A Q&A with the Colts’ Greg Orwoll, 2008 DCI Hall of Famer

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

This article was originally published in the July 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 4). This is the type of quality coverage provided in the monthly issues. Subscribe!

Colts Executive Director Greg Orwoll has already experienced the best and worst of times this season, even before the corps left for summer tour. Coming off their first berth in the Drum Corps International Division I finals since 2001, the corps is as strong as they’ve ever been and will be fielding a talented corps at the new 150-member maximum this summer.

Veteran guard member Bianca Vocke will not be among them, as she passed away on December 11 from injuries sustained in a car accident 11 days earlier. She was from Dubuque and close with the Orwoll family — so close that Greg Orwoll was asked by her family to deliver the eulogy at her December 15 funeral, which fell on the weekend of the Colts’ first audition camp.

Since that tragic low, Orwoll has experienced the highs of being honored by his peers. First, he was elected to the new nine-member DCI Board of Directors in January. Then in April, he was elected on a first ballot to this year’s DCI Hall of Fame Class of 2008.

He has been involved in drum corps as a member, instructor and director for nearly 40 years, serving on the staff of the Decorah (Iowa) Kilties (1975-1980); Rivermen of Stillwater, MN (1980-1981); and then the Colts (1982- ), taking over as director in the fall of 1984. He has been executive director of the Colts since 1989.

Following the Colts Youth Organization’s Spring Debut Concert, we talked about his tough times, recent honors and the challenges ahead. The following are excerpts from that interview.

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MF: What’s it been like this off-season, with the corps coming off its first finals since 2001, followed by the tragic crash that took the life of one of your members and seriously injuring another (Erin Reichle), then your election to both DCI’s Board of Directors and 2008 Hall of Fame?

GO: Drum corps is really just a microcosm of life, from the kids and all participants, to the adults, the teachers and me. And life is lived a little more honestly and openly in a drum corps. All that’s true with the highs and lows here, too.

Going through that process and experience with Bianca and her family — as close as my daughter was to her and as close as I was to the family — was difficult. Aside from being an incredible two-year member of the Colts, she was involved in the senior high color guard. She was a state champion in color guard here in Iowa.

She was popular with the school. Actually, the irony was that she wasn’t participating with the senior color guard this year or she would have been on the bus that I was driving actually when it (her fatal accident) happened. The reason she wasn’t in the color guard is because she was graduating early so she could start college. She was one of those kids who was just full steam ahead . . .

So it was tough, but a lot of amazing things have come out of it. We were engaged in a lot of significant action steps. And you know, it’s funny how they all tie together, but one of the themes that showed up in my Hall of Fame nomination papers — a couple of different times from different perspectives — was how we handled that situation.

We made sure there was room for people to communicate with her and opportunities for people to grieve and everything that goes along with that.

The fact that she was in intensive care and going through that for 11 days gave people time to start coming to terms with it a little bit . . .

The funeral fell on the Saturday when we first came in (for camp), so that was an extra challenge. And I got some consultation from some grief counselors on “How do I handle this?” “What do I look for?” “What do I provide?” And the biggest thing (advice from the grief counselors) was just “Give them time, give them space and let them participate so everybody can come to grips with it in their own way.”

MF: How difficult was it for you personally to deal with Bianca’s death, particularly since you delivered the eulogy at her funeral?

GO: It (the eulogy) was something the family asked me to do, just really to represent all that was behind her and all the communications. Typically, it’s probably a family member who does a eulogy or something, but they were very adamant that I was going to be the one. They learned a lot about her relationship with the Colts and how important it was to her and how powerful it was for her, watching what the Colts family did in support. They were supportive from a distance.

They (Vocke’s parents) frankly didn’t understand how deep this went. And I think it was an awakening for a lot of the Colts kids,    parents, staff and me. It was just incredible how life-changing and powerful this is for these kids who participate.

It was humbling for me and a stark reminder that you better do it right because we’ve got such an incredible influence on the kids. I mean, we’re part of their being.

So from that standpoint, Bianca was the one who said, “Let me just remind everybody how important this is.”

MF: The corps’ better than ever and you’re being honored for how strong the corps is and all your past involvement with the activity. How pleased were you to learn that you’re not only going into the Hall of Fame, but on a first ballot?

