As the youngest of six kids in a very musical family, I grew up going to symphonic band, jazz band, choral, and marching band concerts. Marching band sticks out for me because of the brass and percussion and the interesting marching formations on the field. Those bare-bones elements are taken to mind-blowing limits by Drum Corps International.
I am an amateur fan—I have gone to several world championships in Bloomington and Indianapolis, but I do not follow the corps throughout the competition season as they travel across North America in search of the softest gymnasium floor bed. I know some of the basics of drum corps but I couldn’t score it to save my life. Check out the links above if you want that level of detail. All I can say is that it’s exhilarating.
DCI has its roots in military parade marching but it’s broken that mold artistically while maintaining the precision. It’s a huge, athletic performing art, taking up an entire football field (and then some), with three main elements: the corps consisting of horns (except trombones) and drums, the color guard, and the “pit” where xylophones, keyboards, and stationary drums are stationed. While these three elements were once strictly independent of each other, the lines are increasingly blurred.
The corps does the majority of the strict marching formations, creating shapes of all kinds on the field and breaking up into various units for aesthetic and technical value. The color guard runs and flips all over the field, in and out of the corps, carrying and flipping flags, rifles, swords, hoops, and just about anything else you can think of. The pit sometimes has synchronized movement but they’re not where the visual action is. The corps usually wears the same uniform from year to year but the color guard always has new costumes and it’s not unusual for them to change costumes on the field.
The corps have 17 minutes at the world championships to load in all their gear (including their own sound system), set up their props and any panels to hide their props, organize themselves on the field, do their 12-minute show, and get everything off again. I believe they were 2 minutes off at intermission last night—that should give you an idea of the precision of these kids.
Speaking of kids, yes, these are primarily teenagers (they “age out” after age 21) who spend their year working in corps camps before embarking on the grueling summer touring competition tours. They are unpaid and, a couple years ago when gas was over $4/gallon, sometimes don’t have the money to make it back home. It is truly a labor of love.
See DCI 2008 Best Moments for a sampling of what drum corps is like
The championships kick off with a small military corps that comes out to play the national anthem. I was running around trying to find my freaking seating section when I dashed into a room crammed with standing people, all faced toward monitors with their hands over their hearts. It still makes me tear up to participate in a heartfelt display of patriotism at the playing of the National Anthem. I suppose I like to think of it as separate from the jingoism that actually runs our society.
However! Back to last night! I finally found my amazing wide, padded seat and settled in. When Paula and the girls and I went a few years ago, it was the first time the championships were held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy. We’d seen them the year before at IU’s football field here at home. We had to go up about 15 escalators and finally ended up in these tiny, hard seats in the nosebleed section. We could see everything but I had such a bad case of vertigo I couldn’t relax my muscles. I was terrified of falling forward. No amount of Xanax popped could overcome.
Last night’s seat was the exact opposite and I must say I still have not found the best seats in the house. I needed to be up higher to be able to see the formations (though there are huge-screen TVs displaying the overall effect) but not so high as to be paralyzed. You also have to be near the center to get the full effect of the sound. That sound, that all-encompassing, bone-rattling, brassy, booming sound is central to the drum corps experience.
When we went to the last show in Bloomington, we got to see “Spartacus,” considered the greatest show of all time. It was a huge, spectacular story where the corps and majors were the Roman oppressors and the color guard was the rebels. At the climax of the piece, one of the junior drum majors ran down the field, leapt to the top of the podium, and “killed” the main drum major. He killed the drum major! Heresy! I’ve never seen anything like it. Everyone goes free in the end, of course, and there’s a huge brassy finish. Glorious.
That was a great year for big stories. Drum corps shows tend to fall into three categories: One is classic drum corps, just music and formations. No grand message. The second has a theme, like last night’s “Turandot” which had all Asian costuming and accessories. The last is The Story, like “Spartacus” or the other big story show in 2008 that was about the Tour de France (complete with a cyclist speeding the length of a gauntlet down the field). Since then the shows have been less grand, mostly the “theme” variety.
Three music choices are practically guaranteed at DCI: Copeland, Bernstein, and Gershwin. And Simple Gifts. Always always always Simple Gifts. The fact that I intensely dislike them all is my cross to bear.
Back to last night’s show! There was this totally pathetic appearance by former American Idol contestant Shaun Canon with an earnest group of young musicians. He sang some drivelly anthem about the power of music and tried to get the audience to sing along, to no effect. I felt sorry for him, wondering if he had been relegated to the state fair circuit, but he really was atrocious.
The Oregon Crusaders followed, the Open Class champions from the night before (there’s Open Class and World Class—I can only guess at the difference). They did a theme show that looked pretty good but wasn’t a wow. Which is, I suppose, what makes them Open Class. And what did they play? Simple Gifts. Of course.
