An interview with Phantom Regiment designer Myron Rosander

by Jeff Davis, Drum Corps World staff

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With the announcement of Myron Rosander as the new visual designer, the hopes of many Regiment Phans and Phamily have been raised. For anyone reading this who doesn’t know Myron, where have you been? But alas, here’s a brief resumé.

From 1976 through 2005, he was a performer, instructor, principal visual designer and assistant director for the Santa Clara Vanguard. In 2000, Rosander was the recipient of the prestigious “Gail Royer Memorial Vanguard of the Year” award, which is the highest honor one can receive within the SCV organization.

His other DCI credits include designing for the two-time DCI World Champion Madison Scouts in 2006 and the 2002 DCI World Finalist Cascades from Seattle, WA. He has also recently designed for the highly-respected DCA all-age corps, the Bushwackers from Harrison, NJ.

In 2005 and 2006, he was visual designer for the L.D. Bell HS Marching Band from Hurst, TX.
During those two years, L.D. Bell finished with the bronze and silver medals, respectively, at the BOA Grand Nationals Championships in Indianapolis, IN.

He has served on the DCI Task Force and has been the author and subject matter for numerous teachers and publications, including Today’s Music Educator, Drum Corps World and DCI Today.
He has conducted clinics for bands and winter guards throughout the United States for the past 25 years and is also a respected judge for Bands of America at contests throughout the United States, as well as judging independently in the winter guard and winter percussion arena.

Currently, he resides in beautiful Lake Tahoe, CA, where he operates his own design studio —

Guess it wasn’t really so brief after all!

Jeff Davis: Was there anything in the intro that we missed or that you’d like to add?
Myron Rosander: Nope, that pretty much hits the general highlights and makes me feel pretty old as well. But that’s okay, because I guess I have been around the activity awhile now.

JD: After going through a number of “who?” designers, I have to confess that I was thrilled that the corps chose someone with your reputation. I’d really like to know how you were approached for the position, if you had to think about it for a while and why there appears to be a lapse in your designing career after 2006?

MR: Thank you for those very kind words, Jeff, as I do appreciate them very much. As for how this entire odyssey began, I can honestly say it was I who approached the Regiment first. Of course, how this situation occurred would really need some elaboration on the past few years and some of the medical complications that arose, taking me away from the activity I love so dearly.

This is something people ask me about all the time and, honestly, it’s very personal and not an easy thing to discuss. But I think interested readers probably have a right to know the story behind my long absence. I’ll do my best to hit the highlights (and lowlights) of this scenario, so please bear with me.

After a very long career as a designer-instructor for the Santa Clara Vanguard, I decided it was time to move forward after the 2005 drum corps season. I spent a year with the Madison Scouts in 2006, but due to circumstances beyond the staff’s control, I sadly, and with much hesitation, left the organization after one short but memorable season.

The one difficult thing about that year, though, was that, health-wise, I knew something was already very wrong, but I kept it away from people. In retrospect, this was a mistake. I was sick, losing weight rapidly and my work was    suffering because of it. I really wasn’t able to give it the maximum creative effort it deserved.

Truthfully, the problems began as early as 2005, but I just kept ignoring it all until it was nearly too late. I loved my time with the Scouts and received a corps jacket after season’s end. It just mysteriously appeared in the mail one day with my name embroidered on it, which I thought was curious, if not amazing. That Scouts jacket is truly one of my prized possessions. I definitely rank that up there with my many SCV keepsakes.

After the Scouts, I had then set forward ready to design for the Boston Crusaders in 2007. But in January of that year, a life-threatening illness struck, taking me out of that equation entirely. On January 31, 2007, I was diagnosed with end-stage liver disease which is a worst case scenario for that particular illness. I had borderline stage-four kidney disease and was a breath away from permanent dialysis. So, essentially I was in multiple organ failure.

Due to the severity of my condition, the original prognosis gave me only three or four months to live and little to no hope for recovery. A transplant wasn’t possible because of simple supply and demand and there was no way I’d    survive long enough for that to become a reality.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being told you’re going to die and it’s too late for any remedy. Even with my spiritual faith, it was still a brand of fear I’d never known.

