Drum corps is different, in the same old way

Recently, I was asked to attend the DCI West Championship held in Stanford Stadium. First, I was asked to attend as a guest, but at the last moment that was changed. I was contacted by a friend and informed that circumstances would not allow her to make the trip. I thought I was off the hook since I, too, had decided not to go. WRONG!

She asked me to go and instead provide her a perspective of someone who has been out of the activity for a long time. I agreed to do it and was off.

About 10 hours later, there I was, like “Alice in Wonderland,” at a drum corps show. I had only attended a few local shows in the last 19 years, so this was big stuff for me. The Stanford campus probably has a geographic footprint bigger than the town I live in now. It was both overwhelming and awe-inspiring for me. But, the long and the short of it, the experience would only last for a few hours.

The one thing I hadn’t taken into account was the heat wave that struck California that weekend, soaring into triple-digits. Realizing I couldn’t do what was asked of me from the confines of my air-conditioned car, and anticipating that things could only get worse with health being an issue, I turned around and returned home.

I made that trip back home agonizing about what I would say to my friend and wondering what would be her reaction. When we did make contact, I was very happy, though not fully surprised that she was totally understanding of the whys and wherefores of the weekend. She was willing to forgive me . . . with one small proviso. She changed my assignment by asking me to comment about the differences in the activity in my years of participation and observation. I agreed.

So here goes —

I think 1972 is a pretty good starting point, being the inaugural year of this new thing called DCI which, as everybody knows, was the “Declaration of Independence” of drum corps: its beginnings as an activity, by, of and for the activity. That in itself was a radical proposition. From that point forward, things started to change through the Rules Congresses that took place every other year.

Since that time, many things have changed, not the least of which was instrumentation evolving from piston-rotor G bugles to the multi-key three-valve horns that exist today. A soprano is now a trumpet. A contrabass is now a tuba. The military bearing of that time has long since given way to a far more artistic approach that has brought about the loss of concepts such as “color pre” and, more basically, the American flag.

Now we have amplification, narration and synthesizers. Where will it all stop? Who knows? Most likely it will evolve into something that my grandfather, who played a bugle (that I now treasure) in a drum corps after World War I, would never recognize. In the online forums, there are many of us who argue these points ad nauseum.

I must confess that as an “old school guy”, I am one of many that lament the changes that have come about over the years. It seems to me that many of the characteristics that made this activity unique have gone by the wayside for convenience and/or financial considerations. I have been one of those who have been fairly vocal about what I see, asking the major question, “Has DCI really been good for the activity as a whole?”

To answer that question would take an encyclopedia filled with the many and varied opinions. As has been stated, many things are different.

I would much rather speak about the things that I viewed in my short stay in Palo Alto that are the same, starting with the fact that, as human beings, we all have egos. This fact is at the very heart of the endless arguments about the evolution of the activity, and the motives, effects and desirability of that evolution. This “ego” factor extends from fans, loyalists, alumni, arrangers, writers, instructors, parents, directors and on up to the top of the DCI power structure.

Because we are humans, this will never change. The arguments will continue. t will always be analogous to arguments such as, “My 1960 Corvette is better than your 1977.” This leads us nowhere.

Instead, I would like to focus on what is the same, yet desirable, excellent and the greatest single most important issue in the “then vs. now” discussions. This task I now know is very simple. In my short stay, I had the privilege of witnessing the rehearsal of a percussion section. Who it was is not of interest because, in my humble opinion, the truths about which I speak are universal and, as such, applicable to any and every corps. Affiliation doesn’t come into play in this equation.

What I experienced was friendship that goes back in excess of 40 years. Total dedication to being the very best. Professionalism all the way around that is almost dizzying to an old guy like me. Tempos that are so fast I can’t even imagine the workout these people get in hours and hours of rehearsal.

What I witnessed are the very qualities that make adults out of children, superior over mediocre, good over bad, right over wrong. After witnessing this rehearsal, I know that these young people all performed to the highest-level possible.

What I walked away with was the knowledge that the things that made my own years of experience so very special, STILL EXIST TODAY! The things that have remained, regardless of the “thrill of winning” or the “agony of defeat,” are still the spirit and soul, loves and friends, kinship, brotherhood, perseverance, dedication, discipline, blood, sweat, tears, pain, happiness, sadness, anger, resignation, life lessons learned, goals formulated, goals achieved, goals not achieved and on and on.

The foundations that we all learned then — all my old corps mates, friends, mentors and I — are the basics of life STILL LEARNED TODAY. With this in mind, I am in a better position to get over the peripheral issues, as I now view them.

The “peripheral issues eat away at the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that there are people busting to be the best they can at what they do. They do the best they can, all while not wanting to be a burden on the friend, the corps-mate, the fellow member.
I applaud these unseen things that are still alive and well. Most important of all — and never to be forgotten — is the idea that drum corps is an activity that is essentially of, by and for the members, not the rest of us.

We are the audience. It is we who benefit from the labors of the young people who comprise the whole of that thing called drum corps. It is they who give of themselves always in the effort to be better than they were the day before. As long as that is the basis and people are involved, this will probably never change. As a microcosm of what it is to be human, to excel, to be the best, this activity embodies the very best in people, regardless of what uniform is worn, regardless of the instrument played or the rules that govern.

The unseens are the human spirit and soul that make a person want to be the best he or she can be. No rule, or technicality such as amplification will ever change that. The unseen comes from the human heart and the desire to be the very best one can be.

And to appreciate that, one has to realize that drum corps may be different, but the important part — the heart of the activity — is still the same.