GO: There’s a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to join my peers and those guys in the Hall of Fame. I have a short list of people in my world who I consider to be brilliant and most of them are in the Hall of Fame. These guys I’ve looked up to since I wandered into the room in 1984 and didn’t know what I was doing. So that hits me — the overwhelming sense of humility that those folks would say, “Yeah, you’re in.”

At the same time, it hits me that wow, I’ve really done this (drum corps) this long that I can really be one of these icons, which always meant old — and I am, just hitting the 10th anniversary of my 40th birthday. And then you say, “Well, this is a pinnacle kind of an event,” which it certainly is. But does that mean I have to start winding down? Does that mean I’m starting to get to the end? All that kind of hits you in that nanosecond of “Wow!”

But you get a chance to reflect and receive incredible feedback messages from all of those folks. So many of them have a little story to tell you . . . A couple of the guys I heard from said, “I learned everything I learned about my corps from watching you philosophically” and they’ve consistently been kicking our butts for years.” So it’s great to be that good of a teacher.

But I do think that we learned, earlier than most, how much of a cooperative and how little of a competitive thing this really is. For 17 minutes, go kill each other, but the rest of the time we’ve got to share synergies to keep this thing going and be the best for all of these kids.

Everybody does something better than someone else. If we’re not learning from each other, we’ll never be as good as we can be.

MF: What are some of your fondest memories in the activity as you go into the Hall of Fame?

GO: One is that end zone scene in Jackson, MS (1993) — when the Glassmen with Dan Acheson as director and the Colts with Greg Orwoll as the director — not only went in (to finals) the same year, but tied for 11th. And then to have Dan and I go into the Hall the same year, there’s some symmetry in the universe that’s pretty comforting in that.

His daughter aged out with us last year and she’s coming back on our intern staff. So we’ve had several different levels of cooperation and friendship. Dan is one of my best friends in the world — outside or inside of drum corps. He’s a class act and he raised a class act for a kid.

So there was that flashback to Jackson and then that same flashback will take you back even further. It wasn’t that many years ago — at least to me because as you get older, it’s not that far back any more — but I remember some Sunday afternoon camps when our entire brass line for the Colts fit in an elementary school classroom. There were about 15 kids in there and I was teaching the stuff by rote. We were competing at the Open Class level of DCI, even when we had very little.

I inherited a lot of great things from Jim Mason, going way back — some basic, fundamental things that are still in place here. We’re student-centered. It’s about the kids and it always has been. It’s not about winning and losing. I learned that from Jim when I was on his staff.

So some of that stuff was a legacy way before me and way beyond me. We maybe focused it a little bit as we went along.

And then the breakthrough certainly was after we hit the top 12 once, it became easier. We got to be a destination corps. It took the very first camp I ever ran, in January 1985. It was the first time in Colts history that we had over 100 kids at a camp. We had 103. The next time that we had over 100 kids at a Colts rehearsal was December of 1993. So we came from 60 kids at a camp. We used to learn the drill, back when it was symmetrical, with all of the horn line on one half of the field so we could read it. And we used to go on tour with “Help Wanted” signs in the pit. Now it’s grown to this and that’s very gratifying.

MF: You’ve continued to play familiar music with Colts programs and this year’s “Day and Night” program is no different. How proud are you of the identity you’ve established, particularly as you successfully “play the game” in today’s drum corps?

GO: That’s something that we really insisted upon all along because it’s the fans’ activity, too, in addition to being the kids’ activity. It’s a swinging pendulum in the activity. We do both extremes all the time and I think things may be swinging back toward more accessibility.

There was a point there if you played a melody you were perceived as not being credible, I think. That may be a bit overstated, but I think if you asked some of our fans five to eight years ago, they weren’t really jazzed. They were appreciative and said, “It’s still really incredible with the performance level of the kids, but did I enjoy the music?”

Technology has shifted to DVDs and all of that, but I’m convinced that a lot of that huge shift away from CD sales is because we didn’t want to listen to them as much, because it doesn’t make sense   without the visual. That’s fine, it’s certainly made it a more incredible activity since visual’s been enhanced, but did it go too far for a while? Probably . . .