Well, the short of it was, three to four months passed, giving way to six months. Then I hit the year mark and, incredibly, I was still alive. All told, I was in and out of the hospital for 18 months, but still continued to improve with each passing day. Of course, this left my doctors, family and very close friends stunned as most, myself included, prepared for the impending finality.

It’s now been over three years and my kidney situation is fully contained and my liver has managed to regenerate function enough to live a somewhat normal life again. It’s as crazy and amazing as it sounds, as I have been given a second chance at life and I now find myself reasonably healthy enough again to be a part of drum corps, as well as many of the other wonderful things life has to offer.

It’s all pretty miraculous. I cannot say enough about my doctors and especially my parents, family and friends, and the spiritual and physical healing that has occurred. It really defies description and has motivated me beyond any other point in my life to a much higher place. It’s almost overwhelming.

So, this was my very long road to the Phantom Regiment in 2010! I’ve managed to come out on the other side of something that began so horrifically, to find that the Regiment (and the Mandarins) have given me another chance to design again. Even a year ago, this didn’t seem possible and words of appreciation fail miserably, so I won’t even try.

At any rate, I approached the Regiment late last summer after the DCI season had concluded. I initially contacted Executive Director Rick Valenzuela whom I’ve had a long history with from our days at SCV. After that, long-time Program Coordinator Dan Farrell picked up the ball and everything was set in motion. Once the interviewing process had occurred with several other candidates, I somehow managed to end up in the role of new visual designer for the Phantom Regiment.

I think much of the decision was centered on the idea of if I was really capable health-wise and the fear of my dropping out like what occurred with the Crusaders in ’07. It’s amazing and fascinating how life’s events unfold. But here I am and truly grateful beyond what words can express.

JD: What will be the full extent of your responsibilities with the corps?

MR: Originally I thought I’d just be the visual designer and that would be the extent of my responsibility. But the Regiment has expressed a strong interest in me being around the corps members and staff on a fairly regular basis. Of course, that process for me will not really begin fully until spring training, which I’m so looking forward to.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to bring a bit of experience and knowledge to the corps members, as teaching is the only real fun anyway and much more rewarding than designing alone.

Still, though, my job will also be to stay out of the way of the “real” working staff, who, along with the corps members, are the ones who really make it happen. The drill designer status is just gravy and pales in comparison to what happens on the field on a daily basis. Anyone who has marched and taught knows exactly what I mean.

JD: I’m probably over-simplifying this, but, to the average fan, it seems the top visual programs tend to sacrifice musicality for the sake of “breakneck” visual moves. Is it possible to develop a competitive/innovative visual program that allows a corps to actually play a melodic piece of music rather than four bars of music and a 32-count drum break while performing said “breakneck” moves?

MR: This is a fair question and one that has arisen often over recent years. The standard of visual design and the multi-physical responsibilities that go with it is something that’s not likely to go away. However, I do think you see many more groups engaging in expressive movement [dance] as a means of artistic expression.

And, although many factors have led to this development, such as the direct influence of the Star of Indiana in 1993, I look to the Blue Knights and Robbie Billings’ “movement with musicians” approach during the last decade as really ahead of its time.

While the speed of motion of drill has diminished some in my opinion, it has been somewhat replaced or augmented by the technical expression of dance which brings an entirely new set of challenges, responsibilities and beauty.

Regardless of this evolution, I’m not sure the visual design has, in single-handed fashion, caused what some would call the “chop and bop” style of music we often hear. I think it’s just more a product of this generation and of current times.

Total program is the idea and with this approach often comes the designers’ attempt to combine many musical phrases and styles together. Conversely, many would argue that the variety and shorter duration of musical phrase offers more substance to the overall program.

My personal belief is, as with most things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But an uninterrupted melody can, and often does, ring truer that anything else. As odd as it may seem to the average fan, no one really sets out to infuriate the audience or bore them to tears with this style. It’s just a case where, as time passes, the process evolves, rightly or wrongly, into something that’s more a hybrid of its former self.

