New DCI rule redefines pre-show timing, judging, creative elements; permits illegal devices/instruments

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

Among the six new rules passed by the Drum Corps International voting membership at its annual business meeting at the Indianapolis Westin on Saturday, January 23, one may have a profound influence on the future of the junior drum and bugle corps activity.

Passage of a pre-show proposal, authored by The Cadets’ director, George Hopkins, will now permit corps to use any device — including recorded music and illegal instruments — prior to the start of their formal judged program.

That means a woodwind instrument can now be used legally within an activity that has exclusively used brass wind instruments for nearly 90 years — as long as that instrument is used within the “pre-show” parameters.

While other rules were passed formalizing the timing of the pre-show, permitting corps a sound engineer in the press box, changing the sub-captions on the Field Visual adjudication sheet and procedural communication between corps and judges (see additional story), Hopkins’ new pre-show rule has the potential to be the most controversial with veteran drum corps fans this summer. The prohibited use of woodwind instruments has separated drum and bugle corps from marching bands throughout history.

Yet the pre-show proposal was passed by a decisive 22-2 vote, with only Chris Komnick, executive director of the Madison Scouts, and Tom Spataro, director of the Boston Crusaders, voting against it.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how this got adopted,” Komnick wrote in an e-mail. “The problem was that the current handling of the pre-show was not clearly defined. In general, I think most people felt that we were just putting definition to what was already happening.

“However, in doing so, we systematically created a scenario in which concepts normally outside the boundaries of drum corps could be introduced during this pre-show warm-up and have them judged without restrictions. The natural progression will be to take these items into the main part of the show. I suspect we’ll be seeing that discussion next January.”

A rule designed to clean up pre-show ambiguity

Hopkins claims his intent with the new rule was simply to clarify the pre-show timing, creative options and whether it should be considered in the judging. He reports that under existing rules, some of the most memorable and entertaining pre-show moments of the last two years — including Phantom Regiment’s famous Roman Legionnaire entry to the field in its championship “Spartacus” production and Carolina’s Crown’s wildly popular Promise of Living pre-show choreography last year — were technically “illegal.”

By rule, a corps was permitted a maximum of just three minutes once it played its first note after entering the field.

Under Hopkins’ new rule, corps will continue to get a maximum of 17 minutes on the field — with three minutes to enter, another two to three minutes for the pre-show and then up to 12 minutes to perform its judged show. But in the process of defining the pre-show timing, his proposal made the interpretation of what a corps could do during that time less defined — permitting the use of illegal instruments in the process.

“I don’t know that anyone will do so [use illegal instruments],” Hopkins said. “It’s really a part of cleaning the pallet for that part of the show, so to speak. You know, someone said right before the vote, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Does this mean you could have 15 40-foot digital televisions out there?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, if you had the money and the time and the trucks.’ I said, ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen.’

“It’s not intended to be an opening for saxophones, woodwinds, trombones or what have you,” he continued. “But if somebody uses one because they’ve got a great idea and they have a little jazz band set-up, and they use it and it’s appropriate, then good for them. That’s not the intention. It’s not any backdoor move to get other instruments inside the activity.”

But it has, in effect, done just that. And therein lies one of the problems for Komnick.

“It’s not an issue of rolling starts — which I personally find confusing or distracting for most audience members — but it’s an issue of what can be used during that time period,” he wrote. “A corps would be free to use any instrumentation — they could use a video wall or they could have a laser light show — and all of these things could benefit how they are judged. So now we are allowing what are normally illegal items to potentially impact the scoring of a show.”

And Komnick’s also a bit concerned with all the emphasis on the pre-show in the first place, particularly since the corps’ competitive fate will still primarily be “judged” on what follows.

Although Hopkins noted in the proposal that beginning at the 3:01 time mark the pre-show section “will be viewed by the General Effect judges as the fans view, there is no evaluation of the material, but in terms of setting a mood or a stage, all would be considered.”

“I think there are three points of concern,” Komnick wrote. “First, I don’t understand the emphasis being placed on this ‘warm-up’ period. If the objective is to judge the entire appearance of the corps, then increase the show length and start judging upon entrance to the field. Having this pseudo-judged time period is confusing for the corps, the judges and the audience.

