Part 3: Evaluating Electronics — Older fans, corps vets run range of reactions to new electronics

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

Drum Corps International’s introduction of electronic instruments this season was designed to bring a new creative tool to the drum corps field, while opening up new opportunities for young people to play those instruments. And there was also hope that the new electronics may also draw new fans to the activity.

But what about the existing fans and drum corps veterans who may have liked the activity the way it was, with shows built around natural acoustic sound?

Many continued to come to Drum Corps International shows this summer to sample the new enhanced sound and draw their own conclusions about what it added. Others just chose to stay away.

“I have no interest whatsoever in sitting at an indoor venue to listen to synthesizers,” wrote Drum Corps World staff writer Daniel Buteau of Toronto, ONT, in an e-mail explaining why he wouldn’t be attending this past summer’s DCI World Championships in Indianapolis. Buteau, who marched with Les Abénakis from St. Prosper, QUE, in the 1970s, attended every DCI World Championships except one from 1986 to 2007.

He was probably the exception and not the norm this summer. Most long-time fans and corps veterans gave electronics an initial chance.

“I have no problem with it,” said Cheryl Prochilo of Andover, MA, at the season’s second show in Annapolis, MD. Prochilo’s son, Anthony, was a marimba player for Carolina Crown this past summer.

“This is the first time I’ve heard it and once they get the balance right, it will be OK,” she continued. “It is a little distracting for those [the corps] who weren’t balancing it properly because it sticks out like a sore thumb. But other than that, I think once they get the balance right, it will add to it.”

“There were some issues early with some of the corps with balance. There’s a challenge [with balance] from stadium to stadium, acoustically,” added Jim Drost of Randolph, NJ, at the Annapolis show. Drost served on The Cadets’ board of directors for 10 years and was a former percussion instructor for the St. Ignatius All-Girl corps from Hicksville, Long Island, NY, a past DCI champion (1975, 1976, 1977).

“It’s not like Broadway where you just get the mix and you’re there every night,” he continued. “Here, it’s a different mix every night. Once you start, you have no chance of recovering. It has to be right from the beginning. You can tweak a   little bit, but it’s going to be a challenge for all the corps. But they’ll adjust.

“I think some of them are overcompensating now. They’re going to have to back off a little on some of the mix, especially at the low end. We had some subwoofers that were actually getting feedback tonight.”

Electronics indoors at the DCI World Championships

By the time the DCI tour reached the domed environment of Lucas Oil Stadium for DCI World Championships, a current member of the board of directors for Youth Education in the Arts (YEA!) continued to find this year’s new electronic exploration to be tasteful.

“Many of them [corps] are actually very tasteful [with electronics],” said Edward DiCarlo.
“What I don’t like are the sound effects of too many sirens or background or sampled sounds. Tastefully done are the piano sounds and those kinds of things. Those are actually quite nice. But when you talk about too much ambient sound, I don’t need that.

“I think it will probably get better [over time], but it all depends on the creativity of the various staff members,” DiCarlo said. “If they see what somebody else does and they like that, then they may do it and it may not be what everybody else likes.”

Many younger fans and new corps age-outs have literally grown up around electronics in marching band shows for some time. Some didn’t find electronics on the drum corps field to be too radical, even if they were the last to march without them.

“I think if it’s used tastefully, then it’s alright,” said 22-year-old Darren Williams of Kokimo, IN, a music education graduate of Butler University who was a baritone player for the Blue Stars in both 2007 and 2008 before aging out. “I mean, I’m somewhat of an old-school fan and I would prefer it if it wasn’t there, but if it’s used tastefully and not overused — a lot of bands in BOA use way too much and that kind of takes away from the show — then it’s alright.

“There are some corps, like the Blue Stars, they do have recordings — sampling from actual radio news broadcasts and stuff like that — just thrown in to kind of aid with the story and that helps,” Williams said. “I think it is a step up from the constant narration that we’ve had from several shows, like The Cadets have had a lot of narration that people really haven’t liked. But as I said, as long as it’s tastefully used and just used in moderation and not an overbearing part of the show, then I think it’s acceptable.”

But other long-time fans weren’t so kind.

