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An interview with Teal Sound’s director, Randy Blackburn

by Steve Vickers, DCW publisher
publisher@drumcorpsworld.com

This interview originally appeared in the April 2009 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 38, Number 1).

Teal Sound has been Florida’s lone representative on the DCI tour almost since the corps began in 1999. It has been fascinating watching the growth of the program, especially over the last two or three years as the organization had broken into the upper echelons of DCI’s Open Class tier.

The 21st Century Drum & Bugle Corps Foundation, Inc. actually played a role in the corps’ founding when some used G bugles were placed with the Jacksonville start-up. Teal Sound is the only drum and bugle corps that received assistance from the foundation that has lasted over the long-term and that fact is something the board of directors is quite proud of.

This past season was the corps’ most successful to date, with nearly a full-size corps on the field, a sophisticated set of music from a relatively obscure European singing group and an incredibly strong and talented roster of young people who were working very hard to max-out their potential at the DCI Prelims in Michigan City and semifinals and finals in the IU Stadium at Bloomington, IN, last August.

The organization is set to celebrate its 10th anniversary this season and I thought it was time to let DCW readers know more about the corps.

Steve Vickers: Name some of the key players on your management and instructional staff, along with a few details about their background?

Randy Blackburn: First of all, Brian Fisher is the president of The Teal Sound, Inc. and his background stems from his dad having been the director of Suncoast Sound back in the early ’80s. Brian was the DM at Suncoast and later went on to be the tour director and then worked for DCI for a couple of seasons.

He and I have known each other for years and when it came time to put this all together, there was no one else I could have wanted to be a partner in this venture. His background in business and in drum corps has been very valuable to the corps and its development.

Secondly, the other key player to all of this is Ron Ellis, our program coordinator, brass arranger, caption head and all-around person wherever I need him kind of guy. Ron was a former member of Suncoast back in the early ’80s and has worked with various corps in both the U.S. and Japan.

He is also the Director of Athletic Bands at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and brings to this program a wealth of musical direction and value. His involvement with Teal Sound has helped to establish the brass as one of the best programs in DCI and one where students want to come and play their horns. Ron, like Brian, is part of the lifeblood of this program as we continue toward building a championship program here in Florida.

We have since added Brandon Clemons and Lainey Drummond to our administrative team.

Brandon is our operations director and Lainey is our tour director. Both of these individuals started with the program in 2007 as instructional staff, but have since moved into key positions as we found their skills were better utilized in other areas this has already paid off in the short run. Both Brandon and Lainey are key factors in the daily movement and operations that the corps was very much in need of.

Our volunteer organization is headed up by Debbie Swift and Cherie Starling. Both of these women do a wonderful job coordinating all the tasks and assigning the weekend duties of the parents at camps and on the road. Their services to the corps never go unnoticed, as they constantly are hard at work preparing our support staff for their next tasks.

We have also added Larry McCrobie as business manager this season. He has spent the past couple of seasons with the Madison Scouts in their business office and we feel he can bring the knowledge of being in and around a World Class corps to Teal this year and beyond.

In just the few short weeks he has been with us, our business structure has already taken a new shape and with his ideas we will continue to grow and develop better programs to make this organization stronger.

Finally, our wives, Jill Fisher, Kim Ellis and Susan Blackburn, who all have been so very supportive of the many late-night phone conversations, weekends away, and the time and effort that they have also given through countless hours helping to set this program up to be successful.

SV: Was Teal Sound the beneficiary of membership and/or staff from Magic of Orlando when that corps folded?

RB: Not really. We gained a few members, but mostly the corps was made up of new members from around the state. Staff-wise, we generated our own through building from our caption heads first. We started with Ron Ellis and continued to develop each section as we went along. The staff we had in 2007 played a crucial role in the development of Teal to where we are today.

SV: Many Florida young people are taking part in the activity beyond your own corps . . . for example, I know the Boston Crusaders derive a significant portion of their membership from the state and have most of their off-season camps in your region. Is there a particular radius you focus on to build your roster?

RB: The state of Florida has some of the best talent in band programs that we could ever ask for. Our members actually come from all over the state as well as the Southeast.

Approximately 60% of the corps is made up of Florida students. The balance comes from all over the Southeast, East, Midwest, West and Japan.

Last year, the corps saw membership from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Massachusetts, California, Texas, Kentucky and Japan. We have also had potential members audition from India, South Africa and Thailand. It has been an interesting mix of talent since taking over the program in 2007.

SV: Retention is a constant challenge for all corps. Have you developed a program that keeps most of your members or do you have young people who are looking at your organization as a stepping stone to a higher level?

