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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.
In an article I wrote in January of 2019 on the DCI rule change that removed the percussion field judge, I argued that the change would not bring the momentous apocalypse so many naysayers of the rule were articulating. The rule change is merely a reaction to what is already being designed, I claimed, and anyone paying attention to the top-scoring groups could see that their staging was already customized to be read easily and thoroughly by the field percussion judge.
So now, more than halfway through the competitive season, have I changed my mind at all?
Well, no and yes.
Let’s start with the Pros:
Exposed Percussion Staging
In many ways, I think the patterns you can observe in the 2019 staging and drill design are quite similar to pre-2019 DCI. Exposed drumline moments generally take place in front of the front hash and somewhere between the 35-yard lines. This makes sense not only from an exposure standpoint but also from an ensemble timing standpoint.
If the front ensemble is set up in a conventional way, it is much easier to create an achievable and holistic percussion moment if the battery is physically closer to the pit. You would be engineering a season-long headache by designing an “exposed” percussion moment where the battery is all the way to one side of the field, for example, or so far backfield that the front ensemble would struggle to pick up on the nuances of the battery composition.
This need to stage the battery closer for their exposed moments is also healthy for audiences and effect judges. If the battery is more accessible to the eye and ear, designers may make new choices about the level of intricacy and detail in percussion moments. This means we can craft WGI-style moments with the music, choreography, and drill, as viewers can more easily experience percussion features. It opens up a whole new doorway to how we design our percussion moments when our primary concerns are not if we can be read within the context of the entire field, but rather how detailed and finite we can get when our up-close and personal moments arise.
Correlation between Geography and Demand
Considering the time it takes to craft and clean percussion exposures is a must; we are constantly racing against the competitive clock and weighing how much effort any given moment is worth. The way percussion moments are staged has been similar for quite some time, as designers have long considered the quantitative payoff as it relates to rehearsal time.
With the updated judging rule, we know for certain that it is more worthwhile to stake out the time to cultivate an exposed, front field moment than it is to clean that 7 to 5 backward oblique that is 15 steps behind the back hash in a full battery arc. That is simply the reality of this rule. Percussion designers and instructors now have a scaffold for how to structure the composition, staging, choreography, and day-to-day cleaning of the moments in a show.
Why spend a block polishing battery parts that are both visually and musically inaccessible? The overload of attempting to clean a 12-minute show has been somewhat suppressed; now we know exactly which parts will be accessible to the percussion field judge.
The rest of the content can serve its purpose, which is likely setting up the ensemble timing and supporting the total music ensemble. That being said, much of that can be taken care of in a full ensemble rehearsal setting.
So, it would not be an understatement to argue that this rule has fundamentally changed how we should go about writing for and cleaning our drumlines.
Increased Front Ensemble Reads
Percussion judges are reading much more front ensemble content than they were before this rule change.
Many doubters of the removal of the field judge feared that the judges would miss the bulk of the battery content. I would argue that this is not a problem, and in fact, this change has increased the judges’ abilities to assess, analyze, and rank each percussion ensemble.
Will judges miss certain content that is wedged between or behind the hornline? Certainly. But that is likely not the battery’s most impressive material anyway (or at least, it shouldn’t be).
More importantly, front ensembles are receiving a much more equal read to batteries, as opposed to the “ballad-only” type of reading front ensembles used to receive. If the battery is not in a geographically accessible place, the front is likely going to be getting the attention.
Considering that the front ensemble’s main role is playing music, while the battery has increased visual demands through both drill and choreography, this balance feels much more suited to what each section can manage.
New Ensemble Challenges
Because there is a need to bring the battery into a more intimate, judgeable space, we have introduced new ensemble timing challenges into our shows.
Specifically, we are used to sticking the drumline in the back of the field as the source for timing. The brass, guard, and pit could listen back for the percussive accents that gave them reference for tempo. Now that the battery spends much more time in the front half of the field, we are faced with the challenge of teaching entrances to the brass that are not cued strictly from listening back.
In fact, the brass and guard must rely much more on their sense of sight (the drum majors’ hands or the timing of the flagpoles) and block out what they hear from the battery, which will inevitably sound behind what the actual pulse center is.
The front ensemble at Carolina Crown, for example, now has the added responsibility of watching hands, watching feet, anticipating entrances, and straight-up maintaining tempo. Although this feels like a headache right now, this year, I believe cultivating these new timing skills is ultimately going to be healthy for the activity.
As DCI made clear in their original announcement, this rule change has improved performer and judge safety alike.
Performers do not have to have the fear of ramming a judge in the head with their tuba on a huge backup, or jumping over a percussion judge who is trying to sample a battery moment that is placed deep into the field.
Judges can do their job without having to constantly worry about disrupting the performance, or even worse, taking a performer out and causing a major collision or pile up. It is clear that this rule has successfully addressed this problem.
Now that the judges don’t need to fear for their lives as they run from the back hash to the front sideline, they have mental space to view each group with more acuity. In a first read, it is extremely difficult for a judge to process what they have seen and put a perfect number to it.
To make the perfect assessment is a feat of strength that may be only theoretical and not totally possible anyway. But with the rule change, we have allowed judges to slow down, take more in, and process the immense amount of detail each percussion ensemble is bringing to the table. This single detail may be enough to persuade me that this rule change has been absolutely worth it.
