Part 4: What happened to the drum corps activity in Quebec?

by Daniel Buteau, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the June 22, 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 4).

By the dawn of the 21st century, the drum and bugle corps activity appeared weaker than it had ever been before in Quebec. From 2000 to 2002, the province could only boast three competitive junior drum and bugle corps — Sénateurs de Joliette, Sentinnelles de Varennes, and Stentors. It would take only five years to make a challenging situation turn into a desperate struggle.

The three units were consistent participants in the DCI Division III tour, with Sénateurs making finals in 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001. Even though the Joliette corps appeared more solid than its two provincial counterparts,continuously declining membership rosters made the corps’ very existence shaky.

In an attempt to grow its dangerously small membership roster, Sénateurs embarked on an innovative partnership with a secondary school in their hometown of Joliette in 1999.

Students at the school could gain credits toward their diploma through participation in the corps. Members could even enroll in option courses in both music and dance, during which they would rehearse pieces and drills designed by the corps’ staff.

Such a program was a major breakthrough, given the reluctance of most Québec music educators to make room for marching music, as it took away rehearsal time for more established stage bands programs. Despite high hopes that this would boost the corps’ membership numbers and raise the profile of the drum corps activity, the program could never boast more than 20 registrants and was quickly discontinued.

By 2003, both Sénateurs and Sentinnelles faced major recruiting challenges that led them to merge into a corps named Québec Alliance. Even though the new corps was in existence for only two years, the merger did not resolve any recruiting difficulties as it could only field 31 members in its last season of existence. Starting in 2002, no corps from Québec could even field a marching percussion component or become a credible challenger for a division III finalist spot.

Contributing to such recruiting challenges was the quickly shrinking division III drum corps season. Once all remaining regional drum corps circuits had been taken over by DCI, Eastern division III corps could no longer take part in the quick DCE or DCI Atlantic Division tour that had been held in early July for most of the 1990s.

All that division III units could aspire to was a short season lasting less than three weeks, with limited competitive appearances on weekdays in cities that happened to be on the road to the DCI Championships location. This had limited appeal for many potential members.

The FAMQ was also unable to stage exciting contests with only two division III caliber corps.

Units such as the Chevaliers-Ambassadeurs of Rivière-du-Loup and Pers-Clairs of St-Hyacinthe were still active for a few inconsistent years. They appeared at some of the last Quebec Provincial Championships in categories with relaxed performance rules. Their participation was most revealing of their inability to recruit a sufficient enough number of members to field competitive drum and bugle corps, despite major volunteer efforts. The 2003 provincial championships proved to be the last in the history of the drum and bugle corps activity in Québec.

Such a spectacular decline in both the number of corps and their membership rosters proved to spell doom for the FAMQ. The government grants the organization received from Québec were based on the number of participants in its member organizations. Despite a relatively healthy winter guard circuit, the reduced rosters resulting from the collapse of the drum corps activity seriously limited the FAMQ’s financial capacities.

Even more worrisome was the organization’s shrinking volunteer pool. Even though the Québec government continued to provide free office space and paid for two full-time staff members, it became very difficult for the FAMQ to fill its board of directors. Such reduced manpower made it nearly impossible for the organization to stage projects that could revive the drum corps activity in Québec.

The type of projects envisioned was also influenced by the very concept of the drum corps activity that was held by individuals who were still passionate enough to volunteer. The Québec drum corps community had been dominated by a belief that an elitist vision was what truly drove youth to enroll in the activity since the mid-1980s. From 2001 to 2004, the FAMQ attempted one last major project, which would exhaust the energies of its remaining volunteers.

The heart of the new project, called La Fanfare réinventée, was the belief that an elite professional performing unit could entice the youth of the province to join drum and bugle corps. Such a unit would also provide a venue for the activity’s top designing talent to showcase their creative efforts to the larger public.

Recently aged-out participants would be provided with an opportunity to embark on what could become a professional   musical career.

The project was the brainchild of FAMQ Vice-President François Labelle, who was able to secure a grant from the Québec Provincial government that allowed for the hiring of young designers for a period of one year. La Fanfare réinventée was able to recruit 46 former drum corps participants and planned for a 2004 winter tour that would cover regions of Québec that had previously been fertile drum corps ground. The four-segment show featured marching musicians, performers handling color guard equipment, as well as two singers.

