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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.
All over the internet, I read that this year of Drum Corps International was special. Media outlets certainly broadcast it that way as a means of growing interest and perpetuating excitement, but it also seems that fans of the activity are perceiving something special about DCI 2019, too. The top groups have pushed the activity higher and broader. No argument there. But as you look across all of the groups competing in DCI, it seems like everyone has seriously upped their game in the quest to create conversations, get noticed, and score some competitive and social points.
Now that the DCI 2019 season has wrapped up, there are definitely clear patterns and trends that emerged among many ensembles who fought to maintain their position, move up in the rankings, or make waves outside of the competitive arena. It's hard to argue that, when looking at DCI in 2019, one can see that drum corps has entered into its next phase.
But what are the characteristics of this new phase of drum corps?
Props. Costuming. Electronics.
Looking across DCI, you can see tangible changes and additions in all of these categories, and discussing and thinking through how these additions have affected DCI is important for those looking to keep up (or even look ahead) with their design.
But I think there are also some less obvious areas of change that have changed DCI in major ways.
In this article, I want to discuss and analyze some of the growing trends that I have personally observed throughout the 2019 DCI season. I do not claim that any of these are brand-new trends whatsoever. What I do think is that these trends are becoming more consistent across corps of all tiers and that some of them are even necessary just for a corps to be considered within the competitive conversation.
Furthermore, I do not necessarily endorse any of the trends I will discuss going forward, and instead will try to look at these developments as a somewhat inevitable part of drum and bugle corps’ history and forward trajectory. I think it is more useful to consider what is happening now, rather than looking back nostalgically (and subjectively) about what things used to be or should be.
Trends are not necessarily linear, and even the ones we see pop up now are frequently reiterations of past trends. They occur in more cyclical than linear patterns. Time becomes less important when DCI’s current state is considered this way. We can consider where we are rather than when we are.
So without further ado, here is what I’ve noticed from beneath the surface...
Relying on props to merely create a more immersive set design is part of the olden days. It is now expected that drum corps not only have props but are able to interact with them in a variety of ways. The prop must be able to transform. It must be able to transport. And it must hold conceptual value that adds to the storytelling of the show.
The requirement of having props has been both creatively interesting and economically burdensome. Groups have found incredibly interesting ways to take somewhat simple objects and turn them into something with multiple uses. Variety is the name of the game here.
That being said, integrating props into the drum corps "way of life" is no cakewalk. There is loading and unloading, resetting them during ensemble, and, in general, teaching musicians and dancers to manipulate objects they have very little prior experience with. It takes lots of time and effort, which takes away from training for playing and moving well.
Concept and Storytelling
In the days of old, designing a show seemed as easy as picking some music that fit together, writing drill underneath it, and voila! You had a drum corps show. Those days are very much gone. As we’ve moved towards a more Broadway-esque style of production, a loosely constructed concept doesn’t do the trick anymore.
Shows must put forth some kind of message that is receivable by the audience and judges. That message must be supported by the musical and visual choices the design team makes, and those choices must work cohesively together. Picking music that “feels” right is no longer enough; we must now pick music composed by the right person, from the right era, that holds the right meaning.
While "concept shows" can still be effective, looking outward, it appears that storytelling is gaining more and more popularity. It seems like fans and judges both enjoy feeling like they understand the arc of the show, and can trace the progression from the beginning to the middle, to the end. Parallel with the trends we see in Bands of America (BOA), stories have the ability to be more easily relatable than intellectual and abstract concepts for the performers and fans. This makes picking the music and designing the visual package all the more important, as those choices need to support the arc of the story, rather than just underlining a concept throughout a program.
Remember when drums corps used to come out every year looking like, well, themselves? With the ongoing growth of the costuming market and the requirement to keep up in today’s extreme competition, everyone can now see that this just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Now, every year, competing drum corps seemingly reinvent themselves down to the nitty-gritty details as a means of enhancing and reinforcing their show. From custom drum heads, wraps, and scoops, to brand-new costumes every year for both the corps and guard, to customized instrumentation in the brass and front ensemble, everything trickles down to the concept.
The surge of new companies supporting custom design, and designers’ ability to reinvent their corps every year, makes for much more growth year to year. Before, audiences had to imagine that the marching members were Viking warriors or underground revolutionaries because ultimately everyone was just wearing band uniforms. Now, every aesthetic detail of the show enhances the concept, making for a more immersive and believable program.
While some shout down this new wave of design, arguing that we have lost our traditions, it seems clearer than ever that the year-to-year costuming and designers’ ability to customize more components of drum corps is nothing but good for member and audience buy-in alike. We expect this much of live theatre and cinema, so why not drum corps?
As long as the corps have the support of companies with the ability to digitally print materials, a process which likely grows cheaper by the year, we should expect and welcome this immersive approach to drum corps design.
