An interview with Arizona Academy’s executive director, Mark Richardson

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

Like most everyone else in North America — outside of California, Arizona and Colorado — I am anxious to see the new corps called Academy that hails from Tempe, AZ, near Phoenix.

The corps has competed in division II for two years at Western DCI competitions and fared extremely well, topping all the other regional division II corps this past summer at every meeting.

Their director, Mark Richardson, is taking the program one step at a time, not trying to set the world on fire, but creating an organization that will be around for the long-term. Arizona is not the easiest place to maintain a competitive corps, both because of geography and the climate. But the people who have forged this new group and brought it to prominence in their own area have big plans for the future.

I wanted to provide the readers of DCW with some insight into what Academy is all about and where Mark sees the program going during the 2006 season and beyond.

Steve Vickers: First of all, Mark, please give me some detail on your background.

Mark Richardson: I was a “rook-out” with the Blue Devils in 1996. I had spent nearly half my life watching and admiring drum corps before finally setting out to join a corps my age-out year. I figured it was the last chance I had and I had better take it. I believe that that experience redirected my life. If I had not marched that one year, I would not be talking to you today!

SV: How did the corps get started?

MR: You can say that the idea for The Academy was inspired by the idea of drum corps itself and what music and the arts does to enhance life and community. Without that inspiration, nobody would have rallied around this effort.

Once the word was out that we were investigating the idea of starting a corps, it was a matter of finding a few key individuals to set the groundwork.

We began by defining what we wanted to do. The vision of the Arizona Academy of the Performing Arts is to provide multiple programs to the community that reach a broad scope of arts advocates. We envisioned an organization that draws its strength from its many programs that help to support and feed off of each other’s energy.

We began the drum corps program in 2001 by hosting Arizona’s first drum corps show, “Southwest Corps Connection,” since 1993. That year we presented the Summer Brass & Percussion Ensemble, which consisted of 60 brass and percussionists. They performed a few old drum corps tunes for the SCC show that summer.

Over the next two years, the group expanded its program and began taking a few short tours to California to watch a couple of drum corps shows, rehearsals and getting acquainted with sleeping on gym floors. In the fourth year, 2004, we added the color guard element and made the name change to The Academy Drum & Bugle Corps, fielding 116 for the debut competitive season.

SV: Can you give me a short biographical sketch of the other key individuals who have helped make this dream a reality?

MR: While there are many people that have contributed to the building of the corps, I would attribute the success of launching the organization to the original board of directors and our director of percussion programs, Chris Evans. Chris has been a colleague of mine for over 10 years and I have entrusted him with many of the responsibilities and decisions that the corps has made over the years.

President Dr. Glen Waterkotte is the medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Banner Children’s Hospital and a former drum corps parent. Vice-president Dr. Glen Deibert is a pediatric doctor and a former band parent, Secretary Bill Richardson is now a retired band director, treasurer Jill Kennedy was a lawyer for Maricopa County Attorney and a former band parent, Ed Coyoli was a member-at-large and a non-profit marketing and development specialist for public television at the time, and Rebecca Lohn was a member-at-large and our color guard program coordinator.

SV: What individuals do you have on-board your design team?

MR: This year Sam Pilafian, a tuba professor at Arizona State University, and Patrick Sheridan, a professional tuba soloist, will be co-arranging the brass book. Chris Evans and Russ Bonsall will again write the percussion element, with consulting from Glenn Crosby and Ralph Hardimon. The visual program will be coordinated by Jaime Holly and the color guard team will be led by Peter Gomez.

SV: These past two or three years have demonstrated tremendous growth in terms of not only membership, but recognition in the public and music communities. How does Academy fit into the Arizona “landscape”?

MR: AAPA has received amazing support by our surrounding communities. We call the City of Tempe our home, but hold rehearsals in nearby Mesa, Chandler and Phoenix.

