Part 2: An interview with percussion arranger Dennis DeLucia

by Harry Heidelmark, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the June 1, 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 3).

Harry Heidelmark: Electronic amplification has added considerably to the contribution of the front ensemble and the use of vocals in various applications. At a recent meeting of DCI’s Board of Directors, a proposed rule change would have allowed for the inclusion of electronic keyboards and electrical bass guitars. How did you feel about that proposal and do you feel it will eventually pass?

Dennis DeLucia: I’ve supported amplification for over a decade — I think it provides opportunities for vocalization, discreet narration, creative percussion sounds that would not have been possible before and, most importantly to percussion majors, students and teachers everywhere, it allows legitimate percussion instruments such as vibes, marimbas, timpani, etc. to be played legitimately.

One of the biggest complaints that teachers have about their prized students playing in a corps’ pit is that they return to school in the fall playing like unmusical monsters.

Amplification allows the player to use proper technique with the appropriate mallets or sticks.

Since I’m very involved with the “indoor” drum line movement at WGI, I’ve seen the benefits of electronic instruments and how they can augment the acoustical instruments. So I would be in favor of allowing electronics if they are limited to “instruments normally associated with a rhythm section,” as WGI stipulates. In other words, no strings or woodwinds, but guitars, basses, synths are fine.

The vote at the DCI meeting in Atlanta was defeated in a 10-10 tie. I was pleasantly surprised that it got that many votes and I think it will pass soon.

HH: Do you believe DCI will some day allow woodwind instruments and, if so, how should the maximum number of corps members be increased to allow for them?

DD: I hope not! Sorry, all you clarinet players. Part of my objection is aesthetic. I think drum corps should and must retain some of its unique identity, although I am very progressive on most other issues. Let’s face it, one of the main appeals of a great corps is its power and presence. So in regard to balance, since woodwinds don’t produce as much volume as brass and percussion instruments do, how many woodwinds would a corps need to adequately balance 50-70 horns and 30 drums?

Do we want 200-plus member corps that will look and sound like a college or big high school band? A synth could provide the unique colors of woodwinds and strings when and if needed.
HH: Do you believe DCI should allow trombones and sousaphones?

DD: No.

HH: You’ve witness the many changes in brass instrumentation and the evolution of the battery and front ensemble. What impact have these changes had on arrangers?

DD: Well, in terms of brass instruments, I think Larry Kerchner covered the benefits brilliantly in his recent interview. Clearly, the changes from valve/rotor “G” bugles that could not play every note, to two-valve “G” bugles that still could not play every note, to three-valve “G” bugles to “any-key” brass instruments have enabled arrangers to write anything they choose.

The percussion evolution is even more dramatic: pre-DCI rules prohibited mallet instruments, brushes, cowbells, etc.. The start of DCI [1972] legalized all accessories, sticks, mallets, brushes,etc. In 1974, rules allowed two “marching” mallet instruments per corps. The early 1980s legalized the pit and “real” instruments. Amplification created the benefits that I discussed above.

So now a percussion arranger can use his/her imagination to its fullest potential. That’s not to say that writing “in the old days” was not fun or valid. In many ways, the limitations forced us to be more creative!

HH: Do you believe the average drum corps fan is concerned with instrumentation or are they there to be entertained regardless of what you use to do it?

DD: Obviously, some are. And they have a right to express their opinions, but I hope that they still support this great youth art-form even when they are unhappy with certain rules.

You know, the most bizarre “protest” over any-key brass came from a group of contest   sponsors who threatened to not allow any corps to compete in their shows if they used Bb horns. Unbelievable! How many people can hear the difference, anyway?

HH: What do you see as the biggest change in drum corps when comparing corps of the 1970s to today’s corps.

DD: I think the single biggest change is, in the 1970s, corps would select music they felt would work well on a football field and then set that music in motion. Today, the visual component seems to have become the paramount concern. This is reflected in the shift in emphasis in the scoring system. In the 1970s and 1980s, two-thirds of the judges and 70% of the points were music-related. Today, half the judges and 50% of the points are visual-related. That’s a very significant shift.

The good news is that the advancements in instruments, carriers, cases, hardware, guard equipment, uniform design [thanks, Michael], talent, sophistication, visual design, movement and dance have been dramatic.

