Part 2: An interview with DCI judge J. Clarke Williams

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

This interview originally appeared in the February 2009 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 11).

Picking up where part one (December 2008 issue) left off . . . Clarke Williams and I continued our discussion about various aspects of DCI and his experiences as a judge and as a student of the activity who finds opportunities to learn wherever possible.

Harry Heidelmark: A position in many of DCI’s World Class corps now costs the typical marching member a minimum of $1500.00 in tour fees plus additional funds traveling to winter rehearsal camps. The high cost of marching in today’s touring corps has led some to declare drum corps an elitists activity and no longer something the average high school musician can afford. How do you see it?

Clarke Williams: I see it as growth and I do think everyone has the opportunity to participate. I have received numerous letters over the years from members seeking financial support so they could participate. I don’t think it to be an elitist activity as there are opportunities for everyone and there are ways to find the funds needed to cover the expenses. I do realize it is very very difficult to participate over a period of years because of the cost and the time needed.

HH: Do you believe the success and considerable growth in all-age, mini- and alumni corps is a result of the high cost of membership in a DCI touring corps?

CW: I think the success and growth of the all-age, mini- and alumni corps come mainly from those folks wanting to simply perform. I do see the all-age corps as being an outlet for young people who need to work during the summer months and cannot commit to a tour and, oh yes, those who do not have the funds to audition at the World Class Level. I think that all-age corps benefit from the success that high school bands have had with their fall performing opportunities.

HH: Do you believe DCI shares any of the responsibility for the high cost of membership in today’s touring corps?

CW: Does DCI share any responsibility? The answer is yes and this is why I say that. There needs to be a regulatory force that demands much of the corps. Things like requiring insurance, providing food, medical care, etc. DCI is that regulatory agency. They have handled that well, in my opinion. If this results in having to come up with large sums of money to audition and perform, then it has to be if we are all committed to making it a wonderful experience for the performers.

HH: As a cost-cutting measure, prior to the 2008 competitive season DCI announced that all shows prior to July 4 would be evaluated using a five-member judging panel. Do you believe the judging system suffered any detrimental affects or any of the corps were impacted negatively by this change?

CW: I do not think the five-person panel created any short-term or long-term issues for the corps. In the early season, the kind of “read” you want is how the show is progressing from an upstairs point of view. They already know they are on a learning curve as the corps defines and refines their program.

I am not sure how much money it actually saved. I feel that the judges got the best of it from this standpoint. Judges were limited in the exposures they had to the corps, that is, viewing and comprehending the shows put before them. That is the only downside to using a five-person panel in early season.

If they do it again, I think they have the opportunity to have judges viewing it from an upstairs vantage point on one night and the next night viewing it from a downstairs vantage point. That works if the judging panel is on the same tour with the corps. But again, it is an opportunity that makes financial sense and it can be explored and developed.

HH: Do you think there is anything else DCI could do in regards to its judging practices to help reduce the overall cost of the activity?

CW: There are two thoughts that could reduce the overall cost. The first is the five-person panel that was developed this past season and the second would be using local judges, to eliminate travel and housing costs. The local judges would be DCI judges.

HH: Would you like to see DCI adopt a system for ranking corps with designations such as “Superior” or “Outstanding” instead of announcing scores and placements?

CW: No. The basis for performance is competition, which goes beyond superior, outstanding, etc. When you are in first place, the unit in second evaluates where they are relative to #1, and #3 looks at where they are relative to #2, and so forth. The performer lives for the performance of the night and it is what they feel collectively as well as personally that says it was excellent, superior, etc.

Each performer and each corps simply improving every night is the way the performer and the corps measure their ratings of excellent, superior, etc. It is their realization of their improvement and the audience reaction to that improvement.

HH: Do you foresee a time when only the regional contest are judged and the other shows on the tour are exhibitions?

CW: I see a time where regional shows plus some mid-week shows leading up to championship week will be the one’s judged. I also see double panels for the General Effect captions at championship week.

HH: During a critique, do you make specific suggestions concerning a group’s program and have you ever had an instructor or designer tell you he/she believed you were totally missing their point?

CW: I will make specific suggestions only when I feel that I understood their program . . . again seeking first to understand their program so that I can be understood in my commentary.

I have had instructors and designers tell me that I missed the point, which they perceived by listening to my tape. I have also gone back after another viewing (next show on tour or simply the next time I get to see them) and told them they were right.

The reverse of that scenario is also true. Instructors have taken a second look at what I said. That’s what a critique is all about, that is what communication and understanding are all about.

HH: Do you believe the critique can be a learning opportunity for a judge as well as an instructor or designer?

CW: Yes, I do. When we both listen, a lot is accomplished. Every viewing is a learning experience for me. I have tremendous respect for every designer and every tech that I have the opportunity to dialogue with during the season. There is a lot of creativity in the activity, there are a lot of performance skills being refined each day of the season and how can you not appreciate that?