Still, though, the experience for the average corps member is nearly the same as it was 30 years ago. And as I’ve often said, peanut butter and jelly pretty much tastes like it did in 1976 when I first began marching as a 15-year-old kid. So that’s how it rolls.

JD: If you were to label your visual “style,” how would you describe it?

MR: Uh oh . . . labels. I’m a bit uncomfortable with that, but I do know what you’re asking. If push came to shove, I think I’d label my style as “musical and artistry-driven.” My motivation for what I see, and more importantly feel, comes directly from instincts derived from the musical program. For me, music always comes first. This would include the wicked triple fortissimo phrase where the brass is wailing and the percussionists’ sticks are above their heads, to the subtle, singular ring of a chime from the pit.

It all matters greatly and must be expressed in the visual medium in a way that’s unique to, and from, you the designer. Easier said than done, I can assure you. But this is the responsibility and, more importantly, the opportunity to bring a unique sense of art into the sequence of events.

I know some people are sensitive about calling this an art form, but it’s all in how you look at it. For instance, jazz is a uniquely American art form, as is drum corps. And they have both taken a slightly similar path with regard to evolution and complexity.

The blues and simpler versions of jazz led to be-bop and other abreactions of its form. It’s still jazz, but multiple approaches have developed over time and drum corps has followed in a similar vein. Honestly, there’s room for all of it, but sometimes competitive motivations take hold, thus making many drum corps approaches similar in nature.

However, it’s likely all cyclical as well. I think we’re seeing that change of direction now as the cookiecutter approach seems to be diminishing, with many corps either re-establishing their identity or breaking out into something new. Again, I think the stage is large enough for all to flourish.

Anyway, relating this all to the visual perspective and my particular style, it’s all about the art for me. But I’m pretty sure my drill charts are not going to end up in the Louvre 500 years from now, hangin’ with Da Vinci and the boys, but musically and visually, we’re still unique unto our own activity. Actually, Michael Gaines’ drill charts for The Cavaliers do have a shot at the Louvre, I believe.

All kidding aside, it’s all about the artistry, subtly and musicality of visual phrase that is the most important element in visual design to me. Cool drill moves come and go and I’ve written a few of them myself.

But the sustaining factor that makes drum corps memorable is the way a program and performance can make people feel. That IS the art form and, more than anything else, is the one true thing the audience will always remember.

JD: When putting a visual program together, what all do you use as motivation or inspiration aside from the music itself?

MR: The music, as I’ve stated, is the primary source for me. My instinct, based on internal feeling, is the one true element that conveys original thought. My other inspirations, though, often come from the world of dance. The Mark Morris Dance Group of Brooklyn, NY, has had the strongest outside influence on me when it comes to performance art and staging.

Morris’ vision of the stage and its relationship to the dancer or dance ensemble is truly amazing. His style has an incredible sense of balance, organization and irony to it, and probably comes closest to our activity. There are others as well, like Twyla Tharpe, Alvin Ailey, the list goes on.

Other inspirations come from my own artwork. Not because any of it is particularly good, but because of the major discoveries that have come because of it. I’ve learned so much about texture, perspective, color and the subtlety that comes with painting that it still blows me away.

Of course, I’ve only been painting for a short time and am completely self-taught, which is a nice way of saying I’ve painted some of the worst crap imaginable, all in the name of learning and moving forward in a purist fashion, uncluttered by the classroom teachings of art and its related techniques. Trial and error, with an emphasis on error, is the way I’ve come to evolve as a painter.

The irony of this is, that it absolutely mirrors the way I learned how to design drill. The two are synonymous, which was something I never intentionally set out to achieve.

Things have simply evolved to where they are and I spend little time worrying about if people think it’s good or not. All you can do is your very best and, most importantly, try to not let your performers down in the process. Again, easier said than done sometimes.

JD: I’ve read that some are concerned the Regiment will look like Vanguard. I don’t consider it a problem, but how would you address those concerns?