The bad news is that there has been a disconnect with the audience — not all the time or with every corps, but often enough to be perceived as a problem for many in our former, current or potential audience.

HH: In 2006, several corps presented very dark or overly dramatic programs which I believe is one of the contributing factors leading to the disconnect with the audience you referred to. What do you believe needs to be done to not only bring back the fan base that has turned its back on the activity, but to also create excitement   leading to even larger audiences?

DD: Change the wording and emphasis of the GE sheet by focusing on concepts such as “entertainment,” “communication,” “appeal,” “presence,” “impact,” “resolution.” Add “Overall [Total Corps] Effect” to the scoring system. Re-distribute the point allocation to reflect the fact that “the music drives the visual.” Stop describing the evaluation process with the simplistic “the what and the how” because the audience perceives the emotional connection of the “whole” first.

Stop treating “pop” music as being inferior or as having less “intrinsic value” than quasi-serious classical or concert band literature. Create a DCI-level position of “Artistic Director” for the entire activity who has the authority to approve or reject every corps’ program choices [I know, what planet are you living on, DeLucia?].

But all of these things would help the designers to regard their audience as a significant part of THEIR activity.

HH: Do you believe the change to Bb horns has made it easier to start a drum corps?

DD: In theory, yes, but there are fewer corps than ever before. I really thought that “band” horns [Bb, F] would enable new community-based corps to spring up everywhere, but I was wrong.

HH: In your opinion, what needs to be done to stop the decline in the number of competing corps?

DD: Very difficult to say because there used to be so many corps sponsored by churches and American Legion and VFW posts, not the case any more. There used to be corps at every imaginable level of proficiency — from the local “feeder” corps to mid-level to nationally-ranked corps, not the case anymore.

Tours used to be two weeks instead of eight. Dues used to be a couple of dollars a week instead of a couple of thousand a year. Instruments and equipment was “reasonably” priced and more affordable to the average corps, not the case any more.

I don’t know how you can reverse any of the above, but I hope someone brighter than I can figure it out soon. I really thought the change to “any key” brass would help, but so far, no luck.

HH: What do you believe can be done to facilitate an increase in the number of competitive corps at all levels?

DD: Well, this is a big problem because, historically, the primary source of corps’ sponsorships came from churches and veterans organizations. They’re all gone and I can’t see them returning.

But what if we think outside the box for a minute? What if the leaders of various organizations put their resources and brainpower together to create the opportunities for entry- and mid-level summer corps to thrive?

Let’s call it “The Indy Plan” –with “Indy” standing for Indianapolis and independent. Bands of America has established a great relationship in and around Indianapolis. DCI is moving its offices and its championships to Indianapolis in 2008. BOA has joined forces with Music For All in support of music education in schools. WGI has successfully utilized an independent class [age limit set at 22] in both their color guard and percussion divisions.

All of these groups are run by people with strong ties to the drum corps movement — Scott McCormick at BOA, Bob Morrison at Music For All, Dan Acheson at DCI and Ron Nankervis at WGI –so they all know and appreciate the benefits and values of the drum corps experience.

The most imposing problems in starting a new corps today involve money, instruments, a home and members. Now that we can use “any-key” instruments, what type of organization would have an idea about how to solve these issues? SCHOOLS.

So the answer just might be staring us in the face. I’m not suggesting that an individual high school start its own summer corps, but if schools in an area, with guidance and support from DCI, BOA, WGI and Music For All, banded together to form competitive summer “corps,” with or without woodwinds, we just might be able to reverse the downward trend that is now almost four decades old. Easy? No. Possible? Yes! Worth a shot? For all of us who really BELIEVE in the benefits of drum corps, ABSOLUTELY!

HH: Do you think DCI should audit each corps’ finances on an annual basis to determine their ability to participate responsibly in the competitive tour?

DD: Yes. There’s too much at stake for the kids, the contest sponsors and the fans to ignore financial solvency.

HH:   The front ensemble or pit has evolved considerably since the early 1980s when it was first introduced. It’s grown not only in size, but also instrumentation.

This past year, The Cavaliers included a typewriter in their pit and over the years we’ve seen brake drums, propane tanks and various other household items that most people would not see as an instrument. Is there a limit to what they can bang on and do you believe there should be a limit on the number of members in the front ensemble?

DD:   No and NOOOOO!

