Part 1: An interview with DCI judge J. Clarke Williams

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

This article was originally published in the December 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 9).

I’ve met so many interesting people at all levels of the activity, including those in drum corps management, instructors, cooks and volunteers in various supporting roles, not to mention hundreds of marching members over the years. I’ve driven corps equipment trucks for the last 30 years along with taking thousands of photographs, first for Drum Corps News and, over the last three decades, for Drum Corps World.

Following my interviews with Larry Kerchner and Dennis DeLucia (which are now available in the on-line DCW archives), I received several e-mails asking, “Who’s next?” I hadn’t really given much thought to another interview, but when I decided to leave my comfort zone and interview someone I was less familiar with, my selection came somewhat easily.

While shooting photos, I’m often dodging judges and even grumbling about them stepping into a shot just as I’ve pressed the shutter release, but still wouldn’t want their job on most nights. I’ve gotten to know a few judges, but one in particular has stood out, because of his dedication to the activity and a willingness to share his knowledge and excitement for the movement.

Among his peers, J. Clarke Williams, is widely respected for his longevity in the judging community, serving marching bands, color guards and drum corps. He was among the judges evaluating corps during the first DCI Championships in 1972 and continues to be part of the panel to this day — the only judge who spans the entire existence of DCI.

His ability to evolve and grow with the activity and his unparalleled integrity has earned him great respect from fellow judges, instructors and directors.

Many instructors have come to appreciate Williams’ ability to use the critique as an educational opportunity where he can share his insightful observations. His understanding of the judging system, combined with his deep appreciation for the hard work and dedication of the performers, makes him a perfect role model for all those involved in the drum corps activity he truly loves.

Harry Heidelmark: Was there any one person or a particular reason you chose to march with the Fair Lawn Police Cadets?

Clarke Williams: The corps became the Fair Lawn Cadets after many years as the St. Ann’s Cadets, also of Fair Lawn. There was a time in the 1950s when the Catholic Church in the Arch Diocese of Newark started to move away from sponsorship of local parish corps, like St. Vinnie’s, Blessed Sacrament, St. Brendan’s, St. Joe’s and St. Mary’s, to name a few.

Our corps was local and the membership came from the local area. I started in St. Ann’s, was taught to play a horn by Charlie Nabor and developed friendships in the corps over the years. When the church decided to no longer sponsor the corps, we simply secured sponsorship from the local Police Benevolent Association, thanks to our director, Charlie Pierson, a local policeman. We were called the Lawmen.

There was no serious consideration to not staying with the Fair Lawn corps, although Holy Name came after us. We (my friends and I) aged out of Fair Lawn when we reached 21. The reason we chose to stay together was that we wanted to finish what we started.

HH: How many of the people you marched with in Fair Lawn are still friends or acquaintances today?

CW: Dozens and it goes beyond just Fair Lawn. I see them many times a year. The social aspect of drum corps back then reached beyond just the Fair Lawn corps. Dances, football games, parties with other corps all contributed to a great experience. People like Ray and Patsy Peters, Lou and Lorraine Marschello, Tyrone Lavel, Tom Richards, Janet Finch, John Sudol, Ron Clark, Jack Deacy, Tom Beresford, Gene Marotta and Jimmy Russo, to mention a few.

My wife of 38 years, Diane, marched in another corps, the Dumont Police Cadets. Drum corps was also a family venture. My brother and three sisters were in the corps during my association and we add their friends to this list as well.

HH: What is you fondest memory from your marching days?

CW: Clearly it would be the annual American Legion contest in Wildwood NJ, in early September. It was always our last show of the year and usually our best performance. The memory again goes beyond the performance. It had a lot to do with the preparation, the performance and the social aspect.

HH: Fair Lawn Police Cadets produced a considerable number of instructors and adjudicators. Was there something unique about that corps that would lead individuals in that direction?

CW: The instructors had a lot to do with that. They were judges and/or taught other corps. With names like George Tuthill, Bobby Hoffman, Bob Peterson, Frank James, Jim Russo, they all enjoyed the experience and stayed with it after their Fair Lawn days.

HH: After aging out, you became part of the instructional staff of Fairlawn Police Cadets. What did you learn from your first opportunity as an instructor?

CW: I would have to say, I learned not to listen to radio station WIN-FM . . . (what’s in it for me) . . . I learned that it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about the judges, it was about the performer and getting them to their highest level of achievement each and every show. It was also a challenge for me to learn and continue to learn the method and technique for them to achieve all that they could.