I should note that each show follows a prescribed form: There’s a big opener with a brassy, loud presentation, then a muted soft section with lots of formations, then two louder, more complex parts. The whole show lasts about 10-12 minutes. The soft bits always leave me cold, partly because I find the music uninteresting. It always seems to meander. I’ve often fantasized about writing for drum corps but it’s such a long form that I’d never make it. I’m better at 3-minute, hook-filled drivers.
The show kicked off in earnest with the Crossmen. Here’s my rundown of the show from then on out:
- Crossmen: For their opener, they had a huge, loud, brassy presentation (all horns front, right up to the edge of the field), held out really long, then they all cut off except for one trumpet on a clear high note: Gorgeous! Very effective. They also were an example of the blurring between the corps and the color guard—the corps left their instruments on the field in formation and went walking around with the guard.
- Spirit of Atlanta: A Vegas theme. 2009 was the first year DCI allowed electronic music and I have yet to hear it effectively integrated. Spirit of Atlanta started out by playing snippets of famous Vegas acts like Sinatra and Dean Martin but the clips were so short it sounded very disjointed. Overall they relied a lot on electronic music while they paraded around and it wasn’t very engaging. The corps was very flashy and they unveiled a “Vegas showgirl” with a huge headdress, draped in flashy beads and wearing a skimpy costume.
- Blue Knights: This one had lots of dancing between the corps and the guard with a vaguely “space/Twilight Zone” theme. It was kind of meh. I was surprised it ranked as high as it did.
- Madison Scouts: One of the few all-male corps. Great big, loud show. Good formations. And the stunner: The corps stood in a tight formation, slowly removed their hats, and sang: These beautiful, open chords, all on “o,” gorgeously executed, and something I’ve never seen. Then a slow replace of the hats and they dove back into the big, loud sound. Really enjoyed this one.
- Boston Crusaders: A weird one. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The corps was dressed in this vaguely Roman-looking costume and more than one person muttered, “Spartacus!” in response. A ho-hum show. Clear line between the corps and the guard.
- The Cavaliers: Even more weird. An Andy Warhol theme, with the guard wearing multi-colored make-up all over their faces and waving flags with Campbell Soup labels on them. Musically a disjointed jumble of Out Here on My Own, David Bowie’s Fame, and some classical themes. Ho-hum show until the end, where everybody suddenly dropped everything and ran into the middle of the field in a tight square formation. Funky music was played on their PA and everybody danced this funky choreography with coordinated hand moves that gave these dramatic flashes of color and mirrors. The crowd went nuts.
- Bluecoats: When the Bluecoats come on, everybody in the know shouts “Bluuuuuue!” It’s very disconcerting for the uninitiated because it sounds like a tremendous roar of “boo!” but it’s fun as hell to participate in. This was another theme show but I have no idea what it was. They were dressed in a sort of harlequin look. In yet another example of poor use of broadcast sound, during the quiet portion they had this series of voices saying things like “broken,” “abused,” “lost,” “hurt,” and so forth. Then at the end the color guard triumphantly pulled out these flags that said “I AM” on them. Sumkinda message there but I have no idea what it was. (The announcer always gives the name of the program but it echoes so much you can’t hear what it is.)
- Santa Clara Vanguard: Classic drum corps. No theme or fancy schmancy story, just great formations and sweet, crisp execution. They were the first corps I’ve seen go beyond the limits of the football field while playing, but that may just be because of the proximity of my seat. They got a standing ovation at their big finish but then they surprised everyone by turning their backs and playing softly, then whipping back and playing this light little flip ending. It cost them some audience points because it was a little confusing and so different from the classic “big presentation” ending. (One of the cool things about SCV is at some predetermined point in the show, those in the know all scream, “Vanguard!” during a break in the music. Love it.)
- The Cadets: Oddly enough considering the weather we’ve had all summer, their theme was Christmas. They started out by exploring it as a commercial event, with the color guard dressed up as presents and moving around huge gift boxes. The voiceovers were all skeptical and commercialized. Then they moved into playing more religious-themed music and burst out at the end with one color guard woman as an angel with huge flowing wings and a big shining star in the back of the field. Spectacular ending—two standing ovations.
- Phantom Regiment: Always a crowd favorite, they placed third in the competition. Their show was called “Turandot” and it had some sort of Asian theme. Beautiful costumes for the corps and guard but had all these weird barbaric elements like spiked heads around the perimeter of the field. They also chopped off some guy’s head and stuck it on a pike. This is part of the “Spartacus” influence—the interjection of violence to play to the crowd. I don’t like it. It’s eerily evocative of Roman circuses and the crowd is way too into it. The one thing that was cool about this show was the corps ripped off the guards’ dark costumes at the end to reveal these totally different bright spangly costumes underneath. Very effective.