HH: Currently, there is one judge that moves between the battery and front ensemble. Do you believe the front ensemble should be judged by a separate individual?

DD:   Absolutely not. Should there be a “tuba” judge,” a “rifle” judge? A “bass drum” judge? We should be emphasizing the total ensemble, the total corps, rather than having a field percussion judge run for his/her life trying to assess one voice at a time while avoiding flying bodies and equipment.

HH: Do you believe a single judge could effectively adjudicate a corps’ percussion ensemble offerings from either the sidelines or front rows of a stadium and remaining off the field?

DD: Absolutely, but only if the definition of “successful achievement” shifted away from the importance of the particular voices in the drum line [snares, tenors, basses, etc.] and toward the function and success of the entire ensemble as it relates to the music as a whole.

HH: Many years ago, our late friend Bobby Hoffman and I had a discussion about the judges on the field and he stated he’d like to see all judges off the field and seated among the audience. How do you feel about taking the judges off the field?

DD: It’s long overdue. Get them all off the field. I know my answer will not be met well by the percussion community and, perhaps if I were still teaching, I’d want them on the field as well, but my involvement with the broadcast since 1994 has really changed my perspective on this issue. But I also think the whole scoring system needs an overhaul.

We only need six judges:

1. Performance Brass
2. Performance Percussion
3. Performance Visual [with a color guard sub-caption]
4. Brass Effect/Total Corps Effect
5. Percussion Effect/ Total Corps Effect
6. Visual Effect/ Total Corps Effect.

HH: A few years ago, percussion judge Charlie Poole was seriously injured while on the field. Would you agree that getting the judges off the field is a safety issue and not just one of aesthetics?

DD: Sure.

HH: How much influence do you believe the crowd’s reaction to a show should have on the corps’ general effect scores?

DD: A corps’ ability to connect with, communicate with and [gasp!] ‘ENTERTAIN” the audience should be a factor in the GE score, but it cannot and should not be the sole factor.

Let’s look at the design process. Every corps begins its off-season with a program coordinator and design team deciding what next year’s show will be about. Let’s say they decide to do “West Side Story” — that overall concept becomes the focal point around which each member of the writing/design team will function.

Every note, step, move, costume, flag, etc. will be created within the framework of that whole for “West Side Story.” Now, in the current scoring system, who judges “the whole”? NOBODY. The audience does, just as people do when they go to the movies. When the movie ends, you ask your friends simply “what do you think”? “Did you like it”?

Everybody responds to the whole: “I liked it!” or “it was OK,” or “it bored me.” THEN everyone contributes more specific thoughts: “the lead actor was only fair; it was funny,” “the pacing was too slow,” “I didn’t understand the need for all the violence,” “it was good until the ending,” etc.

The GE judge should be empowered to go through the same process: “I liked it, but…” or “I loved all of it” or whatever. But we insist on separating the “effect” function into MUSIC effect and VISUAL effect, but nowhere do we account for OVERALL or TOTAL EFFECT, even though that’s how the corps put their shows together.

The scoring system clearly affects the way a corps puts its show together. If the audience is indeed important, put the word “entertainment” on all of the GE sheets.

You know, one of my mentors, the late Don Angelica, once told me that the drum corps system over-analyzes the GE process. “It’s really very simple,” he said. “The GE judge only needs to ask himself/herself one question after a corps performs: ‘Do I want to see/hear that again?’ If the answer is, “I can’t wait to see that again,” that equals a very high GE score. If the answer is “I don’t care if I see that again,” that equals a low/mediocre GE score.

Simplistic? Yes. But isn’t that what our audience members do? Of course it is.

HH: Do you think the day will come when drum corps are adjudicated the way some high school band associations judge their bands and instead of their being awarded scores and placements, corps will be given ratings such as excellent, outstanding or superior?

DD: I hope not. I’ve judged many band shows that use the so-called “ratings” system and I really do not enjoy them. It’s either a competition or it’s not.

Imagine if the Jets and Patriots were each given “superior” ratings just because they both scored more than 20 points, and it didn’t matter who scored 35. Disingenuous, but band directors like to show their principal that they earned a “superior”!

In part three of the interview, Dennis shares his experiences with the DCI telecast, his business, Dennis DeLucia’s Marching Emporium, and the fun he is having with Bridgemen’s alumni corps.