HH: Part of DCI’s creation had to do with creating a common set of rules, because the various governing bodies had conflicts between their different rules. Because you were a part of the group implementing the original set of DCI rules, can you recall what the transformation from several different sets of rules to one uniform system was like for both judges and instructors?

CW: It brought uniformity, it brought understanding, especially as the rules were viewed by the activity then and now. The foundation of that commonality then is what allows the activity to be successful today.

HH: Did you ever experience a problem, as a marching member or instructor, because of conflicting rules?

CW: We took the Valley Grenadiers’ competing guard to Massachusetts for a weekend of what we thought would be competitions. We had a large color guard, more than the number allowed by the circuit. We then did exhibitions for the weekend, which was still a wonderful opportunity from a performance point of view. The members enjoyed it because they had the opportunity to perform to new audiences.

Different rules didn’t effect the performance or the outcome, but rather, different rules dealt with eligibility, number of performers allowed, etc. That is a broad statement, but pretty much on the mark.

HH: Electronic amplification has been in use for a couple of seasons. Do you think its various uses have been implemented wisely and do you believe we’ll see more innovative uses in years to come?

CW: When the rules were passed, there were ideas on what and how, but nothing concrete about the possibilities that existed. It was an opportunity that we haven’t seen in the outdoor marching activity. I think as times go by there will be very creative ways to implement and manage that opportunity, thus increasing design and performance opportunities within the activity. We are starting to see that happen now.

HH: Do you foresee any major changes in the judging process or procedures in the near future?

CW: Changes in the judging process . . . no, but I see changes in the process of recording and processing judging results, so that the audience is more aware of results as soon as possible after a corps performance. I do see in the future smaller judging panels except for regional shows and championship week ,where they will have double panels.

HH: How much preparation is there for a judge prior to taking the field with a corps or observing them from the press box?

CW: Each judge is different, but the preparation is more for the contest rather than a corps. For example, I will read and review material general to the caption I am judging that day, not review information specific to a corps performing that day.

What I will seek to learn before I judge and even before the season starts is what the show is about, what are they playing, what is the theme, etc. so that I can be in a position to better understand their program and/or their theme so that I can be understood when I evaluate it.

HH: What is the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced as a judge?

CW: I think the biggest challenges have been the weather (rain, snow, heat, cold). Also doing an all-day show and then again at night — some of the same challenges that a performer faces.

HH: In addition to filling out a form with a score, judges also make a tape recording of their thoughts and impressions during the performance. Many instructors play these tapes for their members. Have you ever been concerned with who might be listening to one of your tapes and do you think corps members benefit from hearing the judges’ comments?

CW: The tapes are important to me from an information standpoint as well as the little things like my voice inflections or lack thereof when responding to moments in the show as well as the show itself. So I think there is benefit from the tape to both the design/instructional staff as well as the performer. I like to think that my tapes are there for everyone as my response to their performance and design that day.

HH: Have you learned more as an instructor or judge and from whom have you learned the most?

CW: The learning comes from both sides. As an instructor, some of the people who have had an influence have been Tom Martin, Carl Ruocco, Dennis DeLucia, George Zingalli, Jim Jones, Don Angelica, Steve Brubaker and Bobby Hoffman, to name a few.

From a judging viewpoint it would be Gene Monterastelli, Paul Litteau, Gary Czapinski, Moe Kazazian, Dr. Bernard Baggs, the list could go on and on because I like to think of myself as a student always learning.

HH: One of your major contributions to the activity came when you took on the task of Judging Coordinator for DCI’s Division II and III at a time when the value of the smaller corps was not appreciated. How important do you believe the smaller corps are to the health of the drum corps activity and its growth potential?

CW: Those corps bring a unique perspective to the activity. A valuable one to say the least. Our objective was to take the current judging philosophy and make sure that it “fit” those corps. We also looked to find judges who would be compatible to the needs of those corps.

HH: Do you think the combining of Divisions II and III corps into one Open Class was fair to the smaller corps (with less than 60 members) that now have to compete against corps of 100

CW: The reality was that corps were limiting their membership to no more than 60 members to be competitive in Division III. That certainly didn’t speak well for why Division III was created.

That being said, I still think there is room for a small corps division, but everyone must live by the spirit of “why” such a division would exist. Maybe small corps should have a different approach to competition. As long as competition exists, people will find ways to be “competitive.” That does not completely answer the question, but it serves to perhaps tell us why the two divisions were made into one.

HH: The demise of regional associations, such as Garden State Circuit and Drum Corps Midwest seemed to have more of a negative affect on the smaller corps than DCI’s World Class corps. Could regionalization be beneficial if only for Open Class corps and possibly be something DCI might consider supporting to aid in the growth of what could be viewed as a farm league for World Class corps?

