I haven't seen a drum corps live since I was in The Racine Kilties in 2004. I don't know if it was me doing the Chinese New Year parade with The Renegades this year, or if enough time has passed where I was ready to see a show again, but I did. DCI West at Stanford took place this weekend and I thought I'd chronicle a few thoughts I have about the activity (as ruled by DCI).
To begin let's go over some major rule changes that have taken place, specifically in DCI, in the past 10 years.
- Front ensemble and soloist amplification is allowed.
- Electronic instruments (keyboards, synths, samplers, computers) can be used.
- Voiceover/narration, and singing, either live or sampled is fair game.
- Legal "Pre-Show" performance, allowing a corps to play anything before the official start of their timed, judged show is a thing. This could actually include woodwinds, monster trucks, digital displays, laser light shows, additional people, etc as long as its use is stopped before the the officially judged portion. I say "officially" because the GE judge has to acknowledge this portion.
- Any bell-front brass is legal. Trombones, sousaphones, whatever. The first step of this was allowing Bb instrumentation instead of the G bugles previously used.
- A World Class corps may have up to 150 members, it used to be 128.
And some other notable notes:
- Top Drum Corps have threatened to leave DCI in general to have more of a "Tournament of Champions" deal. This to me feels like Star of Indiana leaving to do Canadian Brass Brass Theater / BLAST! This also creates a scenario where all crazy rule propositions have to get approved or the top 7 corps will leave DCI, and then DCI is pretty much dead, taking all the other corps down with it.
- It seems corps don't own their busses and trucks anymore.
- Instead of the corps coming into formation for finale they have a encore by some arbitrary corps first (not necessarily the winner), and then just the drum majors come out for the scores.
And here are my thoughts, in no particular order.
- I miss on-field warmups. While this new "pre-show" scene setting certainly guides you slowly into the show, for a lot of people it's about the corps. People like me love seeing them face backfield, blast out some notes, and prepare for battle. It's not beautiful, it's not graceful, it's powerful and it makes you excited as a fan for what's to come. Having a single guard member run across the field with a tambourine and have samples from the synth setting a mood does not make me feel like I'm preparing to watch a corps.
- The only usage of "alternative" brass that I saw was from SCV's low brass section. They marched in with trombones in hand as well as their baris. I feared the worst. However, they only played them during the opening fanfare. This came off as a "Screw you, we'll play whatever we want!" moment, given they hauled this stuff around only to play it once. Just to prove they can. It was a good opening moment, though, so aside from it looking weird, I have no complaints. Yet.
- I still think G bugles are louder. Other people do too.
- I don't like the narration. It comes off forced and pretentious. Having clips of dialog from movies or famous people might make the show designer think they're adding depth and context, but I find it jarring and unnecessary. It also takes my focus away from what counts, the performance on the field. It's easy to fall into a "what are they talking about?" instead of enjoying the show. I've seen a couple clips of other corps doing vocals online, and the only one that really worked for me was seeing The Madison Scouts sing "Never Walk Alone", with the drum major conducting the audience essentially asking them to sing along. A beautiful moment given it's their corps song.
- I miss seeing the logos on the busses. Crossmen had them, though.
- I thought the electronics (keyboards, samples) were used pretty well to add an extra layer of bass to some impactful moments in the shows. As it stands I think it's being used responsibly, and positively. Though I saw people who were watching the show via a webcast thought the opposite, as they were getting a direct feed from microphones and possibly the mixing console? I could see that being a far different mix than what I heard live.
- What's the deal with the retreat change? Having all the corps come out for the scores is one of the most exciting parts of the night. Having the encore concert afterward for the winner (or home corps) was always so powerful. As a corps member being out there next to all the other corps, next to your teammates, is something special.
My final thoughts.
I will see a day where I can say "This isn't my drum corps" just like my dad can say the same. DCI is going the way of any performance medium, where limitations, history, and constrained creative freedom have no place getting in the way of the show. Soon all instruments (yes, woodwinds too) will be on that field, and artistry will completely replace the park and blow. I also personally believe that when it comes to DCI (or whatever it becomes), it'll be less about scores and more about a touring performance.
When you go see Cirque du Soleil there's no score at the end of the night. They're not compared to other shows. You go, you appreciate, and you leave thinking about the great performance. When your favorite band comes to down and you see the three openers they're not compared to the headliner in form of a number.
But fear not, I don't believe that drum corps will die. There are so many great outlets for "classic" drum corps that I almost hope that DCI (and its member corps) yank off the bandaid so we can move forward. Let DCA be the organization for people who love drum corps, and let DCI be the group that manages touring marching arts groups around the world.