Schack: DCI Perc Judge Rule Change - The What, Why, and How

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Dan Schack is the Battery Coordinator/Choreographer of Carolina Crown Drum and Bugle Corps and the Creative Director of George Mason University Indoor Drumline. Outside of his musical endeavors, Dan is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Delaware.

The What

On January 12th, 2019, Drum Corps International (DCI) announced that the voting membership at this year’s rules congress passed two new competitive policies that are “both focused on safety.”

You can find the official press release, along with Kevin Shah’s interview, here.

The rule I will focus on in this article requires that the field percussion judge cannot go more than two yards into the competitive field. 

This appears to be a radical change, as the field percussion judge has not previously had geographical limitations imposed by DCI. What is not evident in this change, or any of the legitimate rules imposed by DCI, are the trends and fluctuations taking place in the activity that are already forcing an adjustment from the judges’ perspectives. 

From the inside, this policy is not simply a reaction to impending safety concerns, but a reflection of what is already happening in show design.

This rule change has caused much buzz from spectators and drum corps instructors, evident through my own social media accounts as well as through discussions I have had and witnessed at rehearsals and beyond. Reactions have been predictably polar.

On one hand, older members of the drum corps community are aghast that members will no longer get the up-close interaction with judges that they once had. Part of the “spark” of the drumming performance is lost, they echo. 

Opponents of the rule further argue that judges will no longer catch the nuances of the composition and the minute quality and cleanliness differences between groups. "How can the field percussion judges accurately assess drumlines when they are playing behind the back hash?" they ask.

On the other hand, proponents of the rule have equally compelling arguments. 

A hallmark of the percussion experience has long been “putting it in the judges” face. For the front ensemble, this change is positive; front ensembles are likely to get more face time with judges. 

Fronts will likely benefit from not having the judge have to run back and forth through the treacherous drill to read one triplet roll, only to return to the front sideline anyway to catch the ballad, or worse, have missed the front's exposed moment altogether. The rule eliminates judge transit time and makes them more apt to read both the front and the battery.

Furthermore, proponents of the rule change note that there have indeed been issues with percussion judges positioning themselves correctly, as well as interfering with other sections’ drill and choreography. The rule ensures that judges do not have to attempt to parse the differences between battery and pit percussion ensembles while simultaneously running and jumping through the biological obstacle course that is a drum corps' drill. 

Regardless of the opposing arguments, the sheer volume and intensity of these reactions certainly led me to ask why this rule has been put in place.

The Why

According to Kevin Shah concerning the change, “being in front of the snareline, or being four or five feet further back but in a safer zone, will yield the same results... We are taking measured action to make sure that we can preserve what we have but still to ensure safety.” 

Looking back to the pioneering days of the field percussion judge, things are very different. The number of performers on the field has increased. Tempos are higher. Equipment is more durable. Drill is higher velocity and more intricate. Props are massive and frequent. 

When one considers about how much training it takes to survive in the drill as a member (with a dot), it is no surprise that safety comes up here. 

Though these days, judges are arguably more prepared to adjudicate shows through research and word of mouth, nothing can truly prepare them to understand the entrances they need to read any particular section in the drill. As a staff member that evaluates the drumline through a very similar medium as a judge, I can attest that it takes a lot of time to fully understand where you must be to read the drumline. Even when you do, some of those paths do not lead to the exits the judges need so that they do not get stuck and miss the next moment elsewhere. 

Overall, it would seem DCI shows have outgrown the field judging system.

My Assessment

For drum corps that are keeping up with the visual trends of the day, this change means very little. Drumlines with plenty of visual and musical exposure are already apt to pick up more points on the percussion sheet, the music analysis sheet, and the effect sheet. 

If you watch the top drumlines, it is apparent that battery sections are already being staged at the front of the field so that they can receive maximum exposure while also allowing the front ensemble to be read more frequently. 

While this could possibly cause some visual repetitiveness from group to group, it is unlikely shows will look drastically different than they already do in reaction to this change.

Primarily, this rule change means that hazard is almost completely removed for judges and members alike. It should allow judges to make more patient, thoughtful, and informed decisions when they are making their tape and putting a number down on the sheet. 

As marching percussion music has grown more complex, integrated, fast, and vocabulary-infused, we cannot expect judges to analyze and assess these details on a first, second, or even third read. If we as educators expect better adjudication, this rule change is necessary.

Overall, I believe that the change is a win-win and will ultimately lead to better reads for the entire percussion ensemble.

Drill and percussion designers must simply work together to account for geographical percussion exposure, just as brass designers have had to account for musical percussion exposure. No harm done. For naysayers of this rule change, I ask you to look back through recent years of percussion, to the drumlines you love and admire, and observe where they are being staged. 

You will find that what this rule is requiring of groups and judges will not be the apocalyptic change many are envisioning. Let’s see how 2019 pans out, and make our decisions based on experience rather than reaction.

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