Despite major volunteer efforts, low ticket sales forced La Fanfare réinventée to cancel most of its planned appearances. The FAMQ had been particularly ambitious in planning to hold its Quebec-City event in an 1,800-seat downtown theatre. The Provincial grant could only cover the hiring of young designers under 30 years of age. All other expenses required for staging a traveling show with such a large cast had to come from somewhere else, which proved to be an impossible challenge as the FAMQ was already under tremendous financial strains.

The inaugural tour of La Fanfare réinventée appeared in only three locations — Dorion-Vaudreuil, Sherbrooke and Montréal. Despite offering a quality innovative entertainment product, limited financial resources curtailed efforts at advertising the show. Despite hopes that La Fanfare réinventée could make the activity, more mainstream, audiences attracted mainly through word of mouth were mostly composed of former drum corps fans and participants. Three performances were also not enough to entice the show promoters the FAMQ was so desperately keen to attract.

In typical Québec drum corps fashion, La Fanfare réinventée’s adult members had also been forced to rehearse weekdays and weekend hours in December 2003 and January 2004. While they were proud to be part of such a unique drum corps experiment, they could not sustain such effort unless they could fulfill the show’s original vision by becoming paid performers.

Unable to renew its one-time grant or to find a willing show promoter to bankroll its future, La Fanfare réinventée remained a one-winter event. This proved to be disheartening for the volunteers, who had devoted nearly three years to a project they had so passionately believed in. The last remaining FAMQ volunteer pool had just been drained by a project that failed to prove that an elite performing vehicle was the ultimate   solution to reviving the fortunes of the drum corps activity in Québec.

Recently aged-out marching members had also always been a key source of staff and volunteers for the drum and bugle corps of the province. With so many of them focusing on becoming professional La Fanfare réinventée artists, the remaining corps had also lost what could have been their last significant potential volunteer pool.

By 2005, Stentors was the only competitive junior drum and bugle corps still in existence in the province of Québec. Former director Gabriel Francoeur described a familiar vicious cycle that could only lead to the demise of any corps. “Instructional staff left one after the other.

Volunteers left one after the other. The corps’ finances gradually deteriorated during the past four years. The number of marching members followed a similar tangent.”

By 2006, the FAMQ had to cancel its Provincial individual and ensemble contest, held annually since the organization’s inception, because of low registration numbers.

In June 2006, Stentors still planned to take a corps of 13 members on the division III tour, but was prevented from doing so by new DCI minimum membership rules, which required units to have 30 members in order to be allowed to compete.

Any remaining alignment between the Québec drum corps community and its North American counterpart had finally vanished. No community organization resembling a competitive drum and bugle corps was in existence in the province.

The limited number of young people in the province still even aware of the existence of an activity called drum corps could only find membership in DCI corps when looking for an elitist vision. Many who attended audition camps often came back dumbfounded by the talent exhibited by the driven marching band members they were forced to compete with in order to gain a spot with a DCI finalist.

What remains most amazing is that there is still enough passion for the drum corps activity in Québec for a few groups to attempt what would essentially amount to a resurrection.
Visions for the future

At the dawn of the 2007 drum corps season, the FAMQ has just completed another successful winter guard schedule. Ten units competed in five FAMQ-sponsored contests during the winter months, with two attending the WGI Championships. Interestingly, these two units, Sonnor and Les Éclipses, were formed from the remnants of drum and bugle corps.

Most of the province’s winter guards had between 10 and 15 members. Given that the FAMQ’s mandate continues to be to serve its member units, winter guard has clearly become the organization’s main driver.

The province still boasts a few marching music units. According to Manon Giroux, parade groups such as Les Carillons de Charlemagne, L’Odyssée de Québec and Les Patriotes de St-Hyacinthe are still active, along with two surviving Gardes paroissiales.

Interestingly, Stentors still has not given up. After focusing on local appearances at community festivals for the summer of 2006, the corps is still hoping to field a competitive drum and bugle corps for a limited 2007 DCI Division III tour.

