show), I, like many long-time fans, feel a bit left out of the equation from a programming standpoint, and have moved on to other interests. But when I do get around to a show it always brings out the passion that I’ve had for this activity since I was about 13 years old. A passion that lead to many adventures and experiences, both in and outside of the drum corps activity.
Drum corps represents a very distinct branch of American musical history that can be traced back to colonial times. While one might look at a drum corps today and see little resemblance to the regimental fife and drum corps that accompanied troops into battle, that is where it all started. While marching bands have their roots in pageantry and football, drum corps come from a distinctly military tradition that has evolved over the years into something decidedly non-marshall in nature, but still closely tied to performance standards and levels of precision that come from the military heritage. Although, with changes in instrumentation, and increasing pressure from some corps directors to add strings and woodwinds into the instrumentation, the distinctions between marching bands and drum corps is becoming harder, and harder, to see. Nonetheless, it is a spectacular entertainment form, and one that I will always recommend to my friends who have an opportunity to go see a show.
Photos here are from the Moonlight Classic show at Sacramento State University on 6/22/13, and Pacific Procession, Santa Clara High School on 6/23/13.