Drum CorpsMudgeon

by Dr. Fred Olin, Drum Corps World staff
Fred Olin

This article was originally published in the November 2010 edition of Drum Corps World.

“A curmudgeon’s reputation for malevolence is undeserved. They’re neither warped nor evil at heart. They don’t hate mankind, just mankind’s absurdities.”

As I watched the Southwest Regional in San Antonio, then semis and finals this year in Indianapolis, I started to get a bit grumpy. In past years I have written this column and grumbled about stuff and, lo and behold, the Earth went around the sun and some of the things changed my way . . . for example, I suggested that it was sort of dumb to have the corps come out for finale at finals in the order that they appeared and set up starting at one end zone, then finish with the ones actually in competition for the top spot in the other end zone. Now the top two end up in the center, between the 40s. 

So, what am I muttering about now, you ask?

This year it seemed to me that posturing and posing was substituted for drill. Back in 2000, when the finals show was at the University of Maryland, my wife and I were sitting next to an older man who kept making tic-marks on a piece of paper. We finally asked him what he was doing and he said he was counting “kneels and leans.”

We knew what “kneels” meant, but had to ask about “leans.” At that moment, whichever corps was on the field stopped, they all put one foot forward and leaned into it with one arm outstretched and he said, “Now that’s a lean.”

If you want to see a classic “lean,” look at the position of the members of the 2010 Carolina Crown at the very end of their show. Lots of corps did one version or another of both kneels and leans this year . . . it beats having to write a few more counts of moving drill.

Then there’s the trick of having the corps stop and play something, loud, fast and with a definite beat, and have the horn line spread their feet, lean back, blow hard and pump their horns as if they were all jiving to the music.

Oh, come on! We know that you’ve practiced that hundreds of times and the visual techs have gone through the ranks making sure that everyone does it adequately. There is nothing spontaneous about it and it’s starting to get comments in the stands. Truly. And no, it wasn’t me making the cynical smart-a– remarks.

Another “effect” that is being greatly overdone is the drum solo ending — it has become one variation or the other of “POW! POW! POW! . . . IN YOUR FACE, DRUM JUDGE! . . . POW!” This is often accomplished as the snares and/or tenors take a couple of sort-of pivoting steps forward, toward where the judge just happens to be standing.

I wonder what would happen if the solo were written with a big fortissimo crescendo about eight bars from the end, then a diminuendo decrescendo to end in nearly complete silence, with the drummers standing mute their sticks at their side and no sound from the field at all? 

I imagined this conversation between a couple of visual designers —

BlueCavaCru: The music here is too fast for the horns to march. What can I do?

Madiglasstar: I know! Have them all stop with their feet pretty wide apart and bend their knees so that they look sort of like the top of a set of parentheses.

BluCavaCru: I dunno . . . how long can we keep them like that?

Madiglass. etc: You only need four counts . . . then they can kneel down, pivot, hold their hands out in front of themselves and bob their heads sideways . . . those new plumes shaped like corncobs are great for that.

Blue, etc: Not bad, not bad.

Madiglass: What else can we do?

Blue: How about some calisthenics?

Madiglass: You mean like jumping jacks?

Blue: That would be sort of hard with a tuba, but we could have them drop their horns and do push-ups.

Madiglass: But what if it’s a muddy field?

Blue: Too bad. Besides, they have all those volunteers who like to gripe about doing the laundry, but deep down they love it.

Madiglass: Hmm . . . okay and you know what . . . let’s give equipment to people who don’t know how to handle it and let’s make bass drummers run 10 yards obliquely backwards in eight counts and make the tuba players make big hops sideways while they play and see if the snares can do pirouettes en pointe while they play the solo . . . that should be good for GE, particularly if we do all of them at once!

[Cell phone rings, Blue answers]

Blue: Yeah . . . yeah . . . okay, bye. Listen, it’s only four days to quarters. I have to go write three minutes of new drill for the ending because the music guy took out some stuff and added something else. Don’t they know that you shouldn’t do that? I’m going to use some of this stuff we’ve talked about.

Maybe that conversation didn’t happen . . . but don’t count on it.

In one of my previous grumps I made a comment about how I thought that a “scatter drill” represented either laziness, lack of ideas or lack of talent.

Fortunately, it has nearly, but not quite, disappeared. There were still a couple of episodes of it this year, but it seems to be getting less. Good thing.

Next I’ll make the mandatory gripe about sound in domes. For finals, we were in the top deck, on the side-two 45 yard line. Many of the sounds from the pits seemed to be coming from somewhere around the far-lefthand rear corner of the field. This was true mostly of non-amplified sounds, such as cymbal crashes and concert bass drum thumps.

Now I’ll admit that I enjoyed the cool, non-humid air inside, but the wretched acoustics (which were helped a bit by the additional curtains hung around the field) certainly don’t make it a good auditory experience.

Let’s see, what else? How about abusing the members? Like shouting at them (more like screaming, but I thought I’d be polite, then decided against it) anyway, shouting that the only reason they’re there to is to “. . . WIN! and you are a bunch of p—–s and wimps and I never thought we’d recruit such a bunch of lily-livered a——-!”

That’s a direct quote from about three years ago here in San Antonio.

I thought this was all about musical development and education. What? You say that it’s a “sport” and sports are all about winning? True, but those college and pro athletes are getting paid, one way or the other, and these young people pay for the privilege of being abused. 

Speaking of abuse, what about inadequate sleep time, excessive drill in the sun during the heat of a South Texas afternoon?

What about three-minute water breaks? What about telling someone with a new sprained ankle that if she didn’t practice that day she’d lose her spot in the line for the rest of the summer. 
It all happens and I have personally watched and heard corps being treated this way. It isn’t necessary.

“Well,” you say, “why do you keep hanging around if the activity is so awful?” 
Partly because, after 57 years of drum corps, it’s a hard habit to break . . . but also because there are people who are trying to make it better.

In my own experience, that includes the men and women who make up the Drum Corps Medical Project, the writers for Drum Corps World who highlight the positives and the young people I meet each year who exemplify the best among our youth.

That’s why!