An interview with Brian Hickman

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

Brian Hickman has been director of the Glassmen since the mid-1990s and has not only established the Toledo, OH, corps as a prominent competitor in DCI, but solidified the organization as an important part of the city’s musical entertainment offerings.

I’ve long admired Brian’s thoughtful and reasoned approch to running his corps and I’m pleased we finally got a chance to cover some topics I’ve been wondering about for some time.

Steve Vickers: First, tell me a little about your background — where you grew up, went to school, education.

Brian Hickman: My father was in the military, so we ended up moving around quite a bit when I was very young, but finally settled in Northern Virginia where my family (and my wife’s family) still live today.

I got my undergraduate degree at James Madison University, where I studied music, and worked on my Masters at West Virginia University.

I have been very fortunate over the years to have some great mentors and teachers who not only allowed me to mature and grow as a student, but still guide me in my professional life. Being a dad of two little boys is also quite the learning and growing experience.

SV: How did you first learn about the drum and bugle corps activity?

BH: I experienced my first drum corps show live in lovely Montclair, NJ. I was a 14-year-old kid, wide-eyed and very naïve, on a summer trip with my band director and several other students. I had seen the videos (those things before DVDs) throughout the winter months, but I was certainly not prepared for what I experienced in person. Much like everyone else, I got the bug!

SV: What corps have you marched with?

BH: Growing up in Northern Virginia, there were not too many junior corps in the area to choose from and audition for. I had a couple of good friends who had just finished a season (or two) with the Garfield Cadets and I was compelled to give it a shot. Again, I had no idea what I was getting myself into — just a new-found love for the activity.

By some miracle, I actually made it into the corps (I am sure by the skin of my teeth) and spent the better part of the next decade marching and eventually working for the organization. It was an exciting time for the corps and certainly very formative years for me personally.

I’m sure many of your readers will understand when I say that I came from a generation that marched in one place for my entire drum corps career. It was unheard of to go anywhere else and through the good and the bad, I grew with the organization.

Every corps is a unique family and young members currently in the activity should never underestimate what they personally bring (and can contribute) to that family.

SV: Did you teach or go right into management?

BH: Although I did do some teaching with the corps (and certainly focused my energies in “real life” to those ends), I actually was brought into the “other side” of the activity in a management position. I was fortunate enough to come from an organization that believed that it was its (the corps’) responsibility to bring young people in, train them and send them back out into the activity.

I still think this is an important component of my responsibilities as a director and work every year to regenerate the activity (with new people). For all intents and purposes, you are supposed to be able to enter this activity as a marching member and continue in some role for the rest of your life; be it as an instructor, a manager, a cook, a driver or whatever your expertise. The activity should be proactive about perpetuating itself.

SV: You’re going into your eighth season with the Glassmen, right? How do you feel about the past decade (nearly) with the Toledo corps?

BH: A decade . . . that’s nearly four times the life expectancy of the average corps director . . . Quite honestly, I have to say that I am very happy with the growth of the corps and the great ride we have been on. We certainly have had our ups and downs (as every corps does) and there is always something to fix (believe me), but we are lucky to be who we are within the activity and to have some GREAT people involved with the corps year after year.

SV: Anything stand out as particular highlights, disappointments?

BH: I have to say that the performances “outside” of the usual drum corps activities always hold a very special place in my heart. From the annual concerts at the Toledo Zoo, to the various concerts and collaborations we have done with local symphonies; to CD recordings; to international conventions and clinics; to festivals and events for a whole lot more people than you expected. These moments are the icing on the cake for some of our best summers.

SV: Tell me a little about your organization — the key people, the infrastructure (fund-raising, the buildings), the design and instructional staff.

BH: The Glassmen organization is governed by a board of directors (made up of alumni, parents and local community leaders) and endeavors to operate as closely to a traditional non-profit entity as we can. That means lots of fund-raising!

There are two full-time employees; myself and Beth Schindel (our director of marketing and promotions) and some key part-time employees who keep the wheels turning day in and day out.

People like Rod Owens (our tour director) and Maureen Moomey (our bingo manager, Glassmen parent, alumni, and super volunteer).

In addition to the office, we operate our bingo hall and own an old schoolhouse about 30 miles west of Toledo — the infamous G-West. Home for the corps since 1988, G-West has served as our camp    facility, spring training housing and summer escape. We are very fortunate to have a home like this.

With regards to the design and instructional staff, I could certainly go on for paragraphs about the experience and quality of the designers and educators we have with the corps, but I think it is important to say that we have a TEAM.
We are fortunate enough to have full-time educators who are committed to the growth and well-being of the members and who work toward the betterment and long-term stability of the organization; we work together not only as professionals, but also work as friends.

SV: Do you and your design staff have specific types or styles of shows you prefer to do? Some of your recent programs have been kind of “heavy” for the audience to accept. How much does entertainment of the audience versus getting the judges’ attention play into musical and visual decisions when you put a show together for each new season?

BH: Kind of heavy . . . what are you talking about? In all seriousness, one of the challenges of putting a show together is the fact that corps are expected to be ALL things to ALL people.
Not only must the show educate, challenge and excite the members, it must also entertain the audience, push your designers and staff creatively and technically, and intrigue the judges.

Sometimes corps get the balance right, and sometimes they do not.