AAPA programs have performed at the Chandler Center for the Arts, Bank One Ballpark, Tempe Towne Lake, Grady Gammage Auditorium and at various high schools around the greater Phoenix area. We often team up with other local arts organizations and on projects.

SV: Locally, do you have strong support from the print and broadcast media for the corps, your programs and your summer competition?

MR: Our “Southwest Corps Connection” pulls together support from the Tribune newspaper as trade sponsors, and we have several supporters with local news stations. The corps has been covered by the local affiliate of every major network over the the last five years.

SV: You have more than just a drum and bugle corps in your organization, don’t you?

MR: Yes, currently our programs include The Academy Independent Winterguard, Youth Winterguard and Summer Youth Guard. We have two affiliate community bands — The Arizona Wind Symphony, a 60-piece adult community band which performs six to 10 concerts a year, and the Tempe Youth Band, a 100-piece band for middle school students that performs two concerts in the Spring. We also co-sponsor the Synergy Summer Marching Academy, with Synergy Leadership Endeavors, a leadership camp for marching band students.

SV: Many new corps experience high turnover from year to year. What level of retention have you experienced so far and what does the 2006 season look like for membership?

MR: For however long we remain a division II corps, there will always be a certain number of members that wish to perform with a higher profile corps. That being said, we have managed to maintain a surprisingly high rate of retention. This year, for example, we currently have 111 veteran members registered for our 2006 auditions. I strongly believe that it is due to the positive experience that our staff and volunteers provide for the kids.

SV: You’re planning to make your DCI Championship debut in Madison next summer, right?

MR: I’m excited to say that, for the first time, we will make it all the way to Madison! This will be a new challenge for us, to continue rehearsing and performing beyond July. The longest season we have had was last year, ending in Denver, CO, on July 16. Adding another four weeks of touring and rehearsing will certainly be the next step in the drum corps experience for our members and volunteers.

SV:   Are you planning to take in some DCI tour shows on the way into championships?

MR: While the tour schedule is certainly not yet set in stone, we hope to again make some early appearances in Southern California and then come back home for a while before hopping on a larger 17-day division II/III tour from Phoenix up to Madison. It will be great to see all of the amazing East Coast corps in our division and, of course, to get our kids to perform in the Camp Randall arena will be an amazing experience as well — another milestone for our          organization.

SV: Do you plan to remain in division II or will you petition to move up to division I eventually?

MR: 2006 will be our third season competing in division II. While our goal is to eventually gain the competitive status of a division I corps, we again have to be conscious of what we are actually capable of doing, without major risk to the organization.

SV: Do you have an established musical style or are you planning from year-to-year at this point?

MR: I actually am hoping to not corner the corps into a specific musical style or genre of material. Our design team, staff, members and I love music of all kinds. I like the thought of each year starting with a blank canvas from which to paint our productions.

In our short five years, our corps has performed music of a classical nature, jazz, movie soundtracks, brass chamber music and some past drum corps music. I hope the audiences will come to appreciate our corps as having a classy and entertaining product each year, and look forward to seeing and hearing something a little different each time they watch The Academy perform.

SV:   Any word on a musical book for this coming season?

MR: Sorry, no hints yet. Our design team met for the first time in September to begin the process of self-evaluation and brainstorming new content. We do have a direction that we are going in at this time that everyone seems excited about. We are listening to about two hours of music that was interesting to us. We hope to dial it in some more at our next meetings coming toward the end of November.

SV:   Anything else you’d like to add?

MR: Just that on behalf of our organization, I appreciate the kind words that are dropped from time to time about the drum corps community support. Thanks for all of your cheers and well-wishes and we hope to create a whole new market of fans as we work our way up to DCI Finals. Come by and say hello if we are in your neighborhood show!

SV: Mark, I appreciate your taking time for this interview and I am looking forward to seeing Academy for the first time next summer in the University of Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium. Have a great winter and spring!

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This interview originally appeared in the Decembe 2005 edition of Drum Corps World.