HH: As an instructor, did you ever have an individual or even a section of a corps that you couldn’t seem to get across whatever it was you were trying to teach them? And what did you do?

CW: An interesting question as we always designed knowing our members. It did not come up often, but when it did it was a musical or guard thing and we made adjustments because of the complexity of music and drill. We always tried to make it work, if we thought it could.

We would motivate those having problems to not give up on it and to trust us. We always thought of the performer. We had a responsibility to bring the method and technique needed to make any and all parts of the design comfortable for them to perform. That approach, while easily presented now, was difficult to comprehend in the early years of teaching.

HH: Is there any part of a drum corps, band or color guard you prefer to work with or that your abilities are more suitable for?

CW: I don’t think so; all three involved design and performance and were equally challenging . . . seeing the performer respond was and is today the desired result. My first experience teaching winter guard was more about teaching equipment, bearing and marching.

As the activity developed, I found that I needed to surround myself with others who teach equipment and movement, so we had a four-person staff, much like the activity today where there are “specialists” to work with the performers in developing skills and technique needed to present both design and performance.

Teaching drum corps and bands brought with it different challenges, but once you understood the challenge, you could then move forward.

HH: Is there a noticeable difference in the way you teach drum corps, color guard or marching bands?

CW: Good question. I would evaluate the time we needed and then the time we had in a season or a week. My plan would then develop design and consider the learning process and the process of achieving excellence into that plan.

For example, with winter guard, I typically would have a practice in the evening during the week and then had an all-day Saturday. On Monday evening, myself and Al Hoffman would talk about our recent performance as we viewed it and then looked at how the judges viewed it and then we developed our plan.

The week night rehearsal was spent on individual performance. I had the members warm up, define and refine their basic skills. The first hour was simply allowing them to work areas they thought they needed to work on to be better. The next hour and a half was spent on what skills we needed to define the work as an ensemble.

We would only do one run-through at the end of the night. When it came to the day of the show, we typically had about a four-hour block to rehearse. We worked individually and then did a run-through, emphasizing pieces of the program we needed to develop and refine to be successful.

One of the runs we would do it without music, just a pair of drum sticks. That allowed them to focus on equipment, marching, etc. Then we did it with music, simply trying to get them to reflect the music while applying their skills in equipment and movement. Next we would leave for the show, warm up at the show, allow some quiet time so they could visualize themselves in their performance.

With the guard, we would develop the theme of our show and once that was decided, we met and presented it to the performers. With their understanding, we were able to expedite the learning process and focus on achievement.

With drum corps, you were part of a larger team and sometimes the visual did not get the attention we felt it deserved, so we had to pack into a tight schedule what we needed for that rehearsal (usually one outside rehearsal a week). Sometimes we would ask for sections to come on a different night if, for instance, we needed to work with the percussion only.

With marching bands, it is even more of a concern trying to fit everything into an already tight schedule. The result with marching bands was that there were fewer sets and more focus on musicians learning both the music and the drill.

HH: What were your responsibilities when you were involved with the Valley Grenadiers in Hillside, NJ?

CW: I, along with Al Hoffman, designed and taught the winter guard and did the visual design for the corps. Tom Pratt joined us in that venture as well as developing technique and methods to present the design.

HH: Were you part of the Hawthorne Muchachos organization when they were disqualified following the DCI preliminary competitions in 1975?

CW: No, but I have an opinion on that if you would like.

HH: Yes, I would be interested in your opinion on Muchachos’ disqualification.

CW: The rule was broken and the person or persons who were overage should have been pulled from the corps. A rule is a rule. When was this discovered? Could they have done all of this prior to the performance so that the majority of the corps could have stilled performed? A rule is a rule, yes, but rules are not meant to harm the innocent. In this case, the rule did.

HH: How did you feel about Bridgemen’s disqualification in 1977?

CW: The same way I felt about the Muchachos. Did the entire corps suffer because of a few and were the few the reason for the disqualification and did it have to occur during championship week?

HH: What kind of relationship did you have with Bobby Hoffman who I believe was also a member of Fair Lawn Police Cadets?

CW: I had a very good and long relationship with Bobby and his brother Don. A funny story — when I went into the Army Reserve and went on active duty for six months, I was dating the captain of the color guard and when I returned from my six months of duty, guess who was dating Betty?