MR: This is another good question and one that I sometimes hear as well. Many people have said my drill with other groups looks “SCV specific.” The truth is, the SCV style of drill over my many years there was a look that I developed with the Vanguard specifically in mind.

The Vanguard style didn’t so much create me, as it was more of a new and different direction I wanted to take the corps after my predecessors. And in so many ways, I just got lucky in the process.

The thing is, there are certain aspects that appeal to me artistically and it’s nearly impossible for them not to creep in. That being said, I’m still looking for another reinvention to my style which has occurred a few times over the years. I find many people don’t often put together that the guy who wrote the drill for the “Phantom of the Opera” shows of SCV in the late ’80s is the same guy who conjured the artistic direction and minimalist style of the Vanguard in my later years.

So, I know it’s possible. And this is the very thing I’m working on for the Regiment in 2010. I want it to be a new day for us not relying on my past, but forging ahead with a new and creative vibrancy.

If I can break free of my own devices, while keeping the Regiment’s identity and glorious history in mind, I should have a look that, hopefully, people in the future will complain looks too “Regiment specific.” That is my mission and I think I’m really going to enjoy this.

JD: Is there a show concept that hasn’t been done that you would like to see on the field?

MR: There are many concepts that come to mind and I keep them written down in a journal. The one that readily comes to the forefront, though, is the idea of doing Ravel’s Bolero in its entirety and as close as possible to the original. The show would begin, as in the original music, extremely minimal. Then, it would continue forward with a deliberate, massive crescendo throughout the middle portion, then slowly taper down to its conclusion.

Of course, it would resolve with a large flourish at the end . . . exactly like the original and with the exact same pacing. No adaptations or compromises necessary, just pure. And that would be the show in its entirety.

Actually, I introduced this idea during the off-season prior to 2002 with SCV and, although brilliant composer/arranger Jim Casella was on board with me, it was ultimately met with strong resistance from others. In all fairness, though, the resistance had a great deal of merit as this idea was truly risky. The problem was, I could always answer the artistic question of the “why” doing this as a total show concept, but could never answer the “how.”

Telling some mom and dad that their son Billy, a bass drummer who just paid two thousand dollars in tour fees, will not even appear until five minutes into the show, is a conversation I’d rather not have.

Also, current time limitations, although improved dramatically since ’02, are still not quite what I’d need to make this happen effectively, in the purist fashion I’d prefer. Someday maybe and perhaps sooner than later. You just never can tell.

JD: “Into the Light” (The new moon in the old moon’s arms) I get an “On Air” feeling for some reason. What can you tell us about the show and your approach to the visual element?

MR: This was an idea I introduced at the very first Regiment design meeting in September ’09. It fell into place very quickly as our amazing brass arranger, JD Shaw stated he had the perfect music for this concept. And I’ll tell you, he was absolutely right, as the spiritual nature and beauty-personified feeling that comes across is exceptionally moving. It was exactly what I was hoping for.

As of now (spring 2010), both JD and master percussion arranger Paul Rennick have presented it beautifully, as it’s all so very moving and wonderfully produced. With all that said, it’s very important to note that this is a “concept-driven” show and not based on any story line whatsoever. This, in itself, will provide a different avenue for the Regiment to travel. It is certainly strikingly different than recent productions, but still carries the power and passion that IS the Phantom Regiment. The reason I say that is because it’s all right there in the music for everyone to experience.

Regarding our 2010 program, ultimately, “Into the Light” is about a life cycle that opens like a flower, with breathtaking beauty and innocence. As it develops, the cycle travels through the trials and tribulations that will occur over space and time. The conclusion resolves with glorious finality, as if passing through a portal to another world. Frankly, it’s as ethereal, other-worldly and spiritual as is sounds and the feeling will be all about that which is beautiful. Simple.

For me, this program takes on a special meaning. As with many great books and films, subject matter directly influenced by life’s experiences are often the best vehicles. In my case, I will let my recent experiences guide me, hopefully in a way that is genuine in nature and honest in its beauty.

More than anything, that is what I hope to bring to the Regiment in 2010.