CW: My thought is that DCI already has in place a Drum Corps East, a Drum Corps West and a Drum Corps Midwest. Those sub-sets of the DCI parent could do a lot to focus on the small corps, the new corps and yes, I think funds should come from DCI to nurture this part of the activity.

Those corps would benefit with more direct involvement from DCI. There is a need and I feel the structure is already in place to provide for their growth. Right now, in my opinion, DCI Midwest does the best job of nurturing the corps at that level, as does DCWest.

HH: Do you think DCI should have the option of moving a corps from World Class to Open Class if it feels the corps cannot compete at the higher level?

CW: Yes, I do, and I think that should be done every two years or so. I realize there are financial ramifications with that, but I do think it should be reviewed every two years.

HH: What do you see as the biggest difference between drum corps and marching bands?

CW: Time to prepare and learn. Drum corps could have a mature performing group based upon age. With a drum corps on tour, the staff has access to the performer and design to refine it for the next performance.

With a marching band, you might not have that opportunity. Marching bands have made great strides, especially musically, with their programs and they will continue to do that as long as the opportunity to compete exists. Many of the skills presented over the years by drum corps are now being demonstrated by more and more marching bands.

Maybe the future for marching bands will be much like DCI coming together with a common set of rules and a uniform process of adjudication. If that happens, look to local school boards and the different states to be the regulatory agency overseeing the programs.

HH: What do you believe drum corps will look like five years from now? How about 10 years from now?

CW: Looking at five and 10 years down the road, you need to look back five and 10 years to see how far the activity has come and realize the potential going forward is wonderful as long as we can keep up with it financially.

HH: Many activities have developed systems declaring everyone as a winner to avoid declaring one group or individual as better than another and there are no losers. Do you believe there is any down side to the competitive nature of drum corps?

CW: No, I do not. Competition is good. Everyone has “10” potential. Everyone’s “10” is different. I would like to present a thought for consideration. When I judge a show, there is never one winner and everybody else a loser. I say again that everyone has “10” potential and everyone’s “10”is different. That is the joy of judging.

HH: Of all the lessons corps members may learn over a summer, which do you believe are the most beneficial to the individual?

CW: One word describes it all — “TEAM.” Learning to work hard, to face obstacles along the way and staying focused. What we see year after year are real leaders coming out of drum corps. They are basically ordinary people with extraordinary determination, all because of drum corps.

HH: In January 2000, you were inducted into DCI’s Hall of Fame Class of 1999. How did you feel when you first learned you had been voted in as a member?

CW: When inducted, I felt humbled and still feel that way today. I was especially pleased with the other members of the Class of 1999, as it was an all-visual class. When I first learned I was nominated, I shared it with my family as they were the ones who allowed it to happen.

HH: Can you think of anyone you believe DCI’s Hall of Fame has overlooked?

CW: I can think of numerous people who offer what I think the DCI Hall of Fame is all about. People like Tom Martin, Carl Ruocco, Mike Rubino and John Phillips.

HH: What do you believe has been the key to your longevity in the drum corps, color guard and marching band activities?

CW: Interest in the activity for sure is one of the reasons. What I have seen it produce for “life after corps” for so many performers/instructors and management. It does provide a unique experience for young people, one that stays with them for the rest of their lives.

HH: Can you share some of your most memorable moments from 40 years in the drum corps, marching band and color guard activities?

CW: There are many, but I will share two with you. The first came about a few years ago. I was judging on the field at a marching band contest in St. Louis. I noticed that there was a member following very closely to another member. As I got closer, I realized the trumpet player was blind and the other member was simply his eyes moving him around the field in a challenging drill. I was overwhelmed.

I made a point to seek them out coming off the field and put my tape recorder down and applauded the two of them. What an experience — that was achievement at its best.

The second memory goes back to teaching guard in northern New Jersey. We were having a wonderful year (competitively as well as defining the art of performance). We were down to the last three competitions and we needed to win one of them to clinch the championship of the circuit. The first show came up and we were second. I started to notice they were tight and at times seemed stressed.

We go to the second show and we place second. Same thing. I noticed a little bit more of the stress and tension. So that week I put together a tape. The music was The Way We Were and Impossible Dream. It came down to the last show and we were rehearsing on Saturday afternoon for the night show. In the middle of rehearsal I stopped everything and told the guard to sit down on the floor. I then went over to the music player and inserted my tape.

There wasn’t a word said by anyone and it stayed that way until after their performance that night. They had their best performance ever and their highest score ever and, needless to say, they won. What a lesson and experience!

In part 3, Clarke and I conclude our conversation about his DCI experiences and delve into his many years involved with winter guards.