Part 2: Reinventing the activity — drum corps showcases instrument innovations

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 16).

Young athletes and their coaches know where to find the latest advancements in equipment for their sports — and it’s not usually in their local sporting goods stores. It’s in what the world class athletes use.

Looking for the next great basketball shoe that is lighter and more durable, but will make you jump higher? Check out what NBA stars LeBron James or Kobe Bryant are wearing this season.

Want the fastest swimsuit on the market today? Try Speedo’s new Fastskin FS-Pro swimsuit, which U.S. gold medalist Michael Phelps recently used to set new world records.

And when band directors and their musicians are looking for the latest innovations in marching instrument design, they also check out the stars of their competitive activity — world class drum and bugle corps.

Those corps often get the opportunity each summer to debut some of the newest designs and product lines that major instrument manufacturers, like Yamaha, have to offer.

Nike puts its next great basketball shoe on LeBron James to get it noticed and show what it can do — both live and now online through all the latest forms of digital communication. And Yamaha puts a certain instrument in the hands of The Cadets, The Cavaliers or one of its other corps for the same reason.

At the very least, it gets the dialogue started.

“I think that’s where technology comes in, because you’re able to keep as close tabs as you’d like on a daily basis with the achievement levels of the various groups.

That’s been part of what has helped marching band really take off in popularity over the last decade, is that network of community on the internet basically,” said Jeremy Earnhart, director of bands at L.D. Bell (Texas) High School Blue Raider Band, which was the 2007 Bands of America Grand National Champion and also plays primarily on Yamaha instruments.

“Between the ease of electronic information, plus the various conferences that we attend as music educators — including the Texas Music Educators Association meetings in February, the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in December and then the Texas Bandmasters Association, which happens right before marching season in conjunction with the DCI San Antonio regional — that’s exactly what’s happening there,” he continued. “You are being involved in and keeping current on product development, as well as the design elements that are going into the shows and how those two relate.”

Opening the activity to greater instrumental opportunity

Band music educators have been even more interested in what drum corps are playing on since 2000, when Drum Corps International’s units began using the same brass instruments in the key of B-flat as the bands.

DCI Executive Director Dan Acheson said that decision has made all the difference in legitimizing drum corps’ position in the world of music because, “it’s opened up even more opportunities for the corps and their sponsors to get involved.”

Officials from one of DCI’s sponsors agree.

“Our original goal for brass DCI involvement was to make instruments that the very top corps could play and that those exact same instruments could be used by high school and college programs of all levels,” said Kurt Witt, marketing manager for Yamaha Corporation of America, where he manages the wind instrument marketing efforts. “Simply making a separate group of instruments just for DCI corps doesn’t make much sense. The market just isn’t there.

“The design staff and I were pretty confident that we could satisfy a group like The Cadets and make those instruments at a price affordable for a high school marching band,” he said. “This not only gives the product the best exposure at the top level, but opened up the ‘secondary’ market for DCI corps to actually sell their instruments to schools around the country and turn around to purchase new instruments.

“Since Yamaha has such a strong reputation for quality and durability, educators have no worries about buying the same mellophones used by The Cadets, The Cavaliers or Bluecoats and putting those horns in the hands of their own players. In fact, it’s a nice story to go along with the quality horns.”

While Earnhart’s band hasn’t purchased slightly used drum corps instruments, he likes how it has afforded other high school band programs the option to get more high quality instruments in young musicians’ hands.

As for his Blue Raider Band, some of its equipment decisions — particularly in what its percussion section uses — have been influenced by drum corps. That’s not a real surprise since Nick Thomas, a former Cavalier and Phantom Regiment snare drummer who was the snare technician for The Cavaliers from 2004-2005, is an associate band director who serves as a percussion coordinator within the school district.

“I would say it’s (drum corps’ influences) probably in the more detailed physical design process in the battery percussion,” Earnhart said.

“I think using the MTS units from the snare drums that the corps started incorporating a few years ago was an on-purpose decision we made to get them. And certainly the development of the tenor drums over the years and the incorporation of the two spocks in the center was something we chose, not just because they’re (drum corps) using them, but because they’re able to use them effectively.”

While Thomas has an extensive drum corps background and is an instructor for Yamaha’s “Sounds of Summer” workshops, he doesn’t have a unique voice in the company’s percussion product development and refinement.

Troy Wollwage, percussion marketing manager in the Band and Orchestra Division at Yamaha, says that the company is always listening, both to the sounds of its drums and to feedback from those who use them. And that feedback doesn’t just come from DCI’s World Class corps.

“We are a sponsor of DCI and we support every corps playing Yamaha instruments in a variety of ways,” Wollwage said. “That being said, we listen to the music activity outside of DCI all the same.

“When we visit a college marching band, a high school or an indoor group, we listen and get feedback just as much. Not only are their thoughts important, they offer a different perspective. Instruments are used in a variety of ways and it’s imperative that we identify these differences to look at potential product issues and opportunities.

“Our product development process is not exclusive to drums corps,” he said. “With over 17,000 high schools in the U.S., we spend an enormous amount of time getting input and feedback from high schools. We have to. Anyone that does not is missing the boat.”

Primary brass development from DCI member corps

Now that drum corps and marching bands are also using virtually the same brass instruments, feedback has been extended into the research and development process for wind instruments, too.

“In eight years of Yamaha instruments being used for competitive DCI activity, we have introduced a number of new instruments where the primary development was with DCI member corps,” said Yamaha’s Witt. “The YMP-203MS and YMP-204MS mellophones, YEP-202MS euphonium and YBB-202MS tuba were all developed with the input from the corps that play Yamaha.

“One particular example was the tuba which was introduced about three years ago,” he said. “The original design had three different sized   lead pipes with a different width between the mouthpiece and the valve casing. While the idea was good to make different sizes to fit different shapes of people, in the real world, offering this option wasn’t practical. So we showed all three lead pipes to a bunch of contra lines and pretty much everybody agreed that the middle one was just fine, fitting 95 percent of the market.”

And since Yamaha’s Pro Audio gear is also being used with increasing regularity on both the competitive band and drum corps fields in terms of amplification, the company’s listening very closely to those voices, too.

While Earnhart would prefer to keep his band’s spoken words off the competitive field — choosing instead to mic a woodwind soloist or the “color” of a human voice, he sees the use of electronic strings as being an instrumental advancement on the horizon for the modern musical field show.

But he says a more immediate need is further development of the marching mellophone.

“I think the thing that any band director — particularly any Texas band director — will tell you is that the next improvement, as far as tone quality and intonation, needs to be made in the marching mellophones,” Earnhart said. “And all of that is because here’s an instrument that’s supposed to be played backward and we’re going to put it forward and there’s just a whole host of issues that go along with that.”

That work is probably well underway, since Wollwage reports that manufacturers are spending more time and effort today in making musical instruments better, with drum corps playing a large part in the research and development of these products.

“Think about the marching band activity 35 years ago and where it is now,” he said. “It’s no doubt that young musicians playing on better instruments has helped to fuel this growth and drum corps has played a large part of that.”

Earnhart concurs and says that should continue to be the prime directive.

“The bottom line is that the kids have a great experience in the activity and they have great equipment,” he said. “Those two things are very important because you kind of can’t have one without the other.”

Author’s Note: This is the final installment of a two-part series on Yamaha’s input into the musical evolution of the drum corps activity.