Bobby was away from drum corps a little bit after that and I remember meeting with him when he was spackling walls and I was part of a group getting him back into the activity. It started with Garfield Cadets. The rest is history.

HH: As an instructor for the Long Island Sunrisers senior corps, did you find any difference in teaching senior corps compared to junior corps where you served as an instructor?

CW: With the Sunrisers, it was mostly visual design and then touch-up. We pretty much crammed learning the drill into large blocks of instruction time, making visual changes as we taught. Visual changes were based on how the horn line and percussion progressed while shaping their presentation

HH: You’ve also worked with several high school marching bands. Did you find teaching high school bands more or less challenging than drum corps or color guard?

CW: It was more of a challenge. We did not have the time to spend learning, so we tailored the design to fit the time and their objectives. We certainly had more time with guard and drum corps planning week to week what needed to be done. With the bands, it was a matter of getting it on the field with the least amount of marching responsibility placed on the student. The objective was to get them in places or scenes where the reflection of the music was best understood and also staged so all performers could play and hear those around them.

HH: Did any of your experiences as an instructor prepare you for your career as a judge?

CW: Yes. I understood what it took to get a show on the field and at the same time I developed a keen sense of understanding technique. As a judge, the focus is what they were doing, how well they understood what they were doing and how well they did it. Teaching and preparing design were a great help to me.

HH: Has there ever been a time when you regretted becoming a judge?

CW: No. It was exciting for me because when I started it was the old system of recording errors on a score sheet. We went from a “deduction” system to one of “achievement.” When we moved to the current system, it was a study not so much on how they handled space and line, but how they interacted with the music and the form they were in at that moment.

For the first time we were able to acknowledge achievement and consider the music as well as the visual. The same can be said for the music judges who now consider the visual in their evaluation. It was exciting to be involved in the development of the system and, thanks to George Oliviero, it was the first time we had a visual handbook other than the old military book. We were moving as well as marching.

HH: Is there any particular area of judging you prefer or any part of various judging categories you would rather not participate?

CW: The visual captions, including the color guard caption, were my captions and I enjoyed being there and still do, acknowledging the progress of both the performer and the program, especially when you see it early in the season and then get the chance to view it in the late season.

HH: The critique system was changed recently and instructors no longer get to question or converse with judges after every show. Instead, DCI now schedules different corps for critiques after certain shows and only those corps instructors get to have an exchange with the judging panel that night. Can you explain why this was done and/or any benefits the instructors get from such an arrangement?

CW: Rather than explain why, I would rather give you my take on it. I feel there should be a critique for everyone into mid-season and then the last week or two, no critiques for anyone. The current arrangement is flawed. For example, when you are on a tour and get to see the same corps for three or four shows, I found myself in some cases seeing the same corps in critique every night. That is wrong because there were corps that never had the opportunity for critique.

The reason for the critique is for me to clarify judgments that I made during the show and it is also an opportunity to learn from the staff what it is they are all about — their program.

HH: As an adjudicator with many years experience, you’ve been part of the evolution from the tick system to the current method used by not just drum corps, but color guards and marching bands. Do you believe the current method is as good or as fair as it is going to get?

CW: I do believe that the current method is as good or fair for one rather simple reason. It recognizes the achievement of the performer, considering what they do, how well they understand that which they do and how well they do it. The drum corps, color guards and marching bands continue to push the envelope in design and performance technique and I feel the current method will and is handling that.

There will be tweaking to continue to respond to creativity and performance. I see point allocation changes in the future, more to focus on the outstanding achievement of the performer.

HH: On several occasions, I’ve heard a member of a corps staff complain about “getting dumped” by a particular judge, because it was the first time he’d seen their corps. Is there a reason why a corps’ score might fluxuate with changes in the judging panel and should a corps’ past scores have any bearing on any other evaluations?

CW: The job of the judge is to rate and rank the corps on any given evening. Having said that, I have experienced situations where I have seen the same corps back to back with far different performances. Did the ranking and rating change? I would say yes.

There was one example of a judge who did score a horn line much lower than they had been scoring in Performance Brass. It came out in the critique that the horn instructor spent all day trying to get a certain sound from the corps, knowing that would benefit them down the road.

They came into the performance that evening and experimented on this new sound approach.

They suffered in Performance Brass, but only until they had time to work it out. By the way, their GE score did reflect, in a positive way, the changes.