RB: We would always like to think that Teal is the home for all our members until the day they age out. However, that is somewhat unrealistic today. It wasn’t like that when I marched and we stayed with the corps we started with to age out. When I aged out of Crossmen in 1982, I think most of that corps’ age-outs had started with the corps or most of them had been there for at least a few years anyway.

Today kids like to move around and gain experience all over. They all have their favorites and we encourage all our members to look at    others if they desire, but that they are still welcome here if they choose to return. Over the past couple of years we have lost members to other programs, but the cool thing is that when they leave us, they go to Cadets, Phantom, Crown, Cavies and other top-12 programs and they make it their first time auditioning. So, I guess that means we are training them pretty well!

Our retention rate is hovering right around 60% each year and so as we edge closer to the goal of World Class, I am happy we have that many wanting to be a part of Teal Sound year to year.

SV: Do you have general support from marching band directors in the Jacksonville area?

RB: That is something we have worked hard on the past couple of seasons. As the corps has grown, so has the support from the schools within the area. We have made more contacts with the directors and are very supportive of all their programs. We have several band directors on our staff and that has helped make a lot of the difference.

Being a former director, my philosophy has always been that without the band programs and the director’s support, it would be very hard to exist. I saw how the development of Suncoast Sound worked back in the early ’80s with their staff. While being a part of that staff, it made me realize the importance of having fellow directors on the educational team with the corps.

I would like to think that we have a great relationship with all the directors in the state and that we are always willing to help and support their programs whenever asked or needed. On the flip side, we have an open-door policy that any band director who would like to come in and observe, ask questions, help out on staff, etc. is always welcome here at Teal.

SV: Tell me about the musical group you’ve based your last two season’s repertoires on?

RB: Rajaton, (pronounced Ra – Ya – Tahn). This is a funny story, actually. I was listening to some a cappella music one night at work on YouTube and came across this piece of music called Butterfly. It totally blew me away with all of the voicings. I played it about four times I think and each time I listened to it I kept seeing a drum corps playing this and it just kept sending goosebumps up and down my arms.

Well, I sent the link to Ron and I can’t really repeat here what he initially said as this is a public forum . . . let me say that he was as taken aback by it as I was and from that point we knew we had found the appropriate music to build the new Teal Sound.

I sent some e-mails to all of the members of Rajaton and before we knew it, Ron and I were on a flight to Helsinki, Finland, meeting with the members and their managers. They were all as blown away as we were when they heard our music and thought it was really wild how we found them.

We have developed a great friendship with all the members and, in 2008, spent time over there working with Jussi Chedneyous (bass) and Hannu Lepola (tenor) in the development of our “Voices of the Seasons” production. Hannu even visited with the corps and could not believe what they sounded like up-close and live.

Needless to say, we are all very honored and proud to have been able to introduce their music to drum corps audiences across the U.S. I know they gained quite a new following of listeners through us and I hope the crowds loved hearing their music as much as we have enjoyed playing it. I would suggest that all your readers visit their Web site at www.rajaton.org to catch up with this great musical group.

SV: Does your organization have aspirations of eventually moving into the World Class arena?

RB: We are currently in our second year of evaluation for that move. We have several visits planned by the DCI Performance Review Committee this season and are in the final stages of our evaluation right now.

SV: When do you anticipate that happening?

RB: We would all like to hope that happens for next season, in 2010, and will make certain we have our complete house in order before making that jump. We feel that we have been working very hard toward building the type of    program that can compete at that level year-in and year-out. We have a business plan in place that accommodates for the tour, sound business practices and solid financial backing and development.

As I said, we feel pretty positive about the fact that we are already very close to the next level. Now we just have to wait and see what the PRC recommendation is at the end of this season.

SV: Given the corps’ geographic location, do you think it’s any more difficult to participate in the DCI tour than if you were based in a more centralized part of the country?

RB: Compared to the way it has always been for programs in the South, I would have to say yes. Unfortunately, with the low number of corps that represent the southern states today, all of us in the South have to travel to get to the shows. We just build it into our tour, try to schedule a clinic or performance as we work our way to the East or Midwest and go.

To give our members the experience of a tour, we know what we must do so we do it and make the best of it. We all wish we could start out with a few shows down our way, but for now we will keep going wherever there is a show and get there the best way we know how. The kids don’t seem to mind. Once they get on that bus and pull out of spring training, they are ready to go and get the show on the road.

SV: What are you planning for 2009 . . . an even bigger roster, continuing the musical direction?

RB: This year’s show is titled “The Velvet Rope.” It will be quite a departure from the last two seasons and will provide something that we think drum corps fans are really going to enjoy.

The music we are doing will be very recognizable by the crowd if they listen to any top 40 radio and I am sure will be quite a hit with the many band students who are in the stands.

