Part 2: Evaluating electronics — Members, other young people give electronics mixed reviews

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

The introduction of electronic instruments to the Drum Corps International field this summer was designed to give show designers an additional creative tool. It was also supposed to give young people, who are reportedly using electronics more in their daily musical activities, what they wanted — opening new participating opportunities in the process.

But when the electronic instruments rules change was mentioned during DCI’s “The Countdown” show in movie theaters, many in the audience at the Jordan Creek 20 Theater in West Des Moines, IA, booed loudly. And some young people were among those contributing to the chorus of boos.

So how do young people really feel about electronic instruments in drum corps? Upon polling both young fans and DCI corps members at shows this summer, the reviews are mixed.

“I think if you use it [electronic instruments] correctly and not too much, then it can add a lot to the show,” said 17-year-old fan Jonathan Zimmy of Sacramento, CA, a baritone player in his high school band. “A couple of them [corps] have used them [electronics] a little too much and some of them have done a really good job with it. “The Crossmen did a good job. I just noticed it [electronic sound] in a couple of places and it added a lot,” he said after witnessing the corps at DCI Quarterfinals.

“There are some occasions when I think they’re [electronic instrument] just incredible,” said 22-year-old Becca Cuellar of Los Angeles, an age-out mellophone player for the Santa Clara Vanguard Cadets who is also a sculptural art/theater design major at San Jose State University. “I mean, we have one moment in our show where one day we heard the pit practicing off in the distance while we were in a marching rehearsal and I was like, ‘It sounds like the gates of Hell have opened up.’ I was like 50 yards away and it was just the coolest sound. I was like, ‘Wow, it gives me chills. It scares me. So that’s on the positive side.

“On the negative side, I think sometimes they might be used inappropriately,” Cuellar continued. “Like sometimes the horn line might feel like it’s used to boost us or improve our fullness, maybe.”

Corps members warm to new electronics

At the start of the season, corps members were split on their desires to have electronic instruments introduced into their shows, although they were willing to give them a chance.

“I’ve been in the Colts now for six years and I don’t know how I feel about it yet,” said the Colts’ assistant drum major, Shane Connolly, a 20-year-old from Dyersville, IA, just after the corps introduced synthesized sound on the field for the first time in late May. “I guess it’s interesting, but in the same sense, I kind of like the older drum corps world better.

“I think it’s going to lead toward more amplification-type stuff, which kind of disappoints me I guess — just because I’d rather feel it than see that type thing when I watch drum corps,” he said. “But, I mean, it is what it is. And if it happens, I’ll just go with it, I guess. I don’t really have any hard feelings on it. I’m just neutral, I guess.”

“It sounded really cool, but I’m kind of new to drum corps, so I need to look up my old school stuff I guess,” said 18-year-old Emma Pierson of Maryville, MO, who plays one of the synthesizers this summer for the Colts and was standing next to Connolly. “But I think it will be a great addition.”

A snare drummer for her high school band in Maryville, Pierson reports the synthesizer was not part of her high school band shows. She played piano in church and auditioned for a traditional keyboard instrument in the pit for the Colts. But when the staff encouraged her to fill the opening on synthesizer, she decided to go for it — making her an instant celebrity around corps camps.

“Yeah, everybody was like pointing me out and stuff like that and saying, ‘Oh, that’s a keyboard instrument.’ This is our first year,” she said, “and you get a whole bunch of whispers and points and stuff. But I’m excited.”

Nate Hawk, the center snare drummer this summer for the Glassmen, was another corps member trying to make sense of the new electronic enhancements. The 21-year-old music education major at Bloomsburg (PA) University had played in the pits of both his Shikellamy, PA, high school marching band and the Hawthorne Caballeros, but also is a Facebook fan of two groups against the use of microphones in drum corps. He admits he wasn’t so sure about adding electronic instruments to his Glassmen percussion program either.

“Well, originally I was a little skeptical about it, but now I like what it brings to the table — the things it can do with different tambours and sounds and stuff,” Hawk said. “And like our drum solo has a lot of that — a lot of techno grooves to it. I like that. It’s a different dynamic you can bring to the whole product.”

