An interview with the multi-talented and inspirational Donnie VanDoren

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

This article was originally published in the August 2010 edition of Drum Corps World.

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I’ve known Donnie Vandoren since the days when he worked with Star of Indiana back in the 1980s. But I’ve admired and respected his work over many more years prior to Star. He’s one of the most respected brass people in the activity and his “mark” is quite prominent on a number of top corps over the last 30

Most recently he is known for his consulting work with the Blue Stars and Carolina Crown. In fact, his son, Evan, was drum major for Crown until aging out following the 2008 season.
Beyond his involvement with the drum and bugle corps movement, he has also been instrumental in the success of “Brass Theater,” “BLAST!,” “Shockwave,” “Cyberjam” and “Mix” as associate producer for Mason Entertainment Group based in Bloomington, IN.

“BLAST!” celebrated its 10th anniversary back in December, having debuted in London in December 1999. The evolution of “Shockwave” into the highly-successful “Mix” has resulted in a number of tours to Japan over the last four years.

Now he’s on-board with James Mason and other MEG staff as they help return the Madison Scouts to a stronger position in the DCI organization.

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Steve Vickers: Tell me about your early years in the activity and list the corps with which you’ve worked.

Donnie Van Doren: My drum corps experience began at age 9 when my mother forced me to join this thing called the Chessmen Drum & Bugle Corps to get me off the streets of Easton, PA. She literally stood at the front door of the VFW building where rehearsal was held and wouldn’t let me leave.

There, not knowing it at the time, I met one of my most influential mentors, Jim Prime, Sr. Having been raised by a single parent, he was the closest thing I could relate to as a father. By watching him over the course of a decade, in addition to learning how to play a “bugle,” I learned a lot about the importance of family and the importance of being a good dad.
That’s also where I met Jim Prime, Jr. (“Jimmer”), beginning a friendship that has lasted for more than 45 years. This is also where I met my wife.

In 1973, wanting to win a world championship before aging out, Jimmer, myself and a group of other Chessmen members moved on to join the Hawthorne Muchachos. I aged out in 1975. My comment on my age out year is “no comment.” Those of you who remember 1975, know of the events that surrounded the DCI World Championships that year in Philadelphia.

After sorting through all the emotions of my age-out year, I recognized the value the drum corps activity can have on kids, especially a kid like me, and I made a decision to continue in the activity and to give back. Jimmer and I began teaching groups including the Chessmen, the Belvederes/Black Diamond Regiment and the Crossmen.

In 1980, we were approached by George Hopkins who shared our passion for building a world champion and he gave us our first opportunity to create our own brass program. Back then we took kids like me and gave them an opportunity to be a part of something far greater than they imagined possible.

What I learned about that experience — and enjoyed the most during my time with the Garfield Cadets — had little to do with the Jim Ott High Brass Awards and the DCI World Championships. It really became so much more about the journey it took to get there and how rewarding it was to build something that became more than what it was.

Since then, that’s what it’s really been about for me, the building process. I was involved in bringing the Troopers back into finals in 1985 and then, of course, the Star of Indiana. More recently I played a role in developing Blue Stars, Carolina Crown and now, the Madison Scouts.

SV: Why those corps and are you continuing to be involved in either or both groups now that you’re on the Madison staff?

DVD: With both organizations, I recognized that there was good leadership there and good role models, and that the mission was truly to create a great experience for kids. I believed that with all of those qualities they were both good places to nurture brass programs. In my opinion, corps get better through the development of strong brass programs.

In around 2003, my good friend Jim Coates was smart enough to hire Michael Klesch and Matt Harloff, both former drum majors of mine (Michael at Garfield in 1983 and Matt at Star in 1993). I very much wanted both of them to experience what Jimmer and I had experienced at both Garfield and Star.

At around the same time, my son Evan   was looking for   a place to continue in the activity, having spent three years in the Lehigh Valley Knights in Allentown, PA. I wanted him to experience the joy of being a part of building something special and with [Crown Director] Kevin Smith’s character and leadership, I had every confidence that Carolina Crown was that place.

It was a joy for me to witness my son receiving the Jim Jones Leadership Award for Best Drum Major in 2007, having been mentored by my two previous drum majors. Three generations of drum majors. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I believe for the activity to continue to strengthen and preserve itself, it’s critical to mentor the next generation.

I hope that I’ve taught the kids who have performed for me to continue to be involved in the activity after they age‐out. What I am so proud of — and what many people may not realize — is that there are so many Star of Indiana alumni out there teaching and giving back in some way to the activity. Now we also have many Crown alumni who are currently staff members at other organizations.

Experiencing drum corps from a parent’s perspective has probably been the most rewarding for me. I have watched my daughter develop from a color guard alternate at Crown in 2007, to a color guard captain and featured dancer this year.

My son remains on the brass staff at Crown as well, after seven years of performing in the activity, five of those with Crown.

When the Blue Stars contacted me in 2005 to ask for my help developing a brass program, the first person who came to mind to make this happen was Star of Indiana and “Brass Theater” alumnus and “BLAST!” featured soloist Frank Sullivan. He has been the arranger for the Blue Stars since 2006 and, along with several other Star and Crown alumni, has developed a very fine brass program.

With regards to your question about how long I will be involved in both organizations, the answer is, as long as my students and my “boys” are involved, I will always be there to support them. I am a very proud “papa.”

SV: What did it mean for you to be inducted into the DCI Hall of Fame and how do you see your role as a member?