For the record, the most important aspect of our show design is the fact that our kids come first. The program has to be a vehicle that the members can grow from (and with) all summer long, it must challenge them and push them beyond their own perceived limits, and, most importantly, it must be something that they are proud of and enjoy being a part of.

I think the members of the Glassmen all have years and shows that they may like better than others, but I am pretty confident in saying that they appreciate the fact that our focus is (and always will be) on them.

In terms of styles of shows, each corps has a unique identity and once you find that niche, it is important to bring all that you can (from that niche) to the activity. That is not saying that you cannot go in different directions stylistically, but be true to your identity and have your own voice.

SV: I know you’ve had periodic joint appearances with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. Describe how that came about and some of the opportunities it has presented for both organizations.

BH: We have had an unofficial relationship with the Toledo Symphony for over 10 years now. The former corps director (Dan Acheson) and local staff involved with the TSO did a great job of l aying the foundation for this very special collaboration and we have maintained it (at some level) ever since.

This year marks our first appearance with the TSO during their regular season concert series (winter months) in quite some time and we are all very excited.   Other related performances have included our annual concert at the “Music Under the Stars” event at the Toledo Zoo and collaborations with the Lima and the Rochester Hills Symphonies.

SV: What level of awareness does the Glassmen program have in Toledo — print and broadcast media, local community organizations, band directors?

BH: This is a loaded question for any corps to answer. If you a sk my board (and me for that matter) we would all say not enough. As all corps are aware, it is very difficult to create community awareness when the better part of your “active” season occurs outside of the immediate community.

Be that as it may, we try and make ourselves as visible as possible in Toledo. In addition to being active members of the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and Visitors and Convention Bureau, we have had featured articles in the Toledo Blade’s summer magazines, local coverage (although not enough) for our events, collaborations with local high schools for fund-raising efforts, and we are fortunate enough to have a local band director on our BOD.

Also, our moving the corps office into the downtown area has been very positive from an exposure standpoint and with over 43 years in Toledo, it always amazes me how many people actually do know of the corps (and how many don’t). There is still so much more we need to do on this front.

SV: Have you been able to maintain a significant percentage of your membership from a relatively close proximity to Toledo? Where do the more distant members come from? Any particular region?

BH: Now, it all depends on how you define “close proximity,” but approximately 60-65% of the corps drives to camp and comes from the tri-state region (Ohio, Indiana and Michigan). The other 35-40% or so comes from throughout the rest of the Midwest, as well as Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, California, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and internationally.

This year we have members coming from as far as The Netherlands, England and Japan.

SV: I know you’ve been fortunate to have some long-time volunteers helping with your bingo games, casino nights, etc. Tell me about who they are and how long they’ve been involved.

BH: We have indeed been very fortunate (and blessed) to have some long-time volunteers working with the corps. No matter how I do this, I am sure I will leave someone out who should be recognized, but I do think it is important to mention a couple of people who have certainly been involved regularly for a good portion of the corps’ existence.

Mike and Ida Pituch ran our bingo for nearly 30 years and literally kept the corps going single-handedly. They have retired from our bingo, but I cherish their friendship and support, and can usually get them to come out when we need them. We certainly miss their active involvement.
Bill Verhelst is the Bob Vila of the Glassmen — need I say more. Bill marched in the Maumee Suns and has been here ever since.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Joan Ann Zielinski and Arlene Schubargo, both long-time supporters of the corps, active volunteers and our biggest fans.
With that said, again we are SO lucky to have the great people we do in the volunteer ranks for the Glassmen and certainly could not do what we do year after year without them.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that the corps relies heavily on the financial support of our boosters, annual donors and business sponsors. They make the difference and fill in the gaps.

SV: What goals do you have for your corps to reach in five and 10 years?

BH: As an organization, we have always been about education and the growth of the members on a personal level — what I like to call life skills. This attention to the member’s maturity and focus (beyond the performing) has always been an important component of the Glassmen experience.

With that in mind, I am very excited about our recent partnership with Dynasty USA to launch our “ENTERTRAINMENT” educational program. This program will encompass not only that drum corps experience I speak of, but hopefully bring it to other young men and women through clinics, concerts, hands-on sessions, masterclasses and small ensemble workshops throughout the school year.

A continued focus on education and young people — that’s what I see for the Glassmen in the coming years.

SV: Where do you think the activity is headed in the next five and 10 years?

BH: Good question. Certainly it gets tougher and tougher for non-profits across this nation to stay ahead of the curve financially and survive daily. Summer tours get tougher and the demands that we have placed on ourselves continue to mount year after year.

Fortunately enough, I think the activity is prospering and the interest is continuing to grow as a result of our (DCI’s) focus on young people and the next generation of participants and fans. As long as people don’t lose sight of who this is about (the kids) and continue to work toward those ends, I think the activity will continue to be here for many years to come.

SV: Anything else you’d like to say about the Glassmen?

BH: First of all, thank you for allowing me to share some things about the corps and myself with your readers. I always get nervous about interviews such as this because no matter what, the person being interviewed often comes off like some “know it all” or borders on “arrogant.” I hope that has not been the case.

I am very lucky to be able to work with some great young people year after year and I take my job (and the activity) very seriously. Much like other corps, here at the Glassmen, we work every day to provide that “experience of a lifetime” for our members and hopefully make a difference in the lives of all we come in contact with. Enjoy the 2004 season and cheer for the kids!

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Publisher’s note: This interview also appeared in the April 2004 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 33, Number 1).