I first learned about Drum Corps International in 1993, when I was in the ninth grade. The DCI World Championships were in Jackson, Mississippi, that year, just a few miles from my hometown, so I really had no choice but for my ignorance of the activity to be eliminated. I became an avid fan, purchased recordings, attended shows within driving distance, and watched the yearly broadcasts on PBS for a few years, before my expanding musical horizons in college pushed drum corps to the side.
Like many university brass teachers, today I have mixed feelings about drum and bugle corps. In fact, this was the topic of a heated discussion on the Trombone Pedagogy group on Facebook a few weeks ago. While I was already considering writing a blog post on the topic, that discussion prompted me to finally organize my thoughts and get them into writing. Today I am going to offer two positive observations of the drum and bugle corps activity and two negative ones, and then conclude with what I tell students who are considering participating.
Positive Observation #1: Sound Playing Fundamentals
While marching bands are often associated with the development of poor fundamental playing habits, any association of the same with drum corps is usually unfair, at least for the better organizations. The top drum and bugle corps bring in well-qualified and often world-class brass players to coach their horn lines. Despite the inherent risks associated with marching and playing, this instruction is usually a boon to students’ playing development. Besides, how else are you going to get your students to play long tones and lip slurs for an hour or two each day all summer?
Positive Observation #2: Exposure to Great Literature
I have been known to criticize high school and college marching band directors who program highbrow music for their field shows that will not appeal to the usual football crowd. While there is an equal and opposite danger of “dumbing down” the musical content of programs too much, I think it is important that athletic bands consider their primary audiences when choosing repertoire. Drum and bugle corps, on the other hand, are musicians and cater to musicians, so there is a great opportunity here to expose students and audiences to great works arranged for the drum and bugle corps. Indeed, the first times I heard Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta by Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and the Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) were in arrangements for drum and bugle corps. These performances were simply the “gateway drugs” which led me to explore and discover these works for myself in their original versions. I do not wish to overstate the musical value of DCI, but it can serve as a valuable means of exposure to great music, while maintaining a certain entertainment value and artistic quality in its own right.
Negative Observation #1: Fundamental Playing Problems
This observation might seem strange paired with the first one, as I began by praising the sound fundamental instruction received by students in the top organizations affiliated with DCI. Nevertheless, the quality of instruction does vary, and students with peculiar needs or long-term problems to correct might suffer setbacks in the midst of instruction geared more toward the needs of an ensemble than to the needs of the individual player. Additionally, and as was discussed in the aforementioned Trombone Pedagogy discussion, brass instructors in some organizations (and not just in DCI) have a potentially dangerous practice of insisting that all the players in each section play the same mouthpiece, ostensibly for the purpose of promoting a uniform section sound. Not only is this a poor way to reach the desired goal, as players whose facial structures are not compatible with the selected mouthpiece will not produce a good sound, but also it can promote the development of negative playing habits in players who try to “force-fit” their embouchures into the prescribed mouthpiece. Mouthpiece selection is a very individual thing, as the rim size must fit the player’s embouchure while the cup and backbore matches the instrument being played. A mismatch in either respect will lead to a poor sound and possible negative repercussions for the individual player.
Negative Observation #2: Attitude Problems
A second negative observation has to do with the attitudes of certain students after marching drum corps. I have witnessed on more than one occasion cases where students returning to their universities from a summer of competitive marching develop arrogant, condescending, and dismissive attitudes toward their schools’ marching bands and even in some cases the directors. These students too easily forget that while DCI is a competitive organization focused increasingly on higher artistic values, college marching bands exist primarily to entertain the football crowd, and the emphasis is on size, variety, and excitement, not on the perfection of a single ten-minute program for judges, connoisseurs, and fans. These differences in objectives necessitate an approach that is not necessarily “lesser,” but merely “different.” Judging college marching bands by drum corps standards is not a valid comparison, and thinking less of the bands and their directors is both immature and disrespectful. And don’t forget, those seeking careers as school band directors will need their college band directors’ recommendations when the time for a job search comes around. Don’t alienate them!
So, in light of these considerations, do I still encourage interested students to participate in drum and bugle corps? In most cases, yes, provided that they are generally good players without serious fundamental issues, and avoid organizations that look like they will be guilty of the offenses mentioned in my first negative observation. The overwhelming majority of my students are aspiring school band directors, and some drum corps experience will generally serve them well, as long as they don’t develop the aforementioned attitude problems. With performance majors I would be more cautious, only because they will need to focus on other things and might be served better by different summer opportunities. Happily, I have never had a student that has had a bad experience with DCI, and I’ve even begun to enjoy watching it again. A little.