For anyone who has been to a drum corps show in the last six or so years, you know that this has been one of the most obvious and perhaps controversial changes the activity has undergone. Drum corps has radically shifted from a student-centered acoustic activity to a sound-engineered rock concert meant to fill up the massive venues that typically hold tens of thousands of fans. Aside from the conceptual elements of sound design, such as narration and sound effects, soundscape and electronic support has made a huge difference for the groups who are at the top, competitively, and the groups who are not.
This change goes beyond what the audience hears. Sound design has fundamentally changed how designers arrange the acoustic music. More than ever they must keep in mind how much sonic space is available so that they do not stack too many sound elements at once, creating a lack of transparency and affecting their clarity of intent. This means that electronic elements can frequently take precedence over acoustic elements.
Because we are an activity that was founded on playing acoustic instruments, the amount of effort we put into our electronics and how much they add to our effect scores leaves a lot of people questioning where this is all headed. I myself have similar questions too, as this summer more than ever we have seen major discrepancies between corps with high music scores and corps with high general effect scores.
As the effect captions weigh more than the music captions, we are beginning to see that more of the scores are reflections of the designers than the students, and this is a cause for concern for me. I do think the electronics part of our activity is overall a positive addition, but I also think it is time we begin to rethink and possibly recalibrate how we reward drum corps. As it stands, there is more of an impulse to create shows that highlight designer skills rather than student skills. Based on this trend, the activity is actually becoming a competition between adults rather than students, and this, I argue, is a worrisome direction to be moving in.
Performer Demand & Athleticism
There is no doubt that there are more physical demands being placed on DCI performers than ever, but these demands have certainly shifted and evolved. Starting in the mid-late '80s and spanning all the way through the late 2010s, breakneck-speed drill moves were the name of the game. Lower body athleticism became a major effect, and students were moving more and faster than ever. This is no longer the case. Difficult drill does not sustain interest the way it used to anymore. Instead, high-velocity drill is used as one of many visual effects in a drum corps program's vocabulary.
What we see now is greater use of “organic” staging, where visual designers create impressionistic scene changes during which students ripple and scatter from place to place. These types of scene changes are infrequently coupled with playing, so the demands are strictly visual rather than simultaneous. This means that students can focus on individual skills rather than multiple skills, which can be much easier to clean and craft.
Along with this shift towards staging, we see a greater weight being placed on the performers’ interactions with props, as I discussed above. Because designers rely on the performers to change the set design (much like a stage crew would between scenes in live theatre), it is now up to the performers to physically handle the props throughout the course of the show. This means that even more responsibility is being placed on the individual performer, though that responsibility does not necessarily have anything to do with marching performance or playing their instrument.
Lastly, and perhaps the least new element among the above points, are the choreographic demands required of every member of the drum corps. Only 10 or so years ago, the color guard took on most of the choreographic challenges. Drumlines had their WGI-style moments and the basslines likely had even less body. This is no longer the case. It is expected that any hold is now completely filled out with choreography as a means of enhancing the relationship between the audio and the visual layers. I think the most clear place this change has shown up is the front ensembles. Percussion and general effect judges now latently expect the front ensembles to be totally crafted and highly visual.
So what does this mean for the marching community as a whole?
When looking through the above list of trends and innovations, a few things stand out.
First, some of these trends are not new to the marching arts at all, even though they are new to drum corps. Both Winter Guard International and Bands of America have led the way on much of what is now noticeable in DCI. Drum corps has the tendency to react somewhat slowly to the growing trends, as corps have more commitment to tradition and identity than a young indoor group or a high school program. But, a lot of what you will notice in DCI this summer will also be noticeable in upcoming WGI and BOA seasons too.
Second, the changes we see in DCI not only have an impact on how great the production value is, but also on the economy of drum corps. There is a certain financial low end that every drum corps must meet if they expect to compete at all. The growing compulsion to have massive and moveable props, professional-grade sound equipment, and new costumes each year means that corps must be able to foot the bill. For the top groups who receive sponsorships and free gear, this is less of a problem. For younger corps coming up through the ranks, this becomes much more difficult. What we will see is a growing divide between those top groups who can “afford” to compete and those lower groups still trying to make it work.
Third, just as designers have found creative ways to reinvent their corps each year, it is time we find new creative ways to grow drum corps and keep the competition alive. The de-emphasis on student skills, and therefore a de-emphasis on effective teaching, become a cause for concern as more and more corps rely on the flash and bang of their production value. Corps who may have strong educators, but who do not have the money to drop on massive mobile props, will find themselves scratching their heads when they see the major discrepancies between their performance and effect captions.
We must decide the direction of our activity, and ultimately how (and who) we should be rewarded at the end of the day. Is DCI a competition of designers, who rely on the students to bring their brainchild to life? Or is DCI student-centered and committed to rewarding student efforts over programming and financial strength?
I hope there is a middle ground that we can find in this new era of drum corps, but it is my belief that lots of difficult and complex conversations will be had as we move forward from 2019 to 2020.