“Second, if there is a desire to have an isolated warm-up period be somewhat part of the show, why would it have a different set of rules than the judged portion of the show? Again, I cannot see this being anything but confusing to the audience,” he continued.

“Lastly, the concept of allowing effect judges to consider this warm-up portion of the show is ambiguous. There is not a clear definition of what this means or how it could really impact a corps’ score. Are we really going to be battling for tenths of a point before the show even officially starts?”

Getting the judges’ attention

Hopkins points out that the rule will simply permit GE judges to acknowledge the pre-show, just like the audience does. He says it was previously up to each judge whether they would even pay attention to a corps’ pre-show.

“It’s [the pre-show] obviously a part of the show. The people who program, people who create, want you to see what that is,” he said. “I mean, the audience is watching. Why aren’t the judges watching, or at least the effect judges?

“And my point was, they don’t have to judge it, they just have to acknowledge it — for them to recognize your pre-mood, the pre-setting or that you’re pre-communicating — so that when the show begins, we all have a better sense of what you’re after,” Hopkins continued.

“So that’s a little piece that doesn’t mandate that they [judges] have to, in case they have some kind of issue. But the judges, in the conversations that everyone’s had, are just fine in getting their work done and at the minimum, looking up to watch and ascertain.”

But what does that all mean? Komnick’s not sure it will be clear to the judges.

“If I were a General Effect judge, I’d be confused as to when or how I’m supposed to judge this portion of the show,” he wrote. “The intent of what was discussed is that this portion of the show should be judged. I’m not sure how that is going to formalize itself into the adjudication process at this point.”

And if the pre-show is to be acknowledged by judges for its effect, then that could be interpreted as pre-judging before the official “judged” program begins. That would suggest that corps would be wise to create pre-shows in order to competitively “play the game.” But Komnick’s not so sure — at least not yet.

“I don’t think there is much risk in year one because there is so much ambiguity on how this is actually incorporated into the system,” he wrote. “But if the pre-shows become elaborate and are rewarded, one would have to expect that a corps will feel compelled to comply in order to stay competitive.”

A bridge to more radical change

By then, a junior drum and bugle corps may look even more like a top marching band. While this rule may not have been designed initially to open the drum corps field to all instruments, it’s now opened that Pandora’s Box.

But Hopkins is fine with that. In fact, he’s planning to submit another proposal to make woodwinds legal in the near future.

“I’ll probably present again to use other instruments,” he said. “I’m still a strong believer that really our salvation as an activity is probably to align, as best we can, with the band movement. I mean, separating ourselves as we’re doing and struggling the way we’re doing and not just embracing music education on every level, to me is absurd.

But it’s what it is right now.

“It’s not a creative discussion for me,” he continued. “It’s a strategic discussion for me. How do you keep yourself viable? How do you keep the good things about drum corps and the good things about music education both moving forward? And obviously our societal demands and fiscal demands are making this more and more difficult. I don’t know that my answer’s the correct one, but I just think it’s an answer.

“When 65 or 70 percent of the kids in bands are still playing woodwinds, it seems to me that if we embrace that part of the high school and college band market, then we have more of a chance that they may follow us as more than   just an interesting ensemble, than perhaps they do now.”

But Komnick respectfully begs to disagree.

“I cannot speak for my fellow corps directors, but I am personally concerned,” Komnick wrote. “As much as creatives like the idea of pushing new boundaries, art form does have naturally occurring or institutionally-implied boundaries.

The drum corps activity does have boundaries that have been pushed and pulled considerably over the past decade and I do not think it’s been beneficial to our fan base.

“I think this goes back to the definition of the art form,” he wrote. “Drum corps is not a particularly sophisticated musical form. Woodwinds don’t even make sense on a football field unless you can have them en-masse or amplified. We can certainly amplify them at this point. If I wanted to hear woodwinds, I’d go to a symphony.

“Which brings me back to the audience. I don’t think they come to drum corps shows for nuance. I think we are potentially creating and rewarding new artistic directions in drum corps while distancing ourselves from the audience. I do not think this is a good combination.”

The pre-show rule has now made drum corps history. What drum corps will become in the future is the mystery.