- Carolina Crown: Paula’s favorite, so I made sure to “woo!!” like crazy. There was a lot of athleticism in this show. Some kind of theme but I’m not sure what it was. They had these huge open cubes made out of shiny silver material. One of the corps balanced one for an unbelievably long time on his chin. No Big Story, just great drum corps performance with good formations and the color guard outdoing itself with flips and the like. A great show.
- Blue Devils: They were first place going into the finals but not the crowd favorite, so that was a little weird. Their theme was “Dada,” which made it even weirder. They kept playing definitions of Dada over their PA in German and English, which the crowd was definitely not appreciative of. In a turnaround of Phantom Regiment, the color guard switched out the costumes on the corps, but it was just the same outfit with more spangles on it, so I’m not sure what that was for. They did throw in a brief bit of swing, which was a welcome change from the regimented musical forms you find in DCI. And man, were these guys loud. I’ve never heard anything so loud. And then they bent back and got louder. It was intense! But not a show the crowd could get into. Only a half standing ovation. Carolina Crown was behind by less than a point going into the finals and it looked like a cakewalk for their victory.
After the last corps leaves the field, a military band plays a very repetitive march while all the corps file back in to fill the field for judging. This is usually about the time I’m guzzling Twizzlers and wondering if I should get one more big pretzel before it’s time to go.
But I also reflect on the night I’ve seen. My face was aching by intermission so I don’t know what kind of grimaces I make while watching, but I do know that I spend a lot of time with a big fat smile plastered to my face. Drum corps is a big, fast, wide-ranging art form. It’s literally a case of “blink and you’ll miss something critical.” These are highly complex shows with an unbelievable mastery for kids working at it part-time when they’re not in school.
You never know when they’re going to break out the Bernstein or some other known music, but this year’s show was primarily original compositions. And I don’t much care for it. There aren’t any hooks. You don’t get to the end of a routine and hum a few bars of what you’ve just heard. You never get the sense that you’ve just heard a classic bit of music that you’d hear again if you were still alive when it becomes public domain.
Once all the corps were on the field, one of the drum majors went way up in the stands and led all the corps in playing—you guessed it—Simple Gifts. Argh! I will be happy if I never hear that song again.
The judging is not overly long. They don’t draw it out like the Olympics. But I’m sure it’s still painful for the corps on the field. It pretty much followed the previous scores, with only the Boston Crusaders moving up. In between the all-corps awards are the individual awards for best drum major, best color guard, etc. And there was major drama last night when best brass went to Blue Devils. The crowd was not happy and some people were yelling. And suddenly the announcer said, “There’s been a mistake. There’s been a mistake. There’s been a mistake.” And everyone’s holding their breath and the Blue Devils’ drum majors are frozen with their hands half out to accept the award when the announcer says, “The Best Brass award goes to—Carolina Crown!” Huge ovation from the audience.
The announcer gives the total score before telling you which corps it’s for, which heightens the suspense. Carolina Crown got 96.75, which was almost a point lower than what they’d received in finals. And in first place, with 98.7 points, was Blue Devils with the Dada show. Man, was the crowd pissed! There were actual boos—lots of them. I was surprised the spread was nearly 2 whole points. What the heck were the judges seeing that the rest of us didn’t? But what was done, was done, and the Blue Devils were free to celebrate regardless of what the crowd thought.
After that final award, all the corps leave the field except for the winner, who then does their show over again. Last night there was a mass exodus before Blue Devils could retake the field. I was one of them. Their show left me cold. Besides, I was parked about 80 miles from the stadium and was worried about walking alone in the middle of the city at midnight. I should’ve been more worried about what would happen when I got in the car—the panic feature went off for some reason and I had no idea how to turn it off. So there I am in this car with its lights flashing and horn going off, scrambling for the owner’s manual only to find there’s no listing for “panic.” I just kept pressing things until I finally unlocked the doors, which shut everything down. Whew!
DCI moved its headquarters to Indy in 2009 for a ten-year contract, so I have several years left of the opportunity to experience this great art form up-front and personal. I’d love to get my dad to go. He loves that big, loud, dramatic sound and I’m sure he’d enjoy it. There are lots of seniors who go but he might have trouble getting around.
While the corps have some people of color in them, the audience overall is white. But they are very, very passionate about the experience. So many of them went through drum corps themselves and are reliving their glory days or wondering at the evolution of the art form. I’m just along for the ride. And what a ride! You never know when you’ll see the next “Spartacus”! Love it. Love. It.