Gabriel Francoeur, who is currently acting as an adviser to the new board, revealed that the current focus is on building a credible board and achieving increased financial viability. He stated that “the board, while inexperienced, is composed of businessmen, a music teacher, a school principal, as well as dedicated parents. This is the cornerstone to the current rebuilding.”

Attendees at a winter guard contest sponsored in Sherbrooke on March 24 indicated that the Stentors drum and bugle corps, including 12 brass and six percussion, performed an exhibition. Their competitive winter guard had 10 members, some of whom were over-age staff members. Francoeur even revealed that a DCI evaluation team was scheduled to travel to Sherbrooke on April 21 for the purpose of assessing whether or not the corps is ready to re-enter DCI competition.

The result of this evaluation, a first for a Québec corps since DCI instituted such control measures for units hoping to participate in its activities, will provide a great indicator of the extent of the alignment between the remnants of the provincial drum corps activity and its North American counterparts. It is highly probable that no more that one or two Québec corps would have ever been allowed to compete at DCI-sanctioned events had such evaluations been held in previous decades. The corps was approved by DCI for ’07.

The best shining hope for any future for the drum corps activity in the province of Québec now lies in the hands of the emerging Les Diplomates alumni corps. The organization was started in November 2004 and resolved to avoid all of the pitfalls that led to the activity’s disappearance in the province. Anybody who wished to join the corps as a marching members, staff or member of the management team was required to contribute a non-refundable fee of $1,000.00. The new organization vowed it would never go into debt.

Amazingly, the corps has been able to recruit 137 members and has been staging monthly rehearsals throughout the province. The organization’s key goal is to perform at a future DCA “Alumni Spectacular,” an objective it had hoped to accomplish by 2005 that keeps being postponed as the corps builds the solid foundation that could allow for its continued existence.

The corps recently purchased brand-new Dynasty B-flat horns and Yamaha percussion instruments. Les Diplomates wish to be a provincial multi-generational corps that will become the flagship for the values of the drum corps activity, defined on their Web site as “quality music, teamwork, fun, solidarity and friendship.”

A good chunk of the corps’ current membership is composed of former members of Les Diplomates, a corps that last competed in 1973. Many former members of the Québec corps of the 1970s have also joined. All staff members are volunteers and don’t receive any financial compensation or salaries.

Interestingly, this is the second major Québec drum corps renewal project of the current decade to cater to the needs of adults. It is difficult not to raise the possibility that the days of drum corps as a youth activity may be over altogether in the province.

André Deblois, a member of Les Diplomates’ board of directors, recently indicated that the corps is waiting for its first outdoor rehearsals before assessing whether or not the unit will be ready for its first “Alumni Spectacular” participation by the 2007 Labor Day Weekend.   He also said that members who have rehearsed on old G-bugles for nearly two years found it quite challenging to switch to brand-new B-flat instruments.

Les Diplomates have not yet revealed when or where their maiden appearance will take place. The corps’ Web site nevertheless states that despite the initial $1,000.00 per member contributions, the board expects that an extra $200,000 will have to be raised for purchasing new uniforms and acquiring what is defined as “necessary capabilities.”

Despite such potentially promising efforts, the drum corps activity is currently essentially invisible in the province of Québec. The DCI Championships broadcast has stopped crossing the U.S./Canada border since it was switched from PBS to ESPN2. The sports network is unavailable in Canada thanks to arcane federal broadcasting rules that attempt to shelter the country’s culture from its “menacing” American counterpart.

The continued strengthening of the links between the DCI activity and the marching band community only means that drum corps keep being pushed farther and farther away from Québec and the rest of Canada. The days when an organization that was about to be named Drum Corps National switched to Drum Corps International to accommodate protests from Toronto’s De La Salle Oaklands have been firmly confined to the history books.

More than ever before, any potential future for the drum and bugle corps activity in the province of Québec clearly lies in a local solution that could rekindle what has always been its true pillar of strength, a healthy regional scene.

Any continued denial of what has so clearly emerged as the only solution to its revival will only make the current drought more and more permanent.