Corps play WGI game, enhance summer success, keep legacy alive

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

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While most drum and bugle corps consider their late summer championship events to be the climatic end of their competitive seasons, some corps performers and staff members just see it as time to take their performance passions inside to the Winter Guard International competitive floors. To some, the annual WGI winter guard and indoor percussion championship events in Dayton, OH, on consecutive April weekends may be an even bigger deal than a DCI or DCA Championship

A review of last year’s WGI Championship scores suggests that a number of corps are not only playing the indoor game, but playing it well.

Consider that the Santa Clara Vanguard won the Independent World guard championship, while (Carolina) Crown Guard was ninth. In the Independent Open guard class, Denver’s Opus 10 — which is now run by the Blue Knights organization — was second, while Beatrix from Hilversum, Holland, was tenth.

Among the winter percussion Independent World championship results, the Blue Knights were ninth, while Minnesota Brass Indoor was tenth in the Independent Open class. Independent World champion Rhythm X also reports on its Web site that “every member of Rhythm X has drum corps experience,” with members over the years coming from The Cadets, The Cavaliers, Blue Devils, Phantom Regiment, Bluecoats, Santa Clara Vanguard, Carolina Crown, Glassmen, Crossmen and Colts, among others.

While DCI calls itself “Marching Music’s Major League,” WGI is the self-proclaimed “Sport of the Arts.” And it appears as if some corps see the value in getting in touch with their winter artistic side to join the major league pennant race come summer. Just ask the management team of the Santa Clara Vanguard.

“For a while, the goal was that one would help the other [winter guard and summer guard] and back and forth. I think that’s starting to happen,” said Jeff Fiedler, executive director of the Vanguard. “For quite a while, there weren’t as many members of summer guard in the winter guard and vice versa. The guard was more alumni, but there weren’t many current members of the drum corps. They were members who just graduated as members of the corps and they went into the winter guard. But last year, it may have been small, but we had more members of the summer guard in the winter guard and so that was a positive experience to take over into the summer. That helped a little bit with momentum, obviously, after they won.”

Growing the dual membership

Fiedler says 10, or possibly 11, of the Vanguard’s 17 winter guard members this year are also planning to march with the corps this summer. They’re learning from some of the same staff members throughout. Choreographers Greg Lagola and Jim Moore were hired for the winter guard and are now also writing for the summer guard, according to Fielder. Carol Abohatab has also been creating the movement choreography for both groups.

“I just think it’s a little clearer, the effect that the winter has on the summer and hopefully the summer has on the winter — and I think they go hand-in-hand,” Fielder said.

The Blue Knights winter percussion ensemble is also working hard to align itself better with the drum and bugle corps’ interests. That plan was put in motion last winter by the ensemble’s new director, David Killinger, an alum of the group.

“We’ve focused the last year and a half on that specific tie because 100 percent, originally, the purpose and premise behind the percussion ensemble was to develop local talent for the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps,” Killinger said.

He reports that among this winter’s 39 members (seven snares, four tenors, five bass, five cymbals, 18 pit), up to 10 may also be marching with the drum corps this summer. And it’s exclusively developing BK’s talent this winter.

“This year, we do not have that crossover with any other drum and bugle corps,” Killinger said. “Last year we had Blue Devils’ center snare in our snare line. We had a kid who stood next to center at Bluecoats and Blue Knights’ center snare in our snare line. But this year we did not have that crossover with other drum corps. If they’re marching drum corps, they’re marching with Blue Knights because, actually, this is the first year we offered a really big discount on the drum corps fees if they were a member of the percussion ensemble.

“So I think the biggest added benefit is to go back to our roots and build the local base in the Denver and Colorado area, if you will,” he continued. “And hopefully those kids will become the core of the corps.”

Breeding today’s talent under the Freelancer name, the Blue Knights may not have other corps’ members in their winter percussion ranks, but a former successful DCI corps, the Freelancers of Sacramento, CA, thrives off them.

A finalist in what’s now DCI’s World Class between 1976 and 1992, the Freelancers were forced to shut down the drum corps by a financial shortfall following the 1994 season. But then a former member and instructor, Dan Hudson, suggested to Director Don Silva that he keep the corps’ name alive by starting a WGI winter percussion unit. Silva agreed and the Freelancers’ winter percussion ensemble was born in 1996. They’ve done the Freelancer name proud ever since, finishing seventh in WGI’s 2008 Independent Open class.

It may not be drum corps, but Silva sees some similarities — just at a tenth of the budget and a fourth of the membership.

“It’s a shorter season with less members, less staff and less equipment,” he said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t take away from the competitive aspect and the search for talent and the commitment to develop the talent — the world class aspects of it. We’re still involved in the pageantry that I’m used to, that I like and all of our members like.

“You cannot be involved in drum and bugle corps and not appreciate a WGI winter drum line,” Silva continued. “It’s a different type of show obviously, but it’s still drum corps. That’s pretty much why we do it and are able to do it.”

And they’re able to do it without the massive financial burden and exhausting summer commitment that Silva saw with the touring drum corps.

“To be honest, we’re kind of weekend warriors,” Silva said. “It’s just not as time-consuming. You’re not away from home with the tour either. It’s a series of shows in your area, or close to your area, and then the one-time venture back to Ohio.

“We do inform the kids when they start that ‘From here on out, for the next six to seven months, your weekends are shot’,” he continued. “So you’re going to school, you do your homework or your job — if they happen to be working — and make sure they’re getting that all taken care of during the week, because the weekends are ours, essentially.”