Possibly no World Class corps pushed the envelope on the new electronic instruments rule this summer more than Spirit, building its program around the electronically-enhanced experience of a Kansas rock concert. Among the rock instrumentation was an electric bass player who also played an upright electronic string bass in the ballad. If it weren’t for legalizing of electronic instruments this summer, that electric bass player — 19-year-old Andrew Burkett of Fayetteville, GA, a string bass major at Georgia State University — wouldn’t have participated in drum corps.

“Well, it was kind of interesting, I first heard about DCI my senior year of high school last year,” said Burkett, a football player in high school. “I saw the DCI ‘Top 12 Countdown’ thing in the movie theater and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really neat.’ I’ve seen a high school marching band, but I’d never seen drum corps before. So I go, ‘This is cool, but I’ll never be able to do that.’ And actually, I had a friend at school who was like, ‘Hey, Spirit’s looking for a bass player.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, this is a great opportunity because I know they play in front of big crowds and it’s a lot of fun and I’ve heard great things about it.’ And I was really excited to get on board with it. So, here I am.”

Burkett has found the new rule, and this season’s music, to be to his liking.

“It’s interesting because it was a lot easier [the music of Kansas] to relate to because it’s rock style and I’m playing a bass guitar,” he said. “And it’s great because I’m a string bass major actually and I get to play the string bass and there are a lot of beautiful parts in the ballad and it adds a different sound to the original Kansas music. I think it’s great, you know?”
Young fans fine with electronics in moderation

Proponents of electronic instruments in drum corps point out that other pageantry activities have been using them for some time now. That includes the country’s largest and most prestigious high school marching band circuit, Bands of America, which is also based in Indianapolis and has its annual national championship event at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Carmel, IN, High School marching band was the 2005 BOA Grand National champion and several of its current members were among the crowd in this year’s World Class Quarterfinals. They largely liked what they saw and heard from new electronically-enhanced drum corps.

“It’s [electronic instruments] not bad. It makes the show a little more interesting,” said Brad Adams, a 17-year-old Carmel trumpet player. “Sometimes it’s overused.”

Adams was referring to BOA bands and not drum corps he had seen and how some of them “are over the top” with electronic instruments,

“The show is less focused on the band itself and more focused on the electronics, which is not as good,” he said.

Marc Bartel, a 17-year-old Carmel baritone player, wasn’t quite so kind when evaluating electronic effects on the marching music field.

“I think it’s interesting, but they can’t lose focus on the music, because if they focus completely on electronics, they’ll just have a computer play it — and not like a band,” said Bartel, who’s been a corps fan for the last three years. “It will just be like guard and just a synthesizer. That’s not drum corps.

“It hasn’t changed anything yet,” he continued, “but bands can’t rely only on electronics. There needs to be an even balance.”

Of course, Adams and Bartel play wind instruments. Their take was considerably different from their fellow member who plays in the pit, where electronic instruments are used.

“Well, I think it’s really cool,” said Mark Hodges, a 17-year-old Carmel timpani player. “It’s different and it’s unique. Or, it’s a totally different experience because you can produce sounds that you can’t produce naturally.

“This is my first day out here and I’ve seen a couple of bands and I heard something, and I was like, ‘What is that sound?,’ you know,” he continued. “It’s very unique. It’s a cool experience and I think that I like it better because they can sort of create their own identity as a group and in ways you can’t do with traditional instruments.”

And maybe the use of electronic instruments will become even more appealing to the next generation of drum corps members, who are literally being raised on everything electronic.

“It’s pretty good. I like the electric guitar because it’s played a lot with what I like in music,” said 13-year-old R.J. Martin of Kokomo, IN, who was attending the World Class Quarterfinals.

“And I like the electric drums a lot. It makes it a lot quieter so neighbors don’t go psycho.

“They’re [electronic instruments] pretty cool how they use the effects to make some sounds that you really have no clue what they are” he said.

But when it comes to the common theme in youth assessment on how electronic instruments should be used, Adams summed it up the best.

“A tool should be a tool and not take over the band itself,” he said.

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Author’s note: This is the second of a three-part series gauging reaction to this summer’s implementation of electronic instruments. The next installment will explore how older fans, including drum corps alumni, are reacting to the new electronic enhancements.