DVD: I was very humbled by that honor. My inclusion in the HOF reflects the sacrifices and hard work of all of the kids who have marched for me and the talented and dedicated staff with whom I have worked. I feel being a HOF member comes with a great responsibility to move our activity forward by allowing others to learn from our experience and history, and by taking the time to share our insights with others.

The activity has recognized us for our contribution, but it can’t stop there. That’s why I am so passionate about giving back in some way to the activity so that we can keep it moving forward.

If there’s one thing I have learned from being around Bill Cook for the past 25 years, it is that he lives the philosophy that, no matter who you are, where you come from or what you do, it is important to make a difference in people’s lives.

Now we may not have the resources that Bill has, but what we do have is time. If each of us in the HOF could give a little more of our time, it just may make the difference in some kid’s life and in this activity that we have all benefitted from and love.

SV: There has been a lot of discussion in the last two months about the future direction of our activity. What kinds of things do you think we need to focus on as we move forward?

DVD: Well, if you are referring to the controversy surrounding the G7 proposal, I really haven’t had an opportunity to hear from both sides and understand the dynamics of it all.

What I do know is the following: In order to ensure continued growth of audiences to support the activity, we need to have more accessible, audience-friendly product on the field. I would be willing to bet if each design team did a marketing focus group on their music and creative design concepts, the end product would be quite different than most shows out there today.

I think the activity has to get back to good, accessible, even familiar music. In my opinion, shows should be driven by the music, first and foremost.

In the past decade or so, we see basically the same players in the top six. We need to continue to preserve existing opportunities and create new opportunities that will allow groups like Crown to get to where they are today. It is my hope that Crown never forgets where they came from and that they share their model and become an advocate for other groups to follow a similar path.

We have to figure out how to make the drum corps activity affordable and reach as many kids as possible. We all know there is incredible benefit that goes far beyond teaching music and movement.

My life would have been much different if it hadn’t been for this activity. I suspect that all of us could say the same thing. If it were up to me, every kid in this country would be required to spend at least a year in a drum corps. Imagine how different the next eneration might be.

We must remember that the kids are our most valued and treasured resource; without them there is no activity.

SV: How is it that you’ve had such success in developing great brass programs in the corps with which you’ve been involved?

DVD: I have been very fortunate throughout my career to be surrounded by great designers and supportive administrators.

In putting a brass staff together, it starts by surrounding yourself with people you trust, people who share the same philosophy and people you care about. Those who I hire on the brass staff typically are age-outs who are already on the same page and speak the same language; the chemistry is there as they have been and remain a part of the family.

The brass technique program that we implement today is virtually the same technique program as the one we established back in the 1980s with the Garfield Cadets. We basically do the same thing today as we did then. It’s really an easy concept to grasp: keep it simple, keep it consistent, be prepared and work hard.

There’s really nothing magical beyond that. My role is to keep the team centered and focused, and moving in the same direction. We strive for excellence and accept nothing less. The message is clear; there is no substitute for quality and you WILL play in tone, in tune and in time.

Moving your feet and playing in time with your feet is a cornerstone of the brass program.

There must be strong coordination between movement and playing. There can’t be one without the other. We have a saying that “it only counts on the move.” Sounding great standing still in the parking lot is somewhat meaningless.

One thing that I’ve found over the years about working with young brass players is to never underestimate what they are capable of. When you set the bar high, they will more often than not rise above it. Our approach is to teach the future teachers.

When kids age‐out of our brass programs, they are given all the skills they need to successfully teach and give back. It is our hope that they, too, will be part of building another brass program.

Lastly, I realize that drum corps is a competition and those who know me, know how competitive I can be; but with the kids, we try to shift our focus from competing with others to competing with ourselves. Focus is on exceeding our own expectations and on the recordings.

What we are competing against and going after ARE the recordings.

For years I’ve emphasized to the kids, “when you listen to that recording or watch that DVD, is it something that you’ll be proud of and want to listen to for the rest of your life?”

When I listen to our brass programs over the years, I am so very proud of all involved.

SV: How has MEG impacted the drum and bugle corps activity?

DVD:  It’s been an incredible ride to be part of the evolution of Star of Indiana into “Brass Theatre,” then into “BLAST! and “M.I.X.” as well as other creative products we’ve developed.

It’s allowed kids who have spent countless hours perfecting a very unique set of skills in drum corps an opportunity to perform professionally on some of the most renowned stages in the world and get paid for those skills.

Then, after their “BLAST!” years, many are back in the drum corps activity, sharing their stage experience, teaching and giving back. It’s been 17 years since Star has been a drum corps.

Having my friend of 25 years, Jim Mason, and our MEG team back in the activity has brought us back to our roots. It’s been very rewarding to be a part of the process that returns groups that were incredibly strong “back in the day.”

I feel the same way about Madison as I did about the Blue Stars in 2006. It was an honor to be a part of their return to World Class finals after many years of absence. It’s also great to    witness the creative influence that “BLAST!” has had on the drum corps and marching music activity in recent years.

SV: Are you involved with the Star Alumni?

DVD: I have been in more of an advisory role with the alumni corps. Star of Indiana was around as a drum corps for only nine short years and yet we have an incredible group of “kids” who remain very committed to this organization and to preserving its memory and reputation.
Words can’t describe the pride I feel as I watched this group come together after so many years. Seeing them with their own families and successful careers is an indescribable feeling now.

However, what’s most impressive is their commitment to each other and their passion to perform together again. We taught the Star of Indiana kids to take ownership and that’s exactly what they have done with this project. For that I am incredibly proud of them.

SV: Thanks, Donnie, for your thoughts on a highly-successful career in the drum and bugle corps movement . . . up to this point and into the future!