We are also going to try and involve our host schools band kids up to about 20 or so who want to be a part of the show for the evening. It’s something a bit off the wall, but we are thinking that everyone will want to get in the act.

The size of the corps is going to remain about the same as it has been. No need to push for the 150 level yet. We want to make sure we are consistent and continue to get better in some of our weaker areas, which I think can be accomplished this season with the staff we have now assembled.

We are also making the final transformation of the new look for the corps as we enter this 11th season. We have brought back gold from the original color scheme and have mixed that with a butter cream color that is absolutely dynamic in design. We are very excited about the ideas Brent Becker and the folks at Stanbury have come up with for us this year and I think the crowds will be as well.

We are also introducing a brand-new material, a dri-wicking fabric, that will hopefully keep the members cooler in the hot summer weather.

SV: Given the very challenging economic condition of the country, what are some of the important things you look at to sustain the longevity of Teal Sound?

RB: We continue to work and build a strong and obtainable budget each year. We don’t overspend and we don’t make irrational decisions. In order to be successful in any business, sound financial decisions must be made daily. That is our first priority. All of us work to meet goals.

Our members are absolutely in tune with this process, too. For the past two seasons, we have collected over 99% of all member fees and dues. We are very proud that the members take an avid part in the success of this organization. We also work very hard to maintain costs and control over our expenditures.

I have been involved in several very successful businesses outside of drum corps and have been in a position of management to make sure budgets are met and maintained. When operating a drum corps with the high-dollar budgets we have today, it is our objective to watch over this on a daily basis and to always look for better ways to achieve success through our organization.

Recruiting and marketing is another very valuable tool for us. We think the brand we have developed for the corps is one that is upscale and is becoming more and more recognizable in the state of Florida. When we do band shows now, kids expect to see us there. We see more and more of our members in attendance at guard and percussion shows wearing their corps jackets. The best advertising is visual and word of mouth by the corps members, and that has really been paying off for this organization.

SV: Has DCI establishing a semi-permanent venue for the season-ending championship been helpful to your corps in planning for the future?

RB: By all means, Steve. We now know what the tour is going to look like and how we can make it better each and every year leading up to Indy. Whether we go out West in the early-season or hang around the East, we know the final couple of weeks are going to work our way into Indy and be consistent each year. That is important when building housing relationships, performance opportunities in communities and for tour planning. It is almost a perfect scenario.

SV: Is there anything else you’d like to share about Teal Sound?

RB: If I might, one more thing I would like to mention about this program, is the reason I feel we have come so far in such a short period of time. My old corps director, Robbie Robinson from the Crossmen, really meant the world to me and is the main reason I am here with Teal today. He gave his time, energy and put everything he had into that corps. He did it for the love of the kids and giving all of us a place to grow up together.

He was never selfish or wanting anything in return except that we gave our all and understood what it was to be a part of the Crossmen.

This is something we have instilled in the program here at Teal. All of us are family and every one of these members are like my own kids. Each year we see new faces that start with us, but by the end of the season appear to have always been part of the Teal family.

One of the biggest things I want all of our members to learn is that they will always be able to depend on their family, at any time, whenever that may be, now and in the future.

There is nothing that should ever be more important than your family and whether you fight, cry, laugh or get tired of looking at each other every day, they will always be there for you. This is the way it was when I was in drum corps and the way we want our kids who pass through the doors at Teal Sound to remember their days and life in drum corps.

As our creed says, “Nothing else matters” . . . this is what it means to be a part of Teal Sound.
Thanks so much, Steve, for taking this time to let me tell you a little about Teal Sound. We want everyone out there this year — and in the years to come — to keep on the lookout for us as we make our climb up in the rankings of DCI.

SV: I appreciate your taking time to tell me about your corps. I hope to see continual progress up the competitive ladder for Teal Sound and I know my readers are looking forward to seeing what you have for them on the field this summer!

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Drum Corps World is published as an on-line electronic magazine by Sights & Sounds, Inc., Madison, WI. It is supported by advertising from manufacturers, service providers, corps, circuits and show sponsors. The publication began in October 1971 at the same time Drum Corps International was formed and has been produced continuously as a tabloid newspaper until April 2011 and on the Internet since May 2011. It is released monthly, as well as six additional e-mail blasts, one in late June, three during July and two in August.

The worldwide staff of writers and photographers provide show reviews during the season and interviews, feature articles, news and human interest stories during the off-season. The photographs that appear in the magazine are provided by 27 staff members who are scattered around the world. The publication covers World and Open Class Drum Corps International corps, Open and Class A Drum Corps Associates corps, alumni, mini-, parade and standstill units, as well as the growing activity in Europe, the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and South Africa.