The corps’ past scores are used by the corps more than they are by the judges. That is, the corps will use that in critique. There are so many factors that enter into a performance while on the road. Travel, rehearsal or lack thereof, stadium, food, weather, health and perhaps most important is how the corps prepares for a performance — looking for a consistent approach, enough time, etc. There are so many variables that impact a corps having their best performance. Many times, when things do not go right and the performance reflects that, the staff is the first to admit it in critique.

HH: Personally, I believe recap sheets should not be produced after every show, because comparing Corps A’s scores in a visual caption with Corps B’s score in the same visual caption is irrelevant. I understand the public’s interest in comparing those numbers, but should a judge be concerned with what any corps has been scoring in any caption?

CW: What a recap does is tell the judge what “neighborhood” the individual captions fall into. The more important analysis comes from considering where they fall in a particular box on the score sheet. The scoring system is a criteria reference system and there are descriptive words that define their achievement. What is important is where they fall in a particular scoring range and how far that is from the next scoring range.

I will review a recap sheet at the end of the show or the critique, and that is part of my accountability to the corps and to the scoring system. I review my ranking and rating, and look to see how it fits within what the other visual judges perceived. A judge is concerned about that performance, and ranking and rating the corps in that competition, that evening.

HH: At different times, I’ve noticed field judges sitting down at the end of a corps performance and, after finishing their comments on tape and writing comments on the form for their caption, some refer to a sheet under all their sheets or sometimes on the back of their clipboard before writing a number on their score sheet. What could they be referring to? Are there guidelines for determining scores?

CW: Judges are ranking and rating the corps and, in doing so, they keep a tote sheet that allows them to place that corps’ numbers not only on the score sheet, but also on a tote sheet. That is part of the comparison process.

When a judge finishes his commentary and is ready to score the corps, they will review the tote and the criteria reference information. They will have an impression of where that corps — and most important where their caption — fits in the system and then will take that impression and start to develop a process of comparison with the other corps in that contest.

The three key words in the process are Impression, Comparison and Analysis. There are guidelines for determining scores and it starts with the basic fundamentals of the criteria reference system and acknowledging the achievement of each and every corps, and profiles that corps, based upon their achievement in the scoring process.

HH: How can a program designer create a winning production when the panel of judges, each with their own opinions and preferences, changes nearly every night?

CW: Judges, just like designers, have their own opinions and preferences. A designer, in my mind, will design based upon the selection of a program which is a collective decision of his or her entire staff. Even within the corps we have opinions and preferences of many and they collectively carry out their design or technique with the focus on the selected program. Good design and good performance are just that good design and good performance, and judging panels changing every night will have no impact.

HH: If you could change one part of the judging process, what would it be and why?

CW: I would not use a color guard judge and I would make sure that the Field sheet, the Ensemble sheet and the Effect sheet are specific in acknowledging all of the visual contributions from everyone in any given show. I would keep the performance judges on the field to acknowledge the individual’s contribution to design and performance.

HH: A few years ago, percussion judge Charlie Poole was seriously injured when he was hit in the head with a bass drum. With the fast-paced movement of the corps, I’ve witnessed many close calls while shooting photos. Is it essential for performance judges to actually be ON the field or could they give a fair/accurate evaluation from the sidelines?

CW: To keep this answer short, the best way to study and appreciate the individual performer, the comprehension of their musical and visual literature and their achieving what they are achieving, both musically and visually, is by being on the field with them. There is so much individual achievement by every member of the corps, that to lose that study of the individual would be a shame. The brass judges could be on the sideline, the visual judge needs a lot of freedom, as does the percussion judge, to effectively sample the presentation.

HH: Have you ever been sitting in a press box and, following a corps’ performance, thought to yourself, “What were they thinking?”

CW: I have often said that when they (the corps) get it, then I will get it. I still subscribe to, “Let me first seek to understand so that I might be understood” theory. If I get it, then great. If I don’t, I give them a lot of time to tell me what it is they want the show to be, I will, through my commentary, look to acknowledge what the program is.

A lot of times the design is to build a skyscraper, but by the time everyone brings their input to the program — and then realizing they have a short time to get the building done — it ends up as a one-story building with a garage and not the skyscraper they originally wanted.

HH: Ever found yourself so absorbed by a program that when it concluded you found it hard to assign a number, because there was nothing higher than 10, meaning perfection?

CW: I have found myself in situations where I have been absorbed by a program and by moments in a program for many many corps over the years and I have never had a problem rewarding that achievement. There are many moments that simply take your breath away.

