Drum Corps International: A Primer

I made the trip this past weekend to Bloomington, Indiana for the Drum Corps International World Championships. This will be the first of several posts attempting to put that amazing experience into words, and I thought a good place to begin would be describing exactly what DCI is for the few of you who read this and even fewer who may not be familiar beyond "that thing Curtis won't shut up about each summer". A shirt seen this past weekend read "For those who know, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, no explanation will suffice." But i'm going to can the arrogance and try to explain as best I can what this whole thing is about. Since my blog is simulcast over at the Yard Barker Network, I'll be including sports analogies so as to hopefully be speaking some folks' language.

For starters, DCI, which has dubbed itself "Marching Music's Major League," is the governing body (as with NFL or MLB) for junior drum and bugle corps throughout North America.
The term junior corps may be misleading and suggest to some that these groups are inferior to a "senior corps" circuit; rather, it simply denotes that DCI is a youth activity, with all participants being 22 years of age or younger. In the top corps, most participants are college students, many of whom also march with their college's marching band. DCI has taken to using the term "musician-athletes" to refer to its participants, and while I would not classify DCI as a sport, I think this designation is absolutely spot-on due to the peak physical performance they demonstrate each and every day of the Summer Music Games, the annual tour that criss-crosses the country each summer where these corps are showcased.

Each corps contains up to 150 musician-athletes, and while at first glance a corps may look like marching bands with which you are familiar, there are key differences. First of all, drum corps are all brass and percussion, meaning you won't find flutes, clarinets, saxophones, or other woodwinds on the field. Instead, instrumentation includes trumpets, mellophones, baritones, euphoniums, and tubas, all bell front models; a drumline consisting of basses, snares, tenors, and sometimes cymbals; a front ensemble (or "pit") which includes concert percussion such as chimes, marimbas, xylophones, tympani, rack toms, and often additional bells and whistles (sometimes quite literally!). In addition to these musicians, each corps also features a colorguard, a group of performers who also paint the entire color of the corps and their performance through use of equipment--flags, sabres, and rifles are standard, but so many other implements are used--as well as dance and theatrics. For each summer's tour, a corps puts together a 12-minute show which they will spend countless hours fine-tuning and perfecting as they tour the country on buses and sleeping on gym floors, performing nearly every day during the season in every corner of the US, a tour which culminates in the World Championships, which I just attended this weekend.

Competition in DCI, while unique, can be related to several sports. Steve Young (yes, that Steve Young) described drum corps as the ultimate team activity at the 2007 finals, and with 150 participants, plus a sizable support staff, that's certainly an accurate depiction. In addition to that, DCI competition bears resemblance to olympic gymnastics, golf, and NASCAR. As with NASCAR, each competition features a lineup of several competitors, with DCI's large regional events featuring all corps. While the main focus of NASCAR is the driver and his car, a team is necessary for success, relying on specialization and excellence in a particular area. DCI's two major levels, World Class and Open Class, can be compared to the differentiation between the Sprint Cup series and the Busch series. And whether it's pit row or the lot, fan accessibility in both activities is paramount. The golf comparison is that while many events are hosted by the Association itself, there are also those hosted by the individual players/corps. And as in gymnastics, scoring is determined by a panel of judges, who assign a numerical score to various aspects of competition.

So there you have it--my DCI primer. Next step I'll be breaking down this year's Championship weekend. Till then (and the fans will get this one): I AM SPARTACUS!