“Personally, so far I have not been a real big fan of it, just because I like the sound of brass and percussion,” said Jana Simpson of Columbus, OH, a drum corps fan for 25 years, at the DCI World Class Quarterfinals. “And while I understand there’s a need to bring more people into the activity, to me it kind of takes away a little bit from the roots of the activity.

“Obviously, I think some are using it more effectively than others and those I don’t mind so much,” Simpson said. “But some of them — and I don’t want to badmouth anyone — I think have gone a little over the top with what they’re trying to do. Again, I think some of the corps with the electronics, it’s actually overpowering either the brass or the percussion.”

“I’m not a fan,” said Mike Green of Chicago, IL, a member of the Cavaliers’ color guard from 1986-1988, who also previously was a brass player. “You know, I do believe that it adds some good qualities and versatility and things that they can do. But I think it takes away from the sort of heart and soul of drum corps — which is bugles and marching.

“I noticed the wind [sound effect] in one drum corps and I guess that was alright,” Green said. “We are in the digital age, but there’s something about the heart and soul of drum corps that doesn’t have that. Now with the last group, the Blue Stars, it went with their show very well. They were able to get that 1930s feel with the voiceover.

“But I don’t know. I’m going to withhold judgment,” he continued. “I’m cautiously pessimistic. I come to see drum corps because it’s not like all the other things in the digital age.”

Teal Sound rocks the new electronics rule

There was one show that pushed the envelope on electronics more than any other last summer. Teal Sounds’ “The Velvet Rope” program was designed to literally get the audience rocking out to the hottest music from the metropolitan club scene — replete with a real rock band that took a break from clubbing to tour with the corps.

The band kicked up the volume on the electronics debate from the time it began to rock out in the corps’ pre-show.

“If you’re asking me what I like, that isn’t it,” said Dan Matejczyk of West Hills, CA, who marched with the senior corps Erie (PA) Thunderbirds in the 1970s, following Teal Sound’s performance at the DCI Open Class World Championship Finals.

“When they [Teal Sound] were playing up at that art garden [in Indianapolis], I walked in and it looked like the trumpet players had sucked a lemon when they were listening to those electronic instruments in that closed room,” Matejczyk said. “I’m not against it, but I think that’s about it. I walked in and the expression on what you used to call sopranos’ faces, thought they don’t look like this sound is pleasing them.”

Yet Matejczyk says he didn’t find Teal Sound to be all bad. He found the show’s creativity to be good.

Blue Stars’ alumnus Williams was turned on by the program. “I thought it [Teal Sound’s rock band] was effective,” Williams said. “Where I was, I really couldn’t hear it [the rock band] when the whole corps was playing. I could hear the drum set, but I couldn’t hear the guitars.

“But for this show, it was real fun before the show started that the band kind of rocked out a bit. That got the crowd going. So if you’re wanting to put up the money to do something like that — and again, it’s not an overbearing aspect of the show — it definitely adds to the show — what the show is about.”

Long-time fan James Applegate of Jacksonville, FL, a former drum corps parent, went one better. The 74-year-old hadn’t been to a drum corps show in 10 years until he attended the DCI event in Orlando this summer. And even though weather forced the show to be a standstill, Applegate was all plugged into electronics after seeing Teal Sound — so much so that he decided to attend both the DCI and DCA World Championships to see more.

“Well, I enjoyed this amplification. I think it really did improve the show and it is immensely improved, especially the Jacksonville corps [Teal Sound],” said Applegate at the DCI Open Class World Championship Finals. “They [electronics] really did help that corps.

“The whole “SurroundSound” enhances the sound to a point where it just boosts the whole impact,” he continued. “It brings the whole sound into the audience far better than before — better than I ever remember it. I can’t recall that much impact from the corps.”

One corps and three distinctly different views on what a heavy dose of electronics added to its program. After evaluating this past summer’s most controversial rule change — one that has radically changed drum corps as we’ve known it — that seemed to be a common theme across the drum corps activity. Reactions were as varied as the ways each corps chose to implement new electronics into their programs.

Most people at the shows seemed willing to accept electronics, as long as it continues to be administered in small, tasteful doses.

Author’s note: This is the final article a three-part series gauging reaction to the summer’s implementation of electronic instruments.