Each corps has their own “10” and if I can acknowledge their own “10” by my commentary and scoring (even if that score is based upon defined criteria) is only a 7 in the scheme of things. They — the corps, the performer — know if it was their “10” and that is what matters.

HH: In one position or another you’ve been a part of the judging panel at practically all of the DCI Championships. Please share what it has been like to witness the various changes in the visual offerings you’ve seen throughout the years.

CW: I have been very fortunate to be part of the process over the years. I was privileged to be on the first DCI Championship panel and I am still part of the DCI judging crew. As a judge, I consider myself an educator as well as a student.

What I have experienced over the years has been remarkable. I feel I am a student and have absorbed how the visual activity has changed, allowing the performers to reach where they have never been. As an educator, it allows me to “seek first to understand so that I may be understood.”

There have been instances where the student and educator in us is put to the test. When a design team pushes the envelope, there is a process of growth for both the design team and the judge. What needs to be done to make it work, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t, but it is always respected and we, as judges, along with the design teams, work together.

The design team is always developing the concept and the judge is always growing in his/her comprehension of their effort. The saying is, “When they get it, I get it.”

I’ve never been absorbed where I have not been able to assign a number, especially a “10.”

HH: What change in the activity, instrumentation or otherwise, do you believe had the most impact?

CW: The change in the activity came when we went to a build-up system of scoring, allowing creativity to be the foundation for a program, coupled with defined method and technique. The old scoring system focused on the fewer the errors the higher the score.

Today it is a combination of what they do, how well they understand how to do what it is they do and then, of course, how well they do it. I think all of the changes have influenced the growth of the activity. It takes time for changes to be effective and I say that because, when a change is made, the corps look to see how it may benefit them and then they apply their creative juices to making it happen.

Sometimes it is uncharted waters, so to speak, so some are more successful than others. The changes are there for everyone to embrace. Sometimes it means spending more money . . . which now gets back to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

HH: Do you believe it’s just a matter of time before drum corps include woodwinds, trombones or sousaphones?

CW: Perhaps everything but the woodwinds. Drum and bugle corps is a unique marching musical and visual art form. We have high school and college marching bands that today achieve wonderful moments and programs, and they are limited to their school calendar, school policy, state policy, all governing when and where they can perform.

Drum and bugle corps is an off-season activity for those wanting to expand their horizons in performance and literature. While that would give way to allowing those band instruments into the flow, I personally do not think that will happen for many years.

HH: Over your time in the activity, what corps would you say have had the biggest impact on the activity?

CW: Tough question. I think back and reflect, thinking of the brass lines from the Argonne Rebels and the Sky Ryders. Percussion, I think of the 27th Lancers and the Bayonne Bridgemen. Visually, I think of Santa Clara, Garfield and the Cavaliers.

When I think of the activity, I have to commend the longevity of the Cavaliers, the Troopers, Madison Scouts, Garfield, to name just a few. They have been able to bring their success to us over many years and they all do it a different way. The hope is the corps with the longevity will continue to share with others how they do it.

HH: Do you believe the change from bugles to band instruments has made it easier for organizations to start a drum corps?

CW: No. The start-up costs and the cost to run a corps during the season have grown over the years and it is that alone that takes away from new organizations starting drum corps. The cost of the instruments would almost be the same and yes, they could borrow or rent instruments for the summer. I do not think that will happen.

HH: Sadly, the activity continues to lose a few corps each winter. What do you believe can or should be done to stem the tide of corps leaving the activity?

CW: Why do corps leave the activity? I think it has a lot to do with costs and volunteers and management. If a group cannot do it financially, then that alone will not allow them to continue.

The drum corps are on the road from the beginning of July to the middle of August. If there is any thought that they might not have the money to move the corps from performance to performance, to feed them, to hire staff to “coach” them, etc., then they should not go on tour.

If it means taking a year off, then so be it. If it means closing the doors completely, then so be it. It all comes down to money. If you have the money you can hire the staff, which in turn will draw the performers, which will then allow you to have an organization that will make it.

HH: Do you think returning to a more regional approach to the activity might make it possible for more corps to remain active?

CW: No, I do not. What we see around the country now are the “all-age corps” and the   alumni corps and they are satisfying the needs of the performer as well as the audience.

To be at the DCI level, no matter the class, requires money and lot’s of it. When I talk about money, I am also talking about what it costs the performers to be a member each year.