Modern instrumentation refines the drum corps sound

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

This article originally appeared in the December 2007 edition of Drum Corps world (Volume 36, Number 16).

While the sound of a drum and bugle corps is still distinct among marching musical groups, long-time followers know it’s evolved and is now quite different than Drum Corps International’s first year in 1972. Few can deny that instrumental advancements have elevated the activity’s performance sophistication, allowing corps to explore many more program possibilities than the DCI pioneers 35 years ago.

Corps in that first world championship event played bugles in the key of G with one valve and a second slide or rotary. Their percussion units used marching timpani, with snares — and some tenors — carried by straps with leg rests on the drums. While the sound was awesome and the military precision impeccable, both the musical and visual options were bound by the limits of the instrumentation of the day.

Today’s brass instruments are, for the most part, in the key of B-flat and have three valves, just like many of the same brass instruments found in high school and college bands. Keyboards and timpani have been moved to the front ensemble and are now played with the same concert sensitivity as one might find in a symphonic orchestra, particularly since the passage of amplification.

That has also led to the introduction of additional percussion accessories and ethnic sounds to enhance the mood of the music. Performers in the battery play on drums with high-torque heads that provide additional exposure to their note-intensive books. And those drums are transported by ever-lighter and more comfortable carriers that allow greater freedom of motion.

The sound continues to be awesome — although some traditionalists might argue, not as powerful and edgy as it was in the key of G — and yet more refined, with seemingly no limit to what music or athletic movements a corps can now perform.

Yet drum corps’ instrumental evolution hasn’t just invited greater creativity and performance possibilities, it’s also opened the activity up to the rest of the musical world, particularly the introduction of B-flat brass instruments in 2000.

“The inclusion of B-flat instruments has made all the difference in the world in legitimizing our position in the world of music,” said DCI Executive Director Dan Acheson. “It has opened up even more opportunities for the corps and their sponsors to get involved. There’s nothing [among instrumental changes during the history of DCI] more significant than that.

“It puts us on the same page [with high school and college marching bands]. A young person can bring his own trumpet to a drum corps rehearsal. And while some real traditionalists may shutter at that, it was huge for the activity.”

“We just switched Colt Cadets to B-flat brass last year,” said Vicki Shaffer, youth programs director for the Colts, which includes the Colt Cadets, Youth Choir and Summer Bands. “I really like the move in the sense that it more parallels what they’re doing in their [the performers] school programs. That’s because one of the things we’re trying to do with all of our programs is obviously — with the exception of Colts [because they’re a world class corps with accomplished musicians] — to supplement kids’ musical experiences.

“So the fact that we weren’t playing something that was unique to our activity actually allowed us to be more mainstream . . . The instrument that that kid’s playing in the band room is now what they’re playing on the drum corps field, for the most part.”

The gradual conversion to B-flat brass throughout the activity has now allowed musicians on all levels a more seamless transition into the activity, without dramatically changing the sound. The evolution of the front ensemble and amplification of its pit instruments has also given concert percussionists the chance to try their hands at drum corps, without requiring them to practice unnatural technique or experience back pain while marching with heavy keyboard or timpani instruments.

So drum corps instrumentation is now more conventional and consistent with what musicians may find in their band rooms. But just like any competitive activity, each group is trying to push the limits of the equipment to better maximize the talents of their performers. And each summer, members of world class corps get the opportunity to sample new instruments featuring some of the latest technological advancements by the top manufacturers.

It’s not just a one-way street when it comes to new instrument design. The drum corps performers and their staffs are also providing valuable feedback that designers use in building better products.

“Manufacturers are spending significantly more and more time and effort improving their lineup of musical instruments. Drum corps play a large part in the research and development of these products for Yamaha,” said Troy Wollwage, Percussion Marketing Manager, Band and Orchestra Division, Yamaha Corporation of America.

“At Yamaha, we get valuable research and the corps get to experiment and try new things in order to help tell their story,” Wollwage said.

“The long-term relationship is important as we are more likely to try new things with the Scouts and Cavies than say, a corps that is very new to playing Yamaha. This is mostly due to the fact that when we try something, we only try it with a few groups. Having every corps that is currently using Yamaha products prototype something new is really not feasible as there are never that many prototypes made in the first place. That is just not practical. But we do try and spread it around as best we can so that we get a variety of feedback.”

Wollwage says all corps using Yamaha products get the chance to provide feedback in further instrument development. Their input is currently being used to produce better instrument balance, height adjustment, durability and lighter weight, along with such smaller things as better knobs, controls and fasteners.

He doesn’t see any monumental musicality changes in the near future within the activity, but that could change depending on demand within the market and the response to that demand.

“Well, I think if you take any industry, whether it be music instruments, automobiles, cell phones, etc., there is increased competition to design high-quality products that meet the needs of consumers,” he said. “That will always be the case because consumers want the latest and greatest.

“For any company to be successful in its market segment, they must respond to these needs and it’s the same for instruments used by the drum corps. Any drum corps, college band, professional musician or indoor percussion group certainly wants to have products that meet their needs. It is not intense for us to meet those needs. We do not view it so much as an ‘arms race,’ but rather, it is just our job. It is what we do,” Wollwage added.

The biggest need that people seem to want right now is greater range, according to Schaffer.

“As things evolve and we get into the structural technology and the design of things going forward, it seems like ranges are expanding on all the instruments,” she said. “It just seems like for every instrument that comes out, a handful of years later — especially in percussion — you’re going to be able to play a larger range on that instrument. Then people want bigger and bigger ranges, and more    versatility that way.”

There seems to now be endless possibilities to the instruments and sounds they can produce on the marching field. Those possibilities could include a return to drum corps’ roots for a particular musical effect.

“What I think has been good is, if a corps goes and takes the field with traditional field drums, that’s a different sound and yet they’re still going to perform in the same way — and there’s a different value to what they’re doing,” said Schaffer. “So someone could take the field right now with G bugles and be appreciated for what that is. And someone could take the field with B-flat brass.

“That range of possibilities, I think, is good, because it allows corps to do what works for them and to have what works for them.”

And what’s on the horizon instrumentally for the activity’s musical future?

“Who knows really,” said Wollwage. “I stopped trying to figure that out long ago. What’s important to understand is that the drum corps activity plays a large role in the musical development for a number of young musicians each year. As long as music instrument manufacturers keep supporting the DCI activity, we are going to see great things come from these young musicians.

“DCI and all the corps would be hard-pressed to do what they do without the support of all the music instrument companies. It takes all the manufacturers to help put these corps on the field. One or two companies cannot support everyone.”

“The obvious question that’s asked on so many levels on an annual basis is, ‘Are we going to have woodwinds?’ ” said Acheson. “And the answer to that is, I have no idea what the corps are going to decide they want to have or not have. But I don’t see that coming any time soon.

“But whether it does or it does not — and I said this about the kid carrying a B-flat instrument vs. a G bugle — does it enhance or change their ultimate experience? No. As long as they’re in pursuit of achieving excellence in the manner that only drum corps know how to deliver, I don’t think it matters what the instrument is.”

Author’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on Yamaha’s input into the evolution of the drum corps activity. Next month’s installment will explore how drum corps now contributes to the product development process for band instruments.