But let’s take a look at the flipside to this all ... the Cons:
Limited Access to the Full Percussion Ensemble
For percussion ensembles that have chosen to stick with the conventional setup, judges frequently position themselves between the pit and battery, likely in an attempt to sample both in a more holistic manner.
This means that during percussion features, a field judge will likely be able to sample the battery and the back row of the front ensemble from behind the front ensemble. This is certainly not ideal for the front ensemble, but it is also not tremendously different from what was happening prior to 2019.
Field judges never really had the capability to read the total package from the ground, which has lead many critics (especially WGI-oriented minds) to suggest we take the percussion judge off the field all together. Based on the size of the DCI performance area, a field judge was not previously able to sample the pit and battery together.
This problem is not a new one, but certain tenets of it are being brought to light. For example...
An Increase in “Out of Position” Evaluations
Now that the percussion judge is limited to a certain area for assessment, playing that takes place outside of that area is simply not available to the judge.
This means two things:
First, the judge cannot get physically close enough to the music to pick up shape, texture, dimension, nuance, or quality differences between groups.
Secondly, what a judge hears from the front does not represent what is actually going on back there. In percussion speak, we call this being “out of position.” Certain angles or distances will make something clean sound filthy, or something filthy sound possibly clean.
Due to the new rule, judges may find themselves in those marginal, unreadable positions more frequently, and must actively not evaluate what they are hearing. On a first read, this is a difficult task, but this is the reality of giving the judge a restricted vantage point from which to read the percussion ensemble. More things are going to sound dirty from far away, and judges have to be cognizant in how they approach those moments of uncertainty.
Some judges may note what they hear, and follow up by noting that they are out of position. This is an issue we need to continue discussing and training on the judge level.
Missed Battery Content
It is a somewhat unfortunate reality that A LOT of battery content is going to go unread—probably around 65-75%. While this feels quite doomy on many levels, it is a reality that, as I mentioned above, gives us a new economical way to think about writing and cleaning.
If we know the battery has to play to support the music ensemble (both in the orchestration and in the timing), but that those moments will not add up in the percussion caption, that music simply does not need to be mind-blowingly hard.
I think some of the smartest designers were well on top of this phenomenon years ago, and many others are now catching up to the trend. If it is not going to be read by the percussion judge, the part should fulfill its utility and not much more.
We like to call these “the no-rehearse.” Make it work for the music analysis and effect judges, and write it simply enough that it can get clean in a full ensemble rehearsal setting. If your exposed percussion moments are intricate enough, you will need all your percussion rehearsal time to attack those.
The Thrill of the Hunt
When many of us joined DCI drumlines, we set out to throw it down in people’s faces. Whether it’s in rehearsals, in the lot, or in performances, the intimacy of putting something super aggressive and performative down is a major attraction for young drummers.
Having a judge chase you down while you fly around the field was certainly an experience under that umbrella, and unfortunately, that part of the activity is lost under the new judging rule. Percussion judges can no longer plunge deep into the field to catch that seven-stroke, only to run back to the front sideline to catch the last beat of the pit’s two-mallet run.
Sure, this was an exciting part of the activity, but in my estimation, it was more pageantry than business. We can still throw it down in judges’ faces when the moment is right.
We do not need to hold onto a tradition that at this point is more arbitrary than useful. Not to mention, the rise of drum corps media (Youtube and beyond) guarantees that DCI percussion ensembles get plenty of facetime.
This is a generational transition, not the end of something quintessential.
So what does this all mean for the field percussion judge of today?
A thorough percussion judge, similar to before 2019, must still study each show and learn their respective “drill” so that they are positioned correctly for each exposed moment. I do not think this is a huge shift away from prior years.
If the judge does their homework, they will be able to read everything that is meant to be read and will likely have a more informed takeaway because of the rule.
Now, more than ever, the field percussion judge must leave it up to the music analysis judge to make calls about the percussion ensemble’s timing and balance. Due to the limited access the field judge has to a total read, their task should be to evaluate the nuances of the sections they stand in front of. They must address player to player balance and blend, individual error (and success), compositional elements, and the character of sound and performance qualities coming from the section they are positioned in front of.
The judges must more actively block out the urge to make evaluations about timing because things that sound perfectly aligned up top do not sound like that on the ground.
Similarly, field percussion judges must now remember that the electronics/balance choices are made for the effect judges and the audience. Much like with the WGI music judge, who is positioned lower in the stands than the GE and visual judges, the field percussion judge should not make calls about the total balance of the percussion ensemble. What sounds great upstairs likely sounds less great on the field, and that is engineered very purposefully.
Percussion judges now have the luxury of blocking out some of those big-picture issues and can focus solely on splicing the difference between all of the great percussion ensembles in DCI, a task that is already demandingly heroic in nature.
With more time and training, I believe the 2019 rule change will continue to thrive and allow judges to make even more informed and thoughtful decisions. I say we tread forth, unwavering in the standards of our adjudication system, but flexible enough to understand that anything new will require development and refinement.
Thank you to all of the people who have contributed to this discussion, and to all of the DCI percussion judges who are pushing themselves to improve and innovate alongside the ever-growing DCI percussion activity. See you in critique!