It’s always a balancing act, because you’re not going to fall on your sword and die over it (playing familiar music) because you have to be successful or you can’t do next year eventually. And that’s important to the kids, too. They can be the most popular corps in the world and be totally unsuccessful. No matter how much you strive to separate the competition from the motivation — intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation — in that process, you find that balancing act.

The phrase “playing the game” sounds negative, but it’s not. When I say “playing the game”, it means there’s a body of knowledge there that says these are the required skill sets that the top of the activity — the state of the art — requires you to achieve in order to be there.

Does the audience respond to all of that kind of stuff? No. That’s the beauty of drum corps. There are 5,000 different fans and there are 5,000 opinions about what was great. That’s what keeps it vibrant. But we’ve got to be certain that we make room for 5,000 different approaches to drum corps, too.

The tendency is to follow the leader. This is getting all the rewards, so let’s go there. I do miss the days when you can have 12 corps in a show and you can have 12 completely separate and distinct identities. We’ve kind of crowded that a little bit, I think, in recent history — the last 15 years — where we look and sound a little bit more the same.

I hope what I’m seeing is correct where we now allow more approaches to what that 10 to 11 and half minutes should look and sound like . . .

So, it comes full circle in this conversation where I want to make sure we give the audience the opportunity to support the kids and we do that by making sure the audience likes the show.

MF: Final question. What’s the one thing you would still like to accomplish yet in drum corps before your career is done?

GO: I can answer that with what my goals were the first day I took this over and I took it over on an interim basis originally. I was on the staff and we couldn’t find anyone to take it over after Jim (Mason) left to start Star of Indiana. We saw what happened there and it was amazing, but there was a real void here after Jim left and who was going to take it over.

Jim kind of told the board on his way out that I should be the next guy. I didn’t perceive that. I was just barely a decent marching instructor, so I said, “What do you mean?” But I took it, finally, only until we could find a real director. We’re still looking, 20-some years later. It was never a planned career path by any means.

When I first walked into that office, I set three goals for myself. Number one, it’s going to be an incredible educational experience for everybody who’s participating — kids and adults. Number two, it’s going to be successful competitively — however we define that to the point that it’s sustainable with membership and motivation. And number three, it’s going to be financially solvent enough that it’s not going to need me anymore. Those must be worthy as great goals because now, 23 years later, I haven’t achieved them yet.

I mean, it’s still day-to-day with the money with every drum corps — with the fuel and with this and with that. It’s kind of the perfect storm because as things happen with our fuel budget this year, it also impacts those people who would love to give us a little more money, but they can’t. So there’s always that challenge and always something you’ve got to spend money on.

We’ve made some real good choices and have some great leadership on the board of directors that allowed us to still be here and as solvent as we are. You look at our balance sheet, we look pretty good. We just never have enough cash . . .

Probably the biggest breakthrough I had personally is that I am a really good executive director now. It’s been recent because it took years to learn the most important lesson. That’s to hire good people, recruit good people and get the hell out of their way.

You’ve got two choices when you’ve got people in your organization and that’s either that you trust them or you fire them. I kept thinking there was some middle ground. I kept losing some great people because this was not a fulfilling place for them to work. That was, and still is, the hardest lesson for me to learn ever . . .

Back when I knew everything, we were not very good and I didn’t realize that it was me. I was so busy being important, I wasn’t a good manager and it wasn’t a good place to work.

So the thing that I can’t be accused of in recent history is micromanaging anybody.

That’s where we get people like Vicki Schaffer, the Colt Cadets director, and Mike Grimes. Mike has joined us full-time. He was our visual caption head and he was the guy on tour — keeping kids going, working with the staff and the logistics. He’s incredibly organized and we’ve been able to grow now to where he’s the full-time Colts operations guy. That’s freed me up now to do the bigger-picture things.

We’re looking at additional programming and writing more grants and getting more partnerships within the community. We’re doing a better job of fund-raising and communicating and finding our constituents. All that has freed me up to find that next chapter because goal number three is still elusive. It’s going to be financially stable enough that it doesn’t need me. We’re not there yet, so there’s still a lot of work to do and I’ll still keep going to work.