The weekends are theirs, unless some of the group’s 33 members (nine snares, four tenors, five bass, four cymbals, 11 in the pit) have weekend camp with another drum corps. Silva reports that members have come from the Blue Devil A and B corps, the Mandarins, Santa Clara Vanguard, and the Madison Scouts and Minnesota’s Chops, Inc. They’ve even had a female member move from Japan for a season.

With so many other corps commitments among the membership, Silva says communication and compromise are keys to making it all work.

“It’s the type of situation where we try and stay in communication [with the drum corps members] and if we have coinciding weekends, which we will, we try and split up the number of blocks so a member will go from one to the other,” Silva said.

“I have to say that Scott Johnson’s [the Blue Devils’ famed percussion caption head] always been really good about it,” he continued. “I mean, he has his policies that they have to stick to for the A corps, but at the same time, he has a policy about WGI drum lines and I think it works out for him and the WGI drum lines both. His policy is, if there’s a [Blue Devil A] camp and a WGI regional, then the member goes to the WGI Regional and misses the Blue Devils’ camp. You can’t ask for a whole lot better, really.

“But in turn, I know if they’ve got something going — a camp or what have you — then I’m going to be missing that A corps member. So we try to not have too many of them [Blue Devil A corps members] because if they’re gone, you’ve got a hole, or two or three or four, that you’re trying to deal with while still having a rehearsal.”

Coordinating within
the same organization

Having one organization sponsor both a WGI ensemble and a summer corps doesn’t bypass scheduling conflicts for dual members. Killinger reports it only happens once a month since the corps has just one winter weekend camp per month, while the WGI ensemble rehearses every weekend.

What’s helped the Blue Knights during those scheduling overlaps is the fact that the winter percussion unit has its own set of indoor drums — largely made possible through the corps’ sponsorship with Pearl.

“And so for the camp weekends, because we do have an extra set of indoor marching drums, we have been having our battery rehearse for four hours,” Killinger said. “We did that at the December camp and January. Just the battery would rehearse because otherwise, we’d get a         two-week reprieve from a rehearsal and that just doesn’t set us up for success competitively. There’s always give and take because, of course, we fly our corps staff in for those weekends.”

That give-and-take can even include the technique being taught by two staffs.

“Because there are two different staffs, even though we work together, we still don’t do the same thing,” Killinger said. “I mean, the drum corps has two or three weeks of spring training and all-days to specifically and explicitly define technique. We have three or four rehearsals, spread out among the week in between so we have to get ready much faster. I don’t want to say that we play with different techniques — although some of our members have definitely talked about the difference in techniques — but I think we’ve begun to resolve that because one of our snare techs from percussion ensemble is also assisting the snare line in drum corps. So that’s definitely helping to bridge that gap.”

The Vanguard management team is making sure there’s no stylistic question in its new winter percussion ensemble, which was created by members of the Vanguard Cadets’ percussion staff specifically to build the corps’ local base.

“You can’t do that if you don’t have a staff that’s interested and we’ve had a staff that’s been interested [in starting a winter percussion unit] for two or three years,” Fiedler said. “We were in some discussions about it and were able to help support that.

“We kind of gave it some structure. You know, we want to try and engage as many kids as we can and if there’s a crossover [with the summer drum corps], it’s going to be a positive effect. They’re going to be playing all winter as a group and a lot of them are going to be doing the summer. Again, it’s not exclusive that they’ve got to be in the Vanguard Cadet corps, although a lot of them are.

“I think it’s one way for us to build a little bit more of a local base, too — you know, trying to get more members from the Bay area involved in what we’re doing,” he continued. “That eventually pays off when they’re done with the Cadets and if they want to audition for the Vanguard.”

The new indoor percussion unit is using the Vanguard Cadets’ drums and pit equipment. About half of the 33 members (six snares, four tenors, five bass, five cymbals, 13 in the pit) are marching with the Vanguard Cadets this summer, three local members also do the Vanguard A.

Because of the weekend nature of the WGI activity, Fiedler says the membership of each ensemble is largely local. Almost everyone in this year’s winter guard comes from within 20 miles of Santa Clara. That’s helping to also build a more regional base within the summer drum corps. Fiedler proudly reports 99 of this summer’s 150 members are from California.
State of the arts

While drum corps can enter the WGI competitive arena with a more local base, they better be prepared for a much different creative game than the one played each summer. The days of simply having ensemble members wear corps uniforms and perform standard routines are long gone. Now special uniforms, digitally designed floor tarps and props are all standard operating procedures.

“Every year it just gets bigger and better,” Killinger said. “In the true definition of Box 6, it creates new standards. And if you’re not doing that, then you’re not going to be competitive.”

The winter competition is truly as intense as any on the summer drum corps field and yet it may be a healthier form of competition, too.

“WGI seems to have the flavor and the commitment to young people that I used to feel with DCI. It seems that way to me,” Silva said. “There seems to be more camaraderie. It just seems like it’s getting to more kids. If you compare the size of a drum line that’s 30 to 50 members vs. drum corps from 90 to 100, it seems to be getting to a lot more young people.”

“Just from a growth standpoint, it seems like WGI is definitely consistent, if not growing, from year to year with the number of groups that attend championships,” Killinger said. “And on top of that, there’s got to be an exponential amount of high school groups that don’t attend championships. That’s growing every year also.”

You can bet that many current and future drum